The Best Time to Take the Measure of a New Technology

In defense of brick and mortar bookstores, particularly used book stores, advocates frequently appeal to the virtue of serendipity and the pleasure of an unexpected discovery. You may know what you’re looking for, but you never know what you might find. Ostensibly, recommendation algorithms serve the same function in online contexts, but the effect is rather the opposite of serendipity and the discoveries are always expected.

Take, for instance, this book I stumbled on at a local used book store: Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing by Michael Heim. The book is currently #3,577,358 in Amazon’s Bestsellers Ranking, and it has been bought so infrequently that no other book is linked to it. My chances of ever finding this book were vanishingly small, but on Amazon they were slimmer still.

I’m quite glad, though, that Electric Language did cross my path. Heim’s book is a remarkably rich meditation on the meaning of word processing, something we now take for granted and do not think about at all. Heim wrote his book in 1987. The article in which he first explored the topic appeared in 1984. In other words, Heim was contemplating word processing while the practice was still relatively new. Heim imagines that some might object that it was still too early to take the measure of word processing. Heim’s rejoinder is worth quoting at length:

“Yet it is precisely this point in time that causes us to become philosophical. For it is at the moment of such transitions that the past becomes clear as a past, as obsolescent, and the future becomes clear as destiny, a challenge of the unknown. A philosophical study of digital writing made five or ten years from now would be better than one written now in the sense of being more comprehensive, more fully certain in its grasp of the new writing. At the same time, however, the felt contrast with the older writing technology would have become faded by the gradually increasing distance from typewritten and mechanical writing. Like our involvement with the automobile, that with processing texts will grow in transparency–until it becomes a condition of our daily life, taken for granted.

But what is granted to us in each epoch was at one time a beginning, a start, a change that was startling. Though the conditions of daily living do become transparent, they still draw upon our energies and upon the time of our lives; they soon become necessary conditions and come to structure our lives. It is incumbent on us then to grow philosophical while we can still be startled, for philosophy, if Aristotle can be trusted, begins in wonder, and, as Heraclitus suggests, ‘One should not act or speak as if asleep.’”

It is when a technology is not yet taken for granted that it is available to thought. It is only when a living memory of the “felt contrast” remains that the significance of the new technology is truly evident. Counterintuitive conclusions, perhaps, but I think he’s right. There’s a way of understanding a new technology that is available only to those who live through its appearance and adoption, and who know, first hand, what it displaced. As I’ve written before, this explains, in part, why it is so tempting to view critics of new technologies as Chicken Littles:

One of the recurring rhetorical tropes that I’ve listed as a Borg Complex symptom is that of noting that every new technology elicits criticism and evokes fear, society always survives the so-called moral panic or techno-panic, and thus concluding, QED, that those critiques and fears, including those being presently expressed, are always misguided and overblown. It’s a pattern of thought I’ve complained about more than once. In fact, it features as the tenth of myunsolicited points of advice to tech writers.

Now, while it is true, as Adam Thierer has noted here, that we should try to understand how societies and individuals have come to cope with or otherwise integrate new technologies, it is not the case that such negotiated settlements are always unalloyed goods for society or for individuals. But this line of argument is compelling to the degree that living memory of what has been displaced has been lost. I may know at an intellectual level what has been lost, because I read about it in a book for example, but it is another thing altogether to have felt that loss. We move on, in other words, because we forget the losses, or, more to the point, because we never knew or experienced the losses for ourselves–they were always someone else’s problem.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.

Heim wrote Electric Language on a portable Tandy 100.

Thinking With the Past

In the last post, I cited a passage or two from Hannah Arendt in which she discusses “thinking without a bannister,” thinking that attempts to think “as though nobody had thought before.” I endorsed her challenge, but I hinted in passing at a certain unease with this formulation. This largely stemmed from my own sense that we must try to learn from the past. Arendt, however, does not mean to suggest that there is nothing at all that can be learned from the past. This is evident from the attentive care she gives to ancient sources in her efforts to illuminate the present state of things. Rather, she seems to believe that a coherent tradition of thought which we can trust to do our thinking for us, a tradition of thought that can set our intellectual defaults as it were–this kind of tradition is lost. The appearance of totalitarianism in the 20th century (and, I think, the scope and scale of modern technology) led Arendt to her conclusion that thinking must start over. But, again, not entirely without recourse to the tradition.

