For Your Consideration – 7

“Welcome to the Future Nauseous”: Some jargon and neologisms, but interesting perspective.

“We aren’t being hit by Future Shock. We are going to be hit by Future Nausea.  You’re not going to be knocked out cold. You’re just going to throw up in some existential sense of the word. I’d like to prepare. I wish some science fiction writers would write a few nauseating stories.”

“The World Is Not Enough: Google and the Future of Augmented Reality”:

“It is The Future. You wake up at dawn and fumble on the bedstand for your (Google) Glass. Peering out at the world through transparent screens, what do you see?”

“Speaking in Memes”:

“We’ve developed a kind of meme literacy, a habit of intuiting in real time the potential virality of a speech act — to hear retweets inside words.”

“A Sense of Place”:

“The digital and the physical world are interacting ever more closely. The rapidly declining cost of communications and computing power has already wrought huge changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Digital maps and guides will affect the way people behave in the physical world and bring about yet more changes. The digital and the physical are becoming one.”

How We Talk About Media Refusal, Part 1: “Addiction”:

“This is the first of a series of three posts I’ll be doing in Flow about the topic of “media refusal,” which I define as the active and conscious rejection of a media technology or platform by its potential users. In these posts, I’ll be discussing how popular discourse tends to frame practices of media refusal and what implications these frames might have for the way we understand our participation in media culture.”

“What Words Are Worth”:

“The humanities, encountered primarily in the high school and college years, teach students to recognize a significant question, to make crucial distinctions in the articulation of its terms, to draw consequential conclusions, to assess conclusions in human terms, and to communicate the procedures and results of inquiry. These are all elements necessary for the making of right meaning, and meaning is a singularly powerful shaper of deeds.”

“A World Full of People Just Livin’ To Be Heard”

I don’t ordinarily take my cues from John Mellencamp lyrics, but … consider:

“A million young poets
Screamin’ out their words
To a world full of people
Just livin’ to be heard”

The story of modernity could be neatly arranged around the theme of voice. As modernity unfolded, more and more people found a way to be heard; they found their voice, often at great cost and sacrifice. Protestantism gave a voice to the laity. Democratic movements gave a voice to the citizen. Labor movements gave a voice to the worker. The woman’s movement gave a voice to women. Further examples come readily to mind, but you get the point. And along the way certain technologies played a critical role in this expansion and proliferation of voice. One need only consider print’s relationship to the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Of course, this way of telling the story will strike some as rather whiggish, and perhaps rightly so. It is simplistic, certainly. And yet it does seem plain enough that more people, and a greater diversity of people, now have not only the freedom to speak, but the means to do so as well.

Much of the rhetoric that surrounded the advent of the World Wide Web, particularly in its 2.0 iteration, triumphantly characterized the Internet as the consummation of this trajectory of empowerment. It was wildly utopian rhetoric; and although the utopian hope has not yet been realized, it is nonetheless true that blogs and social media have at least made it possible for a very great number of people to speak publicly, and sometimes with great (if ephemeral) consequence.

More significantly, it seems to me, the use of social media nurtures the impulse to speak. The platforms by their very design encourage users to speak often and continually. They feature mechanisms of response that act not unlike little Pavlovian pellets of affirmation to keep us speaking in the hopes that Likes and retweets and comments will follow.

We are all learning to “speak in memes,” as Nathan Jurgenson has recently put it. What is most significant about this may be the assumption that we will speak. We are conditioning our speech to fit the medium, but that we will speak is no longer in question.

Fine. Well and good. Speak, and speak truthfully and boldly — at least interestingly.

But what about hearing and listening? While we have been vigorously enlarging our voices, we appear to have neglected the art of listening. We want to be heard, of course, but are we as intent on listening? Do we desire to understand as ardently as we desire to be understood?

There is an art to listening, one might even say that it is a kind of virtue. At the very least it requires certain virtues. Patience certainly, and humility as well. One might even say courage, for what you learn when you listen may very well threaten beliefs and convictions that are very dear and defining. In any case, listening is not easy or even natural. It is a discipline. It must be cultivated with great care and it requires, to some degree, a willingness to still the impulse to speak.

It requires as well a wanton disregard for the pace of Internet time. Internet time demands near instantaneous responses; but listening sometimes takes more time than that afforded by the meme cycle.

Often listening depends on silence and deep, unbroken attentiveness.

Listening, honest listening happens when there is tacit permission to be silent in response. Otherwise, listening is overwhelmed by the pressure to formulate a response. And, of course, if, while I am ostensibly listening, I am only thinking about what to say in response, I’m probably not really listening — more like reloading.

“We’re living to be heard” — I suspect there is something rather profound about that observation. Perhaps Mellencamp spoke better than he knew. It seems to me though, that those who would be heard ought also to hear. We have our voices, but only if we learn to listen in equal measure will this ever mean a thing.

