New Media and the Recurring Crisis of Norms

One of my plans for this site in the new year is to post semi-regular forays into the history of technology, mostly in the form of excerpts from notable works in the field. I’ll call the series Tech History Perspectives, and we’ll start off with Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1988).

In her Introduction, Marvin makes some instructive comments about her method. Her study focuses on 19th century media technology, but, if you didn’t know that, you might be excused for thinking these comments introduced a book about digital media.

“The early history of electric media,” Marvin writes, “is less the evolution of technical efficiencies in communication than a series of arenas for negotiating issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has authority and may be believed.”

In her work, she explains, the focus “is shifted from the instrument to the drama in which existing groups perpetually negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge with whatever resources are available. New media intrude on these negotiations by providing new platforms on which old groups confront one another. Old habits of transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter, critical social distances.”

Passing note: I think it might be fair to say that new media can also create new groups or reconfigure existing groups.

Marvin continues:

“New media may change the perceived effectiveness of one group’s surveillance of another, the permissible familiarity of exchange, the frequency and intensity of contact, and the efficacy of customary tests for truth and deception. Old practices are then painfully revised, and group habits are reformed. New practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings.

Again, this description of the struggle for new norms to govern social interactions can just as easily be applied to our own experience with emerging digital media over the last two decades or so. I was especially struck by the reference to “customary tests for truth and deception,” in light of our preoccupation with “fake news” and “deepfakes.”

More from Marvin along the same strikingly familiar lines:

“Classes, families, and professional communities struggled to come to terms with novel acoustic and visual devices that made possible communication in real time without real presence, so that some people were suddenly too close and others much too far away. New kinds of encounters collided with old ways of determining trust and reliability, and with old notions about the world and one’s place in it: about the relation of men and women, rich and poor, black and white, European and non-European, experts and publics.”

Here’s one specific example Marvin cites later in her book that also sounds quite familiar if only we substitute texting for telephony:

“In the face of technological complexity, did the old proprieties apply, or did circumstances call for new ones to keep the social order intact? ‘To the woman who knows how to do things correctly,’ wrote Telephony in 1905, ‘it is positively maddening to have invited guests ‘call her up’ at a late date and acknowledge the receipt of her invitation and either accept or regret it. Especially nerve-trying is when the call comes in the middle of the dinner to which the person was invited.'”

I found these excerpts a useful reminder that there is a certain kind of continuity of crisis when new media emerge. They are useful, however, to the degree that we resist the temptation to complacency and indifference that often accompanies the awareness of this continuity.

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Waiting to See

“What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience,” according to Jennifer Roberts, whose essay, “The Power of Patience,” I think about often. The idea is that to know something requires time. This is especially true when it comes to the knowledge we gain by seeing the world. The problem, we might say, is that we rarely really see the world despite the fact that we are always looking at it, precisely because our looking lacks both adequate time and the requisite patience. We also tend to think of knowledge too narrowly, merely as knowing-stuff-about but hardly ever as relating-to.

I thought of this as I walked through my neighborhood early this morning, nothing glorious or profound going on, mind you. I was reminded, though, of a line from Lewis:  “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” I would add that it also depends a great deal on the speed at which you are moving, physically and mentally.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451, billboards are 200 feet long because drivers are moving so fast they would not be able to read them if they were smaller. In Bradbury’s dystopia, speed works as powerfully as censorship at stifling thought and obscuring the truth of things; walking is deviant behavior.

Walking this morning, I was reminded of how even here in Florida, known, among other things, for having really only a season and a half—how even here a maple tree can, around this time of year, seem like a tongue of red-orange flame striving to touch the sky. It’s small thing, in some respects. What one notices is often not very consequential, but it’s not necessarily about what one sees. It is more about cultivating the capacity to see and the awareness that the world can be known in a deeper more satisfying way; it is about remembering that there are surprises to be had and that a measure of wonder can be sustained; it is about recognizing that the alternative, a perpetual inability to see the world beyond our own “skull-sized kingdoms,” can amount to a soul-withering alienation.