Here is Arendt expounding upon what she calls Walter Benjamin’s “gift of thinking poetically”:

“This thinking, fed by the present, works with the ‘thought fragments’ it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths of the past–but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of the extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what was once alive, some things suffer a ‘sea change’ and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune from the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living–as ‘thought fragments,’ as something ‘rich and strange,’ and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene [archetypal or pure phenomenon].”

As Richard Bernstein puts it in his essay, “Arendt on Thinking,” “what Arendt says in her eloquent essay on Walter Benjamin also might have been said about Arendt.” Bernstein goes on to explain that Arendt “links thinking together with remembrance and storytelling. Remembrance is one of the most important ‘modes of thought,’ and it requires story-telling in order to preserve those ‘small islands of freedom.’”

The tradition may have been broken, but it is not altogether lost to us. By the proper method, we may still pluck some pearls and repurpose them to help us make sense of the present.

That passage, in case your curious, comes from Arendt’s Introduction to a collection of Benjamin’s essays she edited titled Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Bernstein’s essay may be found in The Cambridge Companion to Hannah Arendt.”

Elon Musk: Prophet of Cosmic Manifest Destiny

There’s a well-known story about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s agreement to write stories about Space and Time. Dissatisfied with the state of Space/Time stories in the 1930s, the two decided to write the kind of stories they wanted to read. Lewis agreed to write a story focused on Space, and Tolkien agreed to write a story focused on Time. Ultimately, Lewis followed through and produced the three books popularly known as his Space Trilogy. Tolkien never quite got around to writing his story about Time, he was too busy finishing some business about a ring.

SpaceXI relate that story because I was reminded of it as I read about SpaceX and Tesla founder, Elon Musk. I’ve written about Peter Thiel a time or two recently, but Thiel isn’t the only tech entrepreneur with an expansive vision for the future. Whereas Thiel’s interests seem to gravitate toward technologies associated with Transhumanism, however, fellow PayPal alum Elon Musk’s interests are interplanetary in scope. It is as if, not unlike Lewis and Tolkien, Musk and Thiel decided to split up Space and Time between them. They, of course, would do more than write–they would seek to conquer their respective fields. Thiel sets out to conquer Time through the radical human enhancement and Musk sets out to conquer Space through interplanetary colonization. Interestingly enough, the ultimate success of their wildest dreams rather depend on one another.

Musk was recently interviewed by Ross Anderson for Aeon. Anderson’s title for his nearly 7,000 word essay that resulted, “Exodus,” is apt on at least two counts. It encompasses both the central theme of the interview–interplanetary migration for the sake of species survival–and the religious themes evoked by Anderson.

It’s a long, interesting piece, but here are some of the highlights, particularly in light of recent posts considering technological innovation, culture, and the religion of technology.

First, a snapshot of Musk’s stated vision for space travel:

“I had come to SpaceX to talk to Musk about his vision for the future of space exploration, and I opened our conversation by asking him an old question: why do we spend so much money in space, when Earth is rife with misery, human and otherwise? It might seem like an unfair question. Musk is a private businessman, not a publicly funded space agency. But he is also a special case. His biggest customer is NASA and, more importantly, Musk is someone who says he wants to influence the future of humanity. He will tell you so at the slightest prompting, without so much as flinching at the grandiosity of it, or the track record of people who have used this language in the past. Musk enjoys making money, of course, and he seems to relish the billionaire lifestyle, but he is more than just a capitalist. Whatever else might be said about him, Musk has staked his fortune on businesses that address fundamental human concerns. And so I wondered, why space?

