Farewell, For Now

I began writing this blog in June 2010, roughly one year into my PhD program. Alas, I’ve enjoyed writing the blog much more than I’ve enjoyed being a graduate student.

For the past couple of months I’ve been on the verge of dropping out of my program. I know, how cliche–ABD and out. With my first child on the way, working full-time+, and being closer to forty than I care to acknowledge, it seemed to me that maybe it was time to call it a day. It didn’t help that I’m not really intending to pursue a traditional academic career and that I’m paying out of pocket for the privilege of writing my dissertation.

But … having come to the edge, I can’t quite make the jump. I’ve decided, foolishly perhaps, to re-group and make the final push over the next year and a half. That being the case, I’ve had to take a hard look at how I use my time, particularly the discretionary time that I spend online. Sadly, I’ve concluded that, for the foreseeable future, maintaining this blog, even in the sporadic way that I do, is probably not in my best interest. Of course, there will be other casualties, too, chiefly my RSS feed.

This is not an easy decision to come to. Writing in this space has been one of my great pleasures over the last few years, and the conversations I’ve been able to participate in through this blog have been the closest thing I have to an intellectual community. I’m deeply appreciative of my little band of loyal readers and commenters, some of whom have been hanging around for quite a while.

I should say that this is only farewell for now. I do not intend to permanently shut down The Frailest Thing. Consider this an extended hiatus. Most likely for a few months, perhaps a little longer. Also, I’ll probably pop in occasionally during that time to give an occasional status update. For those of you who care to do so, you can still reach me via email (LMSacasas at gmail). I’ll also maintain a pretty light presence on Twitter. I’m thinking I’ll check in there for a little while on weekends.

Before signing off, I did want to point you to a couple of items.

Recently I’ve been thinking and writing about two distinct but intertwined topics. The first is Alan Jacobs’ call for a technological history of modernity, which I first commented on here. The second topic I’m calling, for convenience sake, humanist tech criticism (HTC).

My posts about HTC have elicited a couple of responses. One of these is a blog post by Mike Bulajewski. I commend it to you. You’ll note that Bulajewski’s blog is one of the handful that I include on my blogroll. And I don’t keep better company anywhere online than I do in the list of authors that he lists on his site. I’m afraid that taking my hiatus now means that I’m going to leave that conversation unfinished. I’ll only add this cryptic comment: the way forward is through the technological history of modernity that Jacobs proposes.

Also, just today I read a fascinating interview with John Durham Peters about his new book,The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. You should definitely read it–the interview that is, although may be also the book. During the course of the interview, he is asked about his research techniques. I’m taking his response as a model for myself moving forward.

Lastly, if there is any non-dissertation work that I undertake in the next year or so it will be on the Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology (CSET). I’m really excited about this project, and I hope that I have more to share in the coming months.

Alright folks, that’s about it for now. Writing this post has felt a little like making the final rounds before leaving your home for an extended trip. Wish me luck or say a prayer, depending on your inclinations.


Tech Criticism! What is it Good For?

Earlier this year, Evgeny Morozov published a review essay of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage.The review also doubled as a characteristically vigorous, and uncharacteristically confessional, censure of the contemporary practice of technology criticism. In what follows, I’ll offer a bit of unsolicited commentary on Morozov’s piece, and in a follow-up post I’ll link it to Alan Jacobs’ proposal for a technological history of modernity.

Morozov opened by asking two questions: “What does it mean to be a technology critic in today’s America? And what can technology criticism accomplish?” Some time ago, I offered my own set of reflections on the practice of technology criticism, and, as I revisit those reflections, I find that they overlap, somewhat, with a few of Morozov’s concerns. I’m going to start on this point of agreement.

“That radical critique of technology in America has come to a halt,” Morozov maintains, “is in no way surprising: it could only be as strong as the emancipatory political vision to which it is attached. No vision, no critique.” Which is to say that technology criticism, like technology, must always be for something other than itself. It must be animated and framed by a larger concern. In my own earlier reflections on technology criticism, I put the matter thus:

The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake …. So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. [Or should be … too many tech critics are, in fact, far too enamored of the technologies themselves.]

[Moreover,] criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.

Naturally, such ethical evaluations are not arrived at in a moral vacuum or from some ostensibly neutral position. According to what standards, then, and from within which tradition does tech criticism proceed? Well, it depends on the critic in question. More from my earlier post:

The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.