Vision deceives us because we tend to imagine that with a glance we’ve seen what there is to see, as if our minds took snapshots of reality in all its detail. Or, as Roberts puts it, “Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness.” That requires something else: time and patience. “There are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive,” Roberts reminds us, and “infinite depths of information at any point” in our experience.

“The deliberate engagement of delay should itself be a primary skill that we teach to students,” Roberts, a professor of Art History, concludes. It’s a skill we all need, I’d say.

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What Can We Learn From Past Visions of the Technological Future?

In 1968, the Foreign Policy Association published “Toward the Year 2018,” an edited volume of predictions about what technology would look like in fifty years. At the close of 2018, Jill Lepore has revisited those predictions in a short piece for the New Yorker.

Her general conclusion: “First, most of the machines that people expected would be invented have, in fact, been invented. Second, most of those machines have had consequences wildly different from those anticipated in 1968.”

Along the way, Lepore highlights some of the more interesting entries. For example, here’s her summary of what J. R. Pierce of Bell Labs had to say:

“The transmission of pictures and texts and the distant manipulation of computers and other machines will be added to the transmission of the human voice on a scale that will eventually approach the universality of telephony.” True! “What all this will do to the world I cannot guess,” Pierce admitted, with becoming modesty. “It seems bound to affect us all.”

Among the more prescient contributors, according to Lepore, was the M.I.T. political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool, who believed that by 2018 “it will be cheaper to store information in a computer bank than on paper.” From this fact de Sola Pool further elaborated. In Lepore’s words,

“Tax returns, social security records, census forms, military records, perhaps a criminal record, hospital records, security clearance files, school transcripts . . . bank statements, credit ratings, job records,” and more would, by 2018, be stored on computers that could communicate with one another over a vast international network. You could find out anything about anyone, without ever leaving your desk. “By 2018 the researcher sitting at his console will be able to compile a cross-tabulation of consumer purchases (from store records) by people of low IQ (from school records) who have an unemployed member of the family (from social security records). That is, he will have the technological capability to do this. Will he have the legal right?”

“Pool declined to answer that question,” Lepore observed. “This is not the place to speculate how society will achieve a balance between its desire for knowledge and its desire for privacy,” he wrote.

Lepore doesn’t want to be too hard on those who hazard a guess at what the future will look like, but she finds in this refusal to think or accept responsibility the critical failure of all such visions of the future: “And that was the problem with 1968. People went ahead and built those things without worrying much about the consequences, because they figured that, by 2018, we’d have come up with all the answers.”

Lepore’s piece reminded me that at the conclusion of The Technological Society,  Jacques Ellul also commented critically on certain visions of the future from the 1960s. Writing about five years or so prior to the 1968 prognosticators, Ellul concluded a revised edition of The Technological Society by considering what some Russian and American scientists had, in 1960, predicted about technology in the year 2000.

“If we take a hard, unromantic look at the [predicted] golden age itself,” Ellul wrote, “we are struck with the incredible naiveté of these scientists.”

I wanted to pull some excerpts from the following, but found it hard to do without diminishing the force of Ellul’s prose. So here is a rather long passage for you to consider. I find that it holds up rather well and continues to resonate.

“They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and of the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, or of understanding that what they are proposing, even after the intermediary period, is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler’s was a trifling affair.

When our savants characterize their golden age in any but scientific terms, they emit a quantity of down-at-the-heel platitudes that would gladden the heart of the pettiest politician. Let’s take a few samples. ‘To render human nature nobler, more beautiful, and more harmonious.’ What on earth can this mean? What criteria, what content, do they propose? Not many, I fear, would be able to reply. ‘To assure the triumph of peace, liberty, and reason.’ Fine words with no substance behind them. ‘To eliminate cultural lag.’ What culture? And would the culture they have in mind be able to subsist in this harsh social organization? ‘To conquer outer space.’ For what purpose? The conquest of space seems to be an end in itself, which dispenses with any need for reflection.