Musk did not give me the usual reasons. He did not claim that we need space to inspire people. He did not sell space as an R & D lab, a font for spin-off technologies like astronaut food and wilderness blankets. He did not say that space is the ultimate testing ground for the human intellect. Instead, he said that going to Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease.

‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct.”

While discussing our failure, thus far, to find intelligent life, Musk observed:

“At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities.”

He then went on to explain why he thinks we’ve not yet encountered intelligent life:

“Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’”

A reminder dropped in by Anderson of the pedigree of Musk’s ambitions:

“In 1610, the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote, in a letter to Galileo: ‘Let us create vessels and sails adjusted to the heavenly ether, and there will be plenty of people unafraid of the empty wastes. In the meantime, we shall prepare, for the brave sky-travellers, maps of the celestial bodies.’”

And then, toward the end of the piece, Anderson begins to play up the religion of technology jargon (emphasis mine):

“But a million people on Mars sounds like a techno-futurist fantasy, one that would make Ray Kurzweil blush. And yet, the very existence of SpaceX is fantasy. After talking with Musk, I took a stroll through his cathedral-like rocket factory.”

….

“This fear, that the sacred mission of SpaceX could be compromised, resurfaced when I asked Musk if he would one day go to Mars himself.  ‘I’d like to go, but if there is a high risk of death, I wouldn’t want to put the company in jeopardy,’ he told me. ‘I only want to go when I could be confident that my death wouldn’t result in the primary mission of the company falling away.’ It’s possible to read Musk as a Noah figure, a man obsessed with building a great vessel, one that will safeguard humankind against global catastrophe. But he seems to see himself as a Moses, someone who makes it possible to pass through the wilderness – the ‘empty wastes,’ as Kepler put it to Galileo – but never sets foot in the Promised Land.”

….

You can see why NASA has given Musk a shot at human spaceflight. He makes a great rocket but, more than that, he has the old vision in him. He is a revivalist, for those of us who still buy into cosmic manifest destiny. And he can preach. He says we are doomed if we stay here. He says we will suffer fire and brimstone, and even extinction. He says we should go with him, to that darkest and most treacherous of shores. He promises a miracle.

Why We’re Anxious About Technological Stagnation, And Why We Shouldn’t Be

William Robinson Leigh - '"Visionary City," 1908

William Robinson Leigh – ‘”Visionary City,” 1908

Virginia Postrel thinks that Peter Thiel is wrong about the future. I think she is about half right, roughly.

If I read her correctly, Postrel’s thesis runs something like this: our lack of optimism about the future is not the consequence of fewer “moonshot” technological innovations, rather it stems from a failure to tell positive stories about the incremental improvements that have made the present better than the past.

In what follows, I want to take a close look at Postrel’s argument and some of its underlying assumptions because I think the piece reflects some interesting tensions in our thinking about technology and innovation.

Let’s start where Postrel does, with her examples of what I’m going to start calling Tech Stagnation Angst (TSA–sure there’s another TSA out there, but maybe the overlap is instructive).

Her points of departure are the science-fiction author Neal Stephenson and, big surprise, our would-be Francis Bacon, the tech-entrepreneur cum philosopher of innovation, Peter Thiel.

I’ve written enough about Thiel (e.g., here and here) to let mention of him go without further comment. Bottom line: yes, he’s is poster-boy for TSA. Now here’s Postrel quoting Stephenson on the worries that spurred him to write a series of positive stories about the future:

“’I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,’ writes Stephenson in the preface to ‘Hieroglyph,’ a science-fiction anthology hoping ‘to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.’”

Here’s the first point I want to register: stories alone will not shape our outlook about the future, especially not if they’re consciously designed to do so.

I’ve also recently written about pleas for more hopeful science-fiction writing, pleas which seem to be a symptom of TSA. Needless to say, Stephenson is not the only one who thinks that dystopian science-fiction is poisoning our imagination for the future. Witness, for instance, Kevin Kelly’s recent offer of cash for the best happy 100-word story about the next 100 years.

