Book Shopping

NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility

 Issue #109 A Publication of The Nature Institute August 3, 2000 

 Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@oreilly.com) 

NetFuture is a reader-supported publication.


Of Vision Quests, Gender, and Boredom

In her recently released Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, Paulina Borsook takes up, among other things, the John Perry Barlow / George Gilder view of "cyberspace and hightechlandia" as the place "where the buffalo roam and dogs run free": 

Never mind that many people working in high tech are most likely grunt programmers doing stuff like maintaining inventory-tracking modules for construction-management accounting software, or working at ghastly huge man-in-the-gray-easy-care-twills places such as Ross Perot's own data processing feudal kingdom, Perot Systems, or at former defense- aerospace contractors such as Lockheed-Martin. Manning their computers like Kiowa braves on vision quests, most high tech droids ain't. But how much more rewarding if, Walter Mitty-like, to imagine such consonance between who they are day to day and what Wired told them they were in their pilgrim souls! 

In an idle moment I tried to jot down some of the most basic reasons I could come up with for the public's infatuation with digital technologies despite the kind of daily reality Borsook points to. There's nothing original about my list (and you will doubtless want to add to it). But it's useful to take a moment every so often and glance over the large picture. So here's what I have so far: 

** Mystery: people don't understand what's inside the box.

 ** Eliza effect: the technology seems intelligent. 

** Reverse-Eliza effect: we often find ourselves struggling helplessly with these machines, so obviously we're dumber than they are. 

** The illusion of precise control (and who doesn't want to be in control?). Closely related to this: the sense of power and capability associated with carrying all these sleek, miniaturized gadgets around. 

** Fashion: with every newspaper and magazine now having a consumer-goods "news" section promoting digital gadgets, the fashion quotient of this stuff has become irresistible. 

** Sense of progress and destiny in the inevitable march from one generation of technology to the next, more sophisticated generation. How can these devices keep getting better if there isn't a fundamental evolutionary imperative at work? 

** Distraction and escape. 

** Computers are "solutions" -- the favorite word of high-tech ad copywriters. Computers do provide solutions to problems in an extremely narrow sense, and it is much easier to glorify the narrow accomplishments than to realize how the very narrowness tends to subvert the larger picture. (See "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers" in NF #100, 101.)


Image Ascendent, or Descendent?

Am I the only one whose eyes glaze over at this kind of rhetoric? 

-- The real world of digital reality has always been post-alphabetic. Probably because the letters of the alphabet were too slow to keep up with the light-time and light-speed of electronics, the alphabet long ago shuddered at the speed of light, burned up and crashed to earth. Writing can't keep up to the speed of electronic society. The result has been the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the beginning of the Image Millennium. Images moving at the speed of light. Images moving faster than the time it takes to record their passing. Iconic images. Special-Effect Images. Images of life past, present and future as culture is fast-forwarded into the electronic nervous system. Images that circulate so quickly and shine with such intensity that they begin to alter the ratio of the human sensorium. (Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, CTHEORY, vol. 23, no. 1-2) 

The best I can figure is that the authors wanted to submit their own illustration of an alphabet that has crashed and burned. 

But I do seriously wonder how long we are going to keep hearing this strange mix of sense and nonsense about images. Did we take in fewer visual stimuli before now? From morning till night we've always been confronted with a visual world -- one that didn't need to travel through digital channels at "light speed" to reach us because it was already here, minute by minute, hour by hour, incessantly as long as our eyes were open. If we didn't consider it particularly noteworthy, it was because it held together in a natural way, so that our attention was focused on what our surroundings meant for our lives. 

Yes, something is changing, but it's not that we are increasingly exposed to images. What's changing is the kind of images we are exposed to. They are ever more arbitrary, incoherent, removed from the meaningful contexts of our lives, manufactured by a machinery of abstraction, scientifically calculated to subvert conscious intention, and designed to serve the narrowest commercial interests. What they mean for us in any serious sense is often not much at all.

 If all this has an impact on the role of print in our culture, again it's not because we have so much imagery to cope with. The problem is with the features of imagery I've just cited -- and, in particular, the arbitrariness, incoherence, and subversion of conscious intention. It's hard to attend deeply to a page (or screen) of print if you have been reduced to a bundle of reflex reactions produced by meaningless distractions. But the alphabet is not the only thing that crashes and burns in the presence of this reduction; so does thinking.

(Thanks to Ron Purser for forwarding the CTHEORY article.) SLT

paulina b.

  Contact the author

  Leave A Comment
Cyberselfish 2015
Looking Back

Website restored and maintained by Sleepless Media