We are forced to conclude that our scientists are incapable of any but the emptiest platitudes when they stray from their specialties. It makes one think back on the collection of mediocrities accumulated by Einstein when he spoke of God, the state, peace, and the meaning of life. It is clear that Einstein, extraordinary mathematical genius that he was, was no Pascal; he knew nothing of political or human reality, or, in fact, anything at all outside his mathematical reach. The banality of Einstein’s remarks in matters outside his specialty is as astonishing as his genius within it. It seems as though the specialized application of all one’s faculties in a particular area inhibits the consideration of things in general. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer, who seems receptive to a general culture, is not outside this judgment. His political and social declarations, for example, scarcely go beyond the level of those of the man in the street. And the opinions of the scientists quoted by tExpress are not even on the level of Einstein or Oppenheimer. Their pomposities, in fact, do not rise to the level of the average. They are vague generalities inherited from the nineteenth century, and the fact that they represent the furthest limits of thought of our scientific worthies must be symptomatic of arrested development or of a mental block. Particularly disquieting is the gap between the enormous power they wield and their critical ability, which must be estimated as null. To wield power well entails a certain faculty of criticism, discrimination, judgment, and option. It is impossible to have confidence in men who apparently lack these faculties. Yet it is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure. When they speak of preserving the seed of outstanding men, whom, pray, do they mean to be the judges. It is clear, alas, that they propose to sit in judgment themselves. It is hardly likely that they will deem a Rimbaud or a Nietszche worthy of posterity. When they announce that they will conserve the genetic mutations which appear to them most favorable, and that they propose to modify the very germ cells in order to produce such and such traits; and when we consider the mediocrity of the scientists themselves outside the confines of their specialties, we can only shudder at the thought of what they will esteem most ‘favorable.'”

After all of this, Ellul adds, “None of our wise men ever pose the question of the end of all their marvels. The ‘wherefore’ is resolutely passed by.”

“But what good is it to pose questions of motives? of Why?” Ellul concludes. “All that must be the work of some miserable intellectual who balks at technical progress. The attitude of the scientists, at any rate, is clear. Technique exists because it is technique. The golden age will be because it will be. Any other answer is superfluous.”

In other words, Ellul already knew in 1964 what Lepore concludes at the end of 2018: “People went ahead and built those things without worrying much about the consequences.”

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Fraying Into the Future

Whatever else I might say of 2018, I can at least claim to have written more. In the end-of-the-year-ICYMI spirit, here’s a quick recap.

At The New Atlantis, I published two pieces: a critical consideration of the so-called tech backlash and a review of Siva Viadhyanathan’s Antisocial Media. At Real Life, I wrote about personal panopticons. I also reviewed Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence.

I managed, as well, to keep up the The Convivial Society at a mostly monthly clip.

And on this blog, which will be entering its ninth calendar year, I’ve posted more than any year since 2014.

Most read posts included The World Will Be Our Skinner Box, Technology After the Great War, and Attention and Memory in the Age of the Disciplinary Spectacle, which all got a Hacker News front page bump.

Other notables included Superfluous People, the Ideology of Silicon Valley, and The Origins of Totalitarianism; Social Media and Loneliness; Cyborg Discourse Is Useless; and Why We Can’t Have Humane Technology.

Looking forward to maintaining that momentum heading into the new year. Thanks for reading. My apologies if you’ve commented and not received a reply, I’ll do better next year … maybe. As always, your support is welcomed and appreciated; I’m currently living off my words.

Best wishes to you and yours in this new year.

Here’s one of my favorite poems and poets, “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur, as we brave the new year together.

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

The Losing Game of Time

The morning after Christmas, I raised a cup of coffee, turned to my wife, and said, “Congratulations, we survived Christmas.” It was a light-hearted, but not entirely factitious declaration. It did feel like “surviving,” which is not at all what it should feel like, of course. As the words were leaving my mouth, I realized that they regrettably contained more truth than they ought to. (I mean this in a strictly “first-world” sense, of course. There are too many people for whom life as survival is an all-too-real and deadly reality, and it would be obscene to compare my situation to theirs.)