About these, Postrel is mostly right–writing happy stories will not change the spirit of the age. Stories are powerful, and they can shape our imagination. But compelling fiction tends to tap into some existing aspect of the zeitgeist rather than consciously setting out to change it. The artificiality of the latter enterprise dooms it. It’s that whole thing about how you can’t tell someone how to sublimate.

Postrel adds the following public comments by Stephenson:

“’There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,’ Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, ‘and that there’s some cosmic balance at work–that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.’”

Postrel comments: “He’s identified a real problem, but his remedy — ‘more interesting Apollo-like projects’ — won’t work.” Again, I think Postrel is right, but only to an extent.

She is, on the one hand, right to challenge the simplistic fix that Stephenson lays out. But there are at least two additional points that need to be made.

First, while I agree that “more moonshots”–which just now, in my own mental wunderkammer, echoed “more cowbell” is not the right prescription for our time, I think Postrel ignores the degree to which “moonshots” fueled the public imagination for a very long time.

These “moonshots” we keep hearing about longingly might just be shorthand for the phenomena that David Nye labeled the American Technological Sublime. You can click that link to read more about it, but here is the short version: Nye documented responses to new technologies throughout the 19th and early to mid-20th century that verged on religious awe. These experiences were elicited by technologies of tremendous and hitherto unseen scale or dynamism (railroads, the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified cityscape, atomic weapons, the Saturn V, etc.), and they were channeled into what amounted to a civil religion, public celebrations of national character and unity.

I would argue that Tech Stagnation Angst is, in fact, a response, wrong-headed perhaps, to the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime, which, as Nye himself explained, by the late 20th century had morphed into what he called the consumer sublime, a tacky simulated (!) version of the genuine experience.

Even if their response is misguided, Stephenson, Thiel, and all of those suffering from TSA are reacting to a real absence. While attitudes toward new technologies were often mixed, as Postrel points out, the popular response to new technologies of a grand scale in America has been overwhelmingly positive (with the exception of the atomic bomb). In fact, the response has been tinged with reverential awe, which functioned to sustain a powerful narrative about American exceptionalism grounded in our technological achievement.

It is only reasonable to expect that the eclipse of such a powerful cultural phenomena would yield a profoundly felt absence and not a little bit of anxiety. Again, I’m not endorsing the idea that we need only fabricate some more sublime experiences with moonshot-style projects and everything will be fine. On that score, I think Postrel is right. But in insisting that past optimism was chiefly grounded in relatively mundane accounts of how the present was incrementally better than the past, I think she misses other powerful forces at work in the complex way Americans came to think about technology in relation to the future.

In sum, technological projects of impressive scale and power have fueled America’s optimism about technology, thus their absence may very well account for tech stagnation angst. 

Postrel seems to waver with respect to the power of stories to shape the future, and she does so in a way that reinforces my point about the collapse of the sublime. “Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake,” Postrel writes, “when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people — that, in short, leaves out consumers.” She then adds that, “storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress.”

As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as Nye suggested, it is precisely the triumph of consumerism that, in part at least, accounts for the eclipse of the American Technological Sublime. To be clear, this is not a judgment call about the relative merits of consumer technology vs. moonshot/sublime technologies. It is simply a recognition of a historical feedback loop.

Innovation in a democratic, free-market society is driven by public sentiment; public sentiment is informed by our imaginative estimation of the good technology can achieve. In the American context at least, that imaginative estimation was shaped by the experience of the technological sublime. Once public sentiment became more narrowly consumeristic in the post-war period, technological innovation followed suit and, as a result, experience of the sublime faded. Fewer experiences of the sublime assured the ongoing collapse of innovation into consumer technology, narrowly conceived.

My second quibble with Postrel arises from her bristling at any criticisms of tech. Toward the end of her essay she calls for stories that do not “confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive.” But she seemingly has very little patience with criticism of the sort that might temper naive optimism. In this respect, she is not unlike some of the tech-boosters she criticizes. It’s just that she would have us be happy with the technologies the industry has given us rather than pine for more grandiose varieties. Whatever we do, it seems we shouldn’t complain. Don’t complain about what you haven’t gotten, and don’t complain about what you have. Basically, just happily embrace whatever the tech industry feeds you.