Hospitable Technology

“Media ecology is the study of media as environments.” — Neil Postman

Apt metaphors can be illuminating and instructive. Media ecology is one such metaphor. By seeking to understand the impact of communication technology by analogy to natural environments, media ecology suggests a number of important insights into the nature of technology. It suggests, for example, that a new technology is not merely additive.

When a new species is introduced into a natural ecosystem, the result is not the old ecosystem plus a new component; it is a new ecosystem. The impact of a new species will have systemic ramifications which will transform the ecosystem (and sometimes destroy the ecosystem). Likewise, when a new technology is introduced into a particular social context, its consequences are not merely a matter of adding certain affordances to that social context; it restructures the whole. Its impact radiates outward, reordering the relationships of the pre-existing components. New technology Z does not only impact component A and B, it alters the relationship of A to B.

As an example, consider how the introduction of the automobile did not simply add a mode of transport to early twentieth century American society. The automobile changed, among other things, the physical shape of our cities. It made the emergence of suburbs possible (and thus facilitated the consequent reorderings of social life). It reinforced a certain restlessness and placelessness that had already been characteristic of the American experience. Certain modes of social life faded and others emerged because of the introduction of the automobile.

This last observation leads to another useful dimension of the ecology metaphor: it implies the notion of hospitality. We know that particular environments are more or less hospitable to particular species. Species uniquely adapt to particular environments and are thus naturally at home in them. Transplant these species to another ecosystem and they may or may not survive. The ecosystem will be more or less hospitable to them.

By extension this suggests that the technological components of social ecosystems render these ecosystems more or less hospitable to particular social realities. This strikes me as a useful extension of the metaphor because it resists the blunt judgements “this technology is good” or “this technology is bad.” Ecosystems are not in themselves good or bad with regards to life. Rather, they are more or less hospitable to specific forms life. So it does no good to ask, Is this  a good ecosystem? One must ask, Is this a good ecosystem for such and such a species? The answer is contextual and teleological (i.e., ends oriented).

We will arrive at more balanced and nuanced evaluations of technology if we keep this in mind. The question is not whether a technology is good or bad; the question is whether a technology is likely to render a social environment hospitable or inhospitable to specific practices, social arrangements, values, ways of life, etc.

To ask whether a certain technology yields a more or less hospitable social environment also avoids the voluntarist error of locating all ethical value with regard to technology in the particular uses to which a technology is put. The uses to which a technology is put need not be in themselves morally objectionable in order to yield systemic ramifications that prove inhospitable to certain practices, etc.

The first of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws reads: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” To speak of how a technology impacts a social environment by rendering it more or less hospitable to specific social realities reinforces this observation. I believe this also reflects McLuhan’s dictum about the message of a medium: the “‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” It is, in other words, systemic and environmental.

Of course, measuring systemic consequences and anticipating the socio-ecological implications of a new technology can be a tricky business. We are always plagued by unknown unknowns and the law of unintended consequences. At the very least, though, the these metaphors help us ask better questions.

Low-tech Practices and Identity

Hipsters, low tech, and the quest for authenticity — what do we make of the interplay among these three phenomena? In two recent posts at Cyborgology, P. J. Rey and Nathan Jurgenson addressed this question in an exchange of overlapping perspectives with competing points of emphasis. I encourage you to read each piece, but here is how I would characterize their respective arguments.

Rey, for his part, advanced the thesis that hipster fixation on lo-tech gear is mostly about achieving a sense of mastery over technology, a mastery that is mostly unattainable over more complex contemporary technology. This mastery also affirms a sense of individuality and independence. Rey concludes:

“The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.”

In his response, Jurgenson argues that Rey is focusing on the wrong thing. To put in Aristotelian terms, the retro-tech is accidental, identity construction is the essence. The really important dynamic is  not the hipster fixation on low-tech, but rather the imperative to construct an authentic, individual identity. Of course, shifting to Hegel-ese, the contradiction that constructs the desire is the inherent inauthenticity of constructed identities; the goal, under the conditions it is pursued, is unattainable.

Reading these two posts, particularly Rey’s initial offering, I was reminded of categories employed by the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. Borgmann, whose thinking about technology arises from his engagement with Martin Heidegger, distinguishes between devices and focal things. Here’s the difference as I explained it in an earlier post:

Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other.  Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices.  Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.”  In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.

With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.”   A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.”  Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality.  The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world.  The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.”  On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.

Borgmann’s categories enjoy some interesting points of contact with Rey’s analysis. The notion of a  commodious device, for example, that presents what we might call a user-friendly surface while hiding an inaccessible complexity below that surface tracks with Rey’s sense that hipsters have turned to low-tech in order to engage with technologies over which a certain degree of mastery can be achieved.

The objects in themselves are not, therefore, mere signifiers in a what is essentially the work of identity construction as I take Jurgenson to argue. Not too long ago I offered a few disorganized reflections on the sources of the modern imperative to construct one’s identity. This imperative arises, in part, from the erosion of traditional social structures that functioned as anchors for the self. It is a by-product of the solidity of the premodern world dissolving into the liquidity of the postmodern, to borrow Bauman’s metaphor. That said, it would be a mistake to conclude that we are always involved in the work of identity construction in equal measure. In fact, I think this is where Borgmann’s phenomenological analysis of the commanding presence of focal things may prove most useful.

