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.

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