For his part, if I may frame his essay with the categories I’ve sketched above, Morozov is deeply motivated by what he calls an “emancipatory political vision.” Consequently, he concludes that any technology criticism that does not work to advance this vision is a waste of time, at best. Tech criticism, divorced from political and economic considerations, cannot, in Morozov’s view, accomplish the lofty goal of advancing the progressive emancipatory vision he prizes.

While I feel the force of Morozov’s argument, I wouldn’t put the matter quite so starkly. There are, as I had suggested in my earlier post, a variety of perspectives from which one might launch a critique of technological society. Morozov’s piece pushes critics of all stripes to grapple with the effectiveness of their work (is that already a technocratic posture to take?), but each will define what constitutes effectiveness on their own terms.

I’d also suggest that a revolution or bust model of engagement with technology is not entirely helpful. For one thing, is there really nothing at all to be gained by arriving at better understandings of the personal and social consequences of our technologies? I think I’ll take marginal improvements for some to none at all. Does this amount to fighting a rear guard action. Perhaps. In any case, I don’t see why we shouldn’t present a broad front. Let the phenomenologists do their work and the Marxists theirs. Better yet, let their work mingle promiscuously. Indeed, let the Pope himself do his part.

It also seems to me that, if there is to be a political response to technological society, then it should be democratic in nature; and if democratic, then is must arise out deliberation and consent. If so, then whatever work helps advance public understanding of the stakes can be valuable, even if it gives us only a partial analysis.

Morozov would reply, as he argued against Carr, that this assumes the problem is one of an ill-informed citizenry in need of illumination when, in fact, the problem is rather that economic and social forces are limiting the ability of the average person to act in line with their preferences. In his recent piece arguing for an “attentional commons,” Matthew Crawford identified one instance of a recurring pattern:

“Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.”

The pattern is this: where the technologically enhanced market intrudes, what used to be a public good is repackaged as a luxury item that now only the few can afford. I think this well illustrates Morozov’s point, and it is an important one. It suggests that tech criticism may risk turning into therapy or life-coaching for the wealthy. One can observe this same concern in an earlier piece from Morozov on “the mindfulness racket.”

That said and acknowledged, I’m not sure all didactic efforts are wholly wasted. Morozov is an intensely smart critic. He knows a lot. He’s thought long and hard about the problems of technological society. He is remarkably well read. Most of us aren’t. As I a teacher I’ve come to realize that it is easy to forget what you, too, had to learn at one point. It is easy to assume that your audience knows everything that you’ve learned over the years, particularly in whatever field you happen to specialize. While the delimiting forces of present economic and political configurations should not be ignored, I think it is much too early to give up the task of propagating a serious understanding of technology and its consequences.


“Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of technology criticism at all?” Morozov asks. His reply was less than sanguine:

“I am afraid I do not have a convincing answer. If history has, in fact, ended in America—with venture capital (represented by Silicon Valley) and the neoliberal militaristic state (represented by the NSA) guarding the sole entrance to its crypt—then the only real task facing the radical technology critic should be to resuscitate that history. But this surely can’t be done within the discourse of technology, and given the steep price of admission, the technology critic might begin most logically by acknowledging defeat.”

Or, they might begin to reimagine the tech critical project. How deeply do we need to dig to “resuscitate that history”? How can we escape the discourse of technology? What if Morozov hasn’t pushed quite far enough? Morozov wants us to frame technology in light of economics and politics, but what if politics and economics, as they presently exist, are already compromised, already encircled by technology?

In a follow-up post, I’ll explain why I think Alan Jacobs’ project to understand the technological history of modernity, as I understand it, may help us answer some of these questions.

An Addendum: On Memory and Loss

Despite just writing an overlong post on memory, I find myself thinking about it still.

I’m intrigued by how the past, in an age of pervasive documentation, never quite achieves the condition of being past. Our social media streams constitute the past as an always accessible substratum of the present. The past emanates like low-level radiation from this substratum, not always detectable but always having its effect.

I don’t mean by this what Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Of course, the past is always operative in the present. Instead, I’m thinking of the past in a more limited, individual sense. My past history, as it were, or my past selves.