Borgmann, if I understand him correctly, distinguishes between focal things and devices mostly on the basis of the sort of engagement they require. Simply put, a focal thing demands more of one’s self than a device. We are mere users of devices, focal things invite us to become practitioners. The paradigmatic focal thing for Borgmann is a musical instrument, and this example is particularly instructive.

It is possible for a musician to have the experience of losing themselves in the act of playing a musical instrument. In other words, in such focal practices the imperative to construct one’s identity is counteracted by the very nature of the focal thing and its attendant practice. It is, of course, possible to argue, and in fact very likely, that the pursuit of musical skill is itself an instance of identity creation. But the nature of the practice itself, if the testimony of practitioners may be trusted, finally resists that impulse. We might imagine the same to be true for a wide range of practices, particularly as one approaches a level of expertise in the practice and find themselves “in the flow,” which is to say in a state of almost non-conscious action. This state, phenomenologically, would appear to be the polar opposite of the hyper-self-consciousness that the performance of identity assumes.

I should add that such practices are not necessarily limited to the low-tech or the analog. I imagine that for the expert coder or computer programmer, for example, may find themselves similarly taken in by their work.

I am reminded once again of a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Conrad’s Marlow captures neatly the dynamic of Borgmann’s focal things and practices. They are not finally about the performance of an identity, and they may even allow for an entirely different approach to the matter of identity. As Marlow puts it, he values what is in the work, namely “the chance to find yourself.”

It is the desire expressed by the lyrics of what might possibly be a rather hipster-ish band, The Head and the Heart:

“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.”

My interest in these matters, however, is not tied to an exploration of the hipster psyche. In the limited case of the hipster, Jurgenson may very well be right, it is all performance all the way down. But I believe that Rey is also right in focusing on the low-tech objects that are the paraphernalia of hipster culture. They are not insignificant in themselves even if the hipsters have stumbled upon this reality accidentally.

Happily, the world is populated by more than hipsters and it includes those who find in their analog and low-tech practices something more than an opportunity to perform a particular identity, they find a respite, momentary perhaps, from the imperative to perform. Moreover, it is not mastery that they are after, but rather a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.


Update: Some further thoughts on authenticity here.

Psychological Warfare Via Text Message

Psychological warfare has been around for a long time. Alexander the Great reportedly ordered his armorers to fashion breastplates that would fit men eight to ten feet tall. He then left these behind where opposing forces would stumble upon them and be led to believe they were facing an army of giants.

During the age of print, leaflets were a favorite means of psychological warfare. During the Franco-Prussian War, they were dropped by French balloons over Prussian soldiers with the following message:

“Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people, shall we always throttle one another for the pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of independence.”

More recently, during World War I, over 50 million leaflets were dropped by the Allies urging the Germans to surrender. Leaflets were also dropped by the millions during World War II. The text of one of these leaflets read as follows:

“We, the Allied heavy bombers, do not cause you any immediate harm.We leave that to the strafing machineguns of our fighters.  We fly into Germany 30,000 feet above your head.  Your foxholes are not our targets.We aim for the factories which produce your ammunition, the railroads which carry your supplies, and the bridges which connect you with your home…We force you to fight with your back against a paralyzed Rhineland.Think of the destruction, every time we four-engined bombers come over.And we will be back soon.  You’ll be hearing from us.”

The Japanese also used leaflets to similar effect. The image below is of a Japanese leaflet dropped over British forces in Malaysia.

The text accompanying the image read:

“The fall of Singapore – The East Asian fortress under the intrusion of the British for more than a century – fell on Showa 15th year, the 2nd month, on the 17th day at 6:40 p.m. In a single file, bearing white flags, the British officers of the Malayan Command approached our mighty army to surrender. From the right: Commanding Officer Malaya, Lieutenant General Percival; Chief of the General Staff, Brigadier General Torrance; Staff officer, Colonel Sugita; Interpreter, Ling-zhuan; Chief Administrator of the British High Command, Malaya, Major General Newbiggen, who is holding the Union Jack; and Captain Wylde who serves as interpreter.”

Similar leaflets continue to be in use.

Aircraft equipped with loud speakers have also been used in the service of psychological warfare. During the course of their Indochinese wars, French planes broadcast the following to the Vietminh:

“Compatriots! You have planted a tree! The time has come for you to pick the fruit. V.M. wants to take this fruit away from you.”

“V.M. Soldiers! Today the Air Force, tomorrow, the tanks!”

“Working people, today the Air Force, tomorrow the guns, the machine-guns, the mortars and the mines. Leave your jobs and go back home!”

Radio, likewise, has been used to similar effect. During World War II, Mildred Gillars, also known as “Axis Sally” among the troops, broadcast radio