Natural Artificiality

I’ve been working on a piece that draws on the work of Walter Ong, whom I’ve mentioned here more than few times. In fact, one of the earliest posts on this blog was a short overview of Orality and Literacy written for a grad school class. Ten or so years on, I’d say that Ong’s work remains among the most useful things I encountered while I was completing my course work.

Here’s a selection from that book, written in 1983 and focused on understanding the psychic and social consequences of literacy. These two paragraphs, though, are a more general reflection on technology, artificiality, and humanity.

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.

Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. The modern orchestra, for example, is the result of high technology. A violin is an instrument, which is to say a tool. An organ is a huge machine, with sources of power—pumps, bellows, electric generators—totally outside its operator. Beethoven’s score for his Fifth Symphony consists of very careful directions to highly trained technicians, specifying exactly how to use their tools. Legato: do not take your finger off one key until you have hit the next. Staccato: hit the key and take your finger off immediately. And so on. As musicologists well know, it is pointless to object to electronic compositions such as Morton Subotnik’s The Wild Bull on the grounds that the sounds come out of a mechanical contrivance. What do you think the sounds of an organ come out of? Or the sounds of a violin or even of a whistle? The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance. To achieve such expression, of course, the violinist or organist has to have interiorized the technology, made the tool or machine a second nature, a psychological part of himself or herself. This calls for years of practice, learning how to make the tool do what it can do. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill, is hardly dehumanizing. The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.

I’d only add that “technology” is doing too much work here unless we qualify the claims. “Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it.” I’d say that claim, made with regards to technology in general, is at best sometimes true. Better, it seems to me, to say certain technologies, properly interiorized, will not degrade human life but on the contrary enhance it.

The Data Self and the Social Self

Here is William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), explaining to us a fundamental aspect of human nature, which social media is designed to exploit:

A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind. No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.

The data self, both as a new kind of subjectivity and as a name for the only self social media companies care about, is built upon the social self. Or, more to the point, the data self, in the latter sense, is a parasite that lives off of what James calls the social self.

Relatedly, from the archive:

It seems to me that we should draw a distinction among desires that are bundled together under the notion of loneliness. There is, for example, a distinction between the desire for companionship (and distinctions among varieties of companionship) and the desire simply to be noticed or acknowledged. C. S. Lewis, eloquent as per usual, writes:

“We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”

Among Facebook’s more problematic aspects, in my estimation, is the manner in which the platform exploits this desire with rather calculated ferocity. That little red notifications icon is our own version of Gatsby’s green light.

[Link to the paragraph from James via Sanebaits Thenball.]


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When VCRs Were New

Yesterday, I posted some excerpts from history Carolyn Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New, her study of late 19th century electronic media. In keeping with the spirit of her title, here’s a quick look at a more recent case of when old technologies were new: the VCR.

I stumbled upon a 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune titled, “The Living Room Revolution: Entertainment Tonight—Or Whenever.” The article opened with a quotation from Jack Kerouac: ”He came the following Sunday afternoon. I had a television set. We played one ballgame on the TV, another on the radio, and kept switching to a third and kept track of all that was happening every moment.”

That opening is what caught my attention when it was tweeted by Chenoe Hart.

“In a way, Jack Kerouac may have anticipated–as early as the 1950s–the beginning of a new era in home entertainment,” the author went on say. “While the original hippie only suggested a basic way to mix technologies, in this case radio and television, Kerouac did demonstrate how television can be manipulated and how we the viewers can control and play with the information we receive.”

As with most encounters with the recently forgotten past, there’s a combination of the familiar and the strange. It’s not unlike seeing childhood photographs, you look very different but not so different that you can’t see your present self in the image. There are intimations of future developments and we see recognize that there’s a trajectory along which we’ve been moving. Chiefly, I was struck by the familiar structure of the piece. It seems we’ve been writing popular pieces about technology following the same pattern for a long time. Here are some of the more interesting slices.

On “time shifting”:

“This concept in home viewing is now known as ”time shifting” and it has revolutionized the way we view the world through our TV sets. Our ability to time-shift is the result of two decades of technological innovation, based on the development of the video tape recorder in the 1960s and ’70s, that now allows us in the 1980s to control what information we receive, and how, when and where we receive it, to a degree never known before.”

On increasing affordability:

“Not a small part of this industry’s growth is based on the plummeting cost of VCRs, which have dropped from an average of $1,300 in 1975 to less than $400 in 1985. Basic VCR systems are available today for as low as $200 and as many Americans now own them as own component stereo systems.”

The hype:

”Let’s face it, VCRs are the appliance of the ’80s, and we haven’t seen anything like this technology since the invention of the radio,” says Doug Garr, author and editor-in-chief of Video Magazine. ”Americans are staying at home like they never used to. We can now wake up in the morning to a work-out tape, watch a ”How to Cook Sushi” tape for lunch followed by ”How to Bass Fish” in the afternoon followed by ”How to Get a Divorce by Marvin Mitchelson” in the evening, and then go to bed watching a classic movie.”

The trends:

“People used to just throw the television in the living room or bedroom, without much thought,” Strez says. ”But the thing now is to have a room where you have the television, stereo, videocassette recorder, cassette decks, all that, in one special area that is assuming a much more important place in the home. In the last year we have custom-designed 25 rooms like this, and people will spend up to $25,000 on them, and we have done countless other less extensive video room projects.”

The concerns:

“It is the ease of accessibility to the content of many of these popular videocassettes that is raising concerns worldwide. Nations as diverse as China (which officially sanctioned the use of home videos last month), Sweden and the United Arab Republic are struggling to keep pace with the social implications of video recording technology. Government officials in England (where 40 percent of all homes have a VCR) and Sweden, for example, have publicly debated the potential negative social influence that videotapes depicting pornography and violence may have on the well-being of their citizens. The videocassette recorder, it seems, is viewed as a magical box by some and as a Pandora’s box by others.”

The vapid expert opinion (but with a passing reference to Aristotle rather than Plato’s Pheadrus and writing):

Professor James Ettema, a communications expert at Northwestern University who specializes in the social impact of new technologies, says:

”Anything that enhances the diversity of choices should be applauded. VCR technology is important because it has the potential for diversity, but it also has the potential for abuse, and there are concerns with the VCR as there are with any new technology. Videocassettes are subject to the kinds of questions that we have had about television. Is there too much violence? Is it taking up too much of our time? And there is the issue of pornography. The VCR has brought pornography out of the Pussycat Theatre and into the suburban living room. In a cultural way, it is dumping a lot of garbage into our society. Our 1st Amendment rights give us the choice to see the cassettes, but what does it mean for our society? VCRs are raising these issues in a new way. ”But you have to remember,” Ettema adds, ”Aristotle worried about the impact of Greek drama and its influence on the youths of Athens. We’ve been worried about the impact of culture for thousands of years.”

The testimonial:

”We tape off of cable and (free) television,” she says. ”And we are very careful about what programs and movie cassettes our children watch. We tend to rent one movie for ourselves and one movie for our children and watch them on a week-end night. I don’t think that the VCR should be used as a baby-sitter. I think you should screen what your children watch. But I think it is a godsend if you are having a birthday party or something, and you don’t have to take all the kids out to a movie.”

There’s a lot in there that echoes present discussions of gaming, Netflix, mobile devices, etc. Mostly, though, I’m left thinking that we’ve needed a better way to write about technology for a long time.

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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