When I think about my life before the advent of pervasive documentation, I experience it as something irretrievably lost. Memory acts as a temporary bridge to that world, but the gap it bridges is deep and uncrossable. Indeed, if memory is like a bridge, it is a bridge that at best spans the gap only far enough to bring the other side into hazy view. But this yields for me the experience of having lost aspects of myself, it grants the realization that I am not now who I was then, at least not entirely. Sometimes I tempted to bridge the gap altogether, to recover something of what has been lost, but failure in the attempt always confirms the futility of the project.

But does this development or, hopefully, growth partly depend on a natural forgetting of the past self, that is of the opening up of those chasm dug by loss? I suppose what I am asking can be put this way: Is forgetting or allowing parts of ourselves to be lost to the past an essential aspect of personal development?

And, if that proves to be the case, then how does our present economy of persistent remembering, driven by the desire “save everything,” effect this dynamic?

Directive from the Borg: Love All Technology, Now!

I don’t know about you, but when I look around, it seems to me, that we live in what may be conservatively labeled a technology-friendly social environment. If that seems like a reasonable estimation of the situation to you, then, it would appear, that you and I are out of touch with reality. Or, at least, this is what certain people in the tech world would have us believe. To hear some of them talk, it would appear that the technology sector is a beleaguered minority fending off bands of powerful critics, that Silicon Valley is an island of thoughtful, benign ingenuity valiantly holding off hordes of Luddite barbarians trying to usher in a new dark age.

Consider this tweet from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.

Don’t click on that link quite yet. First, let me explain the rhetorical context. Andreessen’s riposte is aimed at two groups at once. On the one hand, he is taking a swipe at those who, like Peter Thiel, worry that we are stuck in a period of technological stagnation and, on the other, critics of technology. The implicit twofold message is simple: concerns about stagnation are misguided and technology is amazing. In fact, “never question progress or technology” is probably a better way of rendering it, but more on that in a moment.

Andreessen has really taken to Twitter. The New Yorker recently published a long profile of Andreessen, which noted that he “tweets a hundred and ten times a day, inundating his three hundred and ten thousand followers with aphorisms and statistics and tweetstorm jeremiads.” It continues,

Andreessen says that he loves Twitter because “reporters are obsessed with it. It’s like a tube and I have loudspeakers installed in every reporting cubicle around the world.” He believes that if you say it often enough and insistently enough it will come—a glorious revenge. He told me, “We have this theory of nerd nation, of forty or fifty million people all over the world who believe that other nerds have more in common with them than the people in their own country. So you get to choose what tribe or band or group you’re a part of.” The nation-states of Twitter will map the world.

Not surprisingly, Andreessen’s Twitter followers tend to be interested in technology and the culture of Silicon Valley. For this reason, I’ve found that taking a glance at the replies Andreessen’s tweets garner gives us an interesting, if at times somewhat disconcerting snapshot of attitudes about technology, at least within a certain segment of the population. For instance, if you click on that tweet above and skim the replies it has received, you would assume the linked article was nothing more than a Luddite screed about the evils of technology.

Instead, what you will find is Tom Chatfield interviewing Nick Carr about his latest book. It’s a good interview, too, well worth a few minutes of your time. Carr is, of course, a favorite whipping boy for this crowd, although I’ve yet to see any evidence that they’ve read a word Carr has written.

Here’s a sampling of some of Carr’s more outlandish and incendiary remarks:

• “the question isn’t, ‘should we automate these sophisticated tasks?’, it’s ‘how should we use automation, how should we use the computer to complement human expertise'”

• “I’m not saying that there is no role for labour-saving technology; I’m saying that we can do this wisely, or we can do it rashly; we can do it in a way that understands the value of human experience and human fulfilment, or in a way that simply understands value as the capability of computers.”

• “I hope that, as individuals and as a society, we maintain a certain awareness of what is going on, and a certain curiosity about it, so that we can make decisions that are in our best long-term interest rather than always defaulting to convenience and speed and precision and efficiency.”

• “And in the end I do think that our latest technologies, if we demand more of them, can do what technologies and tools have done through human history, which is to make the world a more interesting place for us, and to make us better people.”

Crazy talk, isn’t it? That guy, what an unhinged, Luddite fear-monger.

Carr has the temerity to suggest that we think about what we are doing, and Andreessen translates this as a complaint that technology is “ruining life as we know it.”

Here’s what this amounts to: you have no choice but to love technology. Forget measured criticism or indifference. No. Instead, you must love everything about it. Love every consequences of every new technology. Love it adamantly and ardently. Express this love proudly and repeatedly: “The world is now more awesome than ever because of technology and it will only get more awesome each and everyday.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This is pretty much it, right? You tell me?