She complains, for example, that it is “depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance – greeted with gloom.” Click on that story and you will find fairly even-keeled and reasonable reporting on the consequences of the decreased demand for blood, consequences having to do both with jobs and future preparedness. It’s hardly depressing or gloomy. Elsewhere, with respect to Stephenson’s complaints about the relative triviality of Internet-based technologies, she tells us there’s already plenty of negative press out there, no need for Stephenson to pile on.

Then she goes on to tell us, “The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel.” Rather, she explains, “People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief.” In other words, stories did matter, but only certain kinds of stories–real-life stories about how life was getting better.

Unfortunately, these stories began to change. Postrel goes on to give a litany of reasons “good and bad” explaining the change in the character of stories. Read the grouping of reasons for yourself, but they seem to amount to a recognition of the costs that came along with the advent of certain technologies and innovations. And to give these reasonable concerns and legitimate observations the pallor of unhinged lunacy, she caps the litany off with reference to the unfortunate growing resistance to vaccinations. See what she did there?

Postrel is right to stress that how we feel about the future has something to do with how we understand the present in light of the past (even though that’s not the whole story), and she is right to ask for something other than fashionable pessimism and naive optimism. But on the whole she seems to miss this balance herself. As I read her, she is calling for a balanced presentation of the relative merits and costs of technology, so long as we keep quiet about those costs.

Clearly, I have some reservations about the manner in which Postrel has made her case. On the one hand, with respect to what shapes our view of the future, I think she’s missed some important elements. Of course, one can’t be expected to say everything in a short piece. More importantly, I find her bristling at the critics of technology disingenuous. How else are we to temper our utopian expectations and the misguided longing for “moonshot” technologies if we are to forego searching criticism?

I want to wrap up, though, by commending Postrel’s urging that we seek to move forward with a clear-eyed vision for the future that eschews both unbridled optimism and thoughtless pessimism, one that seeks to meet our real needs and enrich our lives in a responsible and ethical manner.

Simply saying so, of course, will not make it happen. But if we’ve lost our taste for escapist fantasies of transcendence about the future, perhaps we might then be better prepared to pursue a more humane vision for our future technologies.

Wizard or God, Which Would You Rather Be?

Dumbledore_and_Elder_WandOccasionally, I ask myself whether or not I’m really on to anything when I publish the “thinking out loud” that constitutes most of the posts on this blog. And occasionally the world answers back, politely, “Yes, yes you are.”

A few months ago, in a post on automation and smart homes, I ventured an off-the-cuff observation: the smart home populated animated by the Internet of Things amounted to a re-enchantment of the world by technological means. I further elaborated that hypothesis in a subsequent post:

“So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.”

Granted, those were fairly strong claims that as of yet need to be more thoroughly substantiated, but here’s a small bit of evidence that suggests that my little thesis had some merit. It is a short video clip the NY Time’s Technology channel about the Internet of Things in which “David Rose, the author of ‘Enchanted Objects,’ sees a future where we can all live like wizards.” Emphasis mine, of course.

I had some difficulty embedding the video, so you’ll have to click over to watch it here: The Internet of Things. Really, you should. It’ll take less than three minutes of your time.

So, there was that. Because, apparently, the Internet today felt like reinforcing my quirky thoughts about technology, there was also this on the same site: Playing God Games.

That video segment clocks in at just under two minutes. If you click through to watch, you’ll note that it is a brief story about apps that allow you to play a deity in your own virtual world, with your very own virtual “followers.”

You can read that in light of my more recent musings about the appeal of games in which our “action,” and by extension we ourselves, seem to matter.

Perhaps, then, this is the more modest shape the religion of technology takes in the age of simulation and diminished expectations: you may play the wizard in your re-enchanted smart home or you may play a god in a virtual world on your smartphone. I suspect this is not what Stewart Brand had in mind when he wrote, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”