But what’s to be done? It’s not just “the holidays,” rather it seems to be the nature of life as it has come to be for many of us. The problem may feel especially pointed around this time of year because, in one way or another, the contrast between how we believe the season ought to feel and how it actually does is stark to the point of despair if one dwells on it for very long.

I realize it’s a long-standing Christmas tradition to decry the commercialization of the holiday or to bemoan how it has become a consumerist wasteland, etc., etc. For example, a week or two ago (who can sort the days and data out anymore?) a story about the joys of a gift-less Christmas was making the rounds. I caught the author on NPR around the same time, too. This year’s leading entry in the genre, I suppose. Which is fine, but it somehow misses the point.

The question—what is to be done?—maybe that is the problem, or at least it seemed so to me just then as I continued to think about why it must always feel like survival. Without implying that the line is hard and fixed between the two, it may be better to ask “How are we to be?” rather than “What are we to do?” The latter implies a program of action, a method for greater efficiency or productivity, yet another layer of technique and management, a continuing effort to, in one memorable rendering of the language of Ecclesiastes, sculpt the mist: to double-down, it seems, on the very things that have played no small role in generating the situation we’re trying somehow to overcome. At the very least, it seems that we should be able to ask both questions.

There are, undoubtedly, what we think of as structural factors—economic and social and, yes, technological—near the root of our harried, just-in-time way of life. And these structural factors come to a point in each of us; our orientation toward our own experience of the world is calibrated by the combined pressures generated by these structural conditions.

The obvious but obviously difficult thing to do is to somehow reorder these out of whack structures, but, this cannot finally happen without there also being some fundamental re-ordering of our own orientation to the world, perhaps especially our experience of time in the world.

Essentially this is a story about chronopolitics, the imperatives, conditions, and powers that structure the experience of time for societies and individuals. There are any number of ways to think about this. Among the more obvious is to consider how power and wealth tend to yield greater autonomy over our experience of time. But I’m interested not only in how we allot our time, thinking of time as a resource, but also about our internal experience of time, which I’ve described as “the speed at which we feel  ourselves moving across the temporal dimension.”

It seems now that it might be better to put it this way: the speed at which we feel ourselves wanting to move across the temporal dimension. What generates this inner sense that we must rush, speed, dash, careen onward through our days, weeks, months, years? What makes it seem as if we are only just “surviving” each day? Perhaps it is some prior imperative to master time, a game at which we can only ever lose. And one that was both suggested and sustained by tools to measure, divide, save, freeze, and otherwise control time. As Lewis Mumford famously observed, “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”

In his study of place, philosopher Edward Casey first considered the triumph of time in the modern world: “‘Time will tell’: so we say, and so we believe, in the modern era. This era, extending from Galileo and Descartes to Husserl and Heidegger, belongs to time, the time when Time came into its own.”

“Scheduled and overscheduled,” he added, “we look to the clock or the calendar for guidance and solace, even judgment! But such time-telling offers precious little guidance, no solace whatsoever, and a predominantly negative judgment (‘it’s too late now’) … We are lost because our conviction that time, not only the world’s time but our time, the only time we have, is always running down.”

More from Casey:

“The pandemic obsession with time from which so many moderns have suffered — and from which so many postmoderns still suffer — is exacerbated by the vertiginous sense that time and the world-order, together constituting the terra firma of modernist solidity, are subject to dissolution. Not surprisingly, we objectify time and pay handsome rewards … to those who can tie time down in improved chronometry. Although, the modern period has succeeded brilliantly in this very regard, it has also fallen into the schizoid state of having made objective, as clock-time and world-time, what is in fact most diaphanous and ephemeral, most ‘obscure’ in human experience. We end by obsessing about what is no object at all. We feel obligated to tell time in an objective manner; but in fact we have only obliged ourselves to do so by our own sub rosa subreptions, becoming thereby our own pawns in the losing game of time.”

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