Classic Borg Complex, of course. But wait, there’s more.

Here’s a piece from New York Times’ Style Magazine that crossed my path yesterday: “In Defense of Technology.” You read that correctly. In defense of technology. Because, you know, technology really needs defending these days. Obviously.

It gets better. Here’s the quick summary below the title: “As products and services advance, plenty of nostalgists believe that certain elements of humanity have been lost. One contrarian argues that being attached to one’s iPhone is a godsend.”

“One contrarian.”


Read that piece, then contemplate Alan Jacobs’ 70th out of 79 theses on technology: “The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.” Here are the highlights, in my view, of this defense of technology:

• “I now feel — and this is a revelation — that my past was an interesting and quite fallow period spent waiting for the Internet.”

• “I didn’t know it when I was young, but maybe we were just waiting for more stuff and ways to save time.”

• “I’ve come fully round to time-saving apps. I’ve become addicted to the luxury of clicking through for just about everything I need.”

• “Getting better is getting better. Improvement is improving.”

• “Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun.”

• “What has been lost? Nothing.”

Nothing. Got that? Nothing. So quit complaining. Love it all. Now.

The Pleasures of Self-Tracking

A couple of days ago the NY Times ran a story about smart homes and energy savings. Bottom line:

Independent research studying hundreds of households, and thousands in control groups, found significant energy savings — 7 to 17 percent on average for gas heating and electric cooling. Yet as a percentage of a household’s total gas and electric use, the reduction was 2 to 8 percent.

A helpful savings, but probably not enough of a monthly utility bill to be a call to action. Then, there is the switching cost. Conventional thermostats cost a fraction of the $249 Nest device.

That’s not particularly interesting, but tucked in the story there were a couple of offhand comments that caught my attention.

The story opens with the case of Dustin Bond, who “trimmed his electricity bill last summer by about 40 percent thanks to the sensors and clever software of a digital thermostat.”

A paragraph or two on, the story adds, “Mr. Bond says he bought the Nest device mainly for its looks, a stylish circle of stainless steel, reflective polymer and a color display. Still, he found he enjoyed tracking his home energy use on his smartphone, seeing patterns and making adjustments.”

The intriguing bit here is the passing mention of the pleasures of data tracking. I’m certain Bond is not alone in this. There seems to be something enjoyable about being presented with data about you or your environment, consequently adjusting your behavior in response, and then receiving new data that registers the impact of your refined actions.

But what is the nature of this pleasure?

Is it like the pleasure of playing a game at which you improve incrementally until you finally win? Is it the pleasure of feeling that your actions make some marginal difference in the world, the pleasure, in other words, of agency? Is it a Narcissus-like pleasure of seeing your self reflected back to you in the guise of data? Or is it the pleasure of feeling as if you have a degree of control over certain aspects of your life?

Perhaps it’s a combination of two or more of these factors, or maybe it’s none of the above. I’m not sure, but I think it may be worth trying to understand the appeal of being measured, quantified, and tracked. It may go a long way toward helping us understand an important segment of emerging technologies.

Happily, Natasha Dow Schüll is on the case. The author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (which also happens to be, indirectly, one the best books about social media and digital devices) is working on a book about self-tracking and the Quantified Self. The book is due out next year. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article about Schüll’s work:

She was subsequently drawn to the self-tracking movement, she says, in part because it involved people actively analyzing and acting upon insights derived from their own behavior data — rather than having companies monitor and manipulate them.

“It’s like you are a detective of the self and you have discerned these patterns,” Ms. Schüll says. For example, someone might notice correlations between personal driving habits and mood swings. “Then you can make this change and say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to drive downtown anymore because it makes me grumpy.’”

One last thought. Whatever the pleasures of the smart home or the Quantified Self may be, they need to compensate for an apparent lack of practical effectiveness and efficiency. Here’s one customer’s conclusion regarding GE’s smart light bulbs: “Setting it up required an engineering degree, and it still doesn’t really work [….] For all the utopian promises, it’s easier to turn the lights on and off by hand.”

The article on Schüll’s forthcoming book closed with the following:

But whether these gadgets have beneficial outcomes may not be the point. Like vitamin supplements, for which there is very little evidence of benefit in healthy people, just the act of buying these devices makes many people feel they are investing in themselves. Quantrepreneurs at least are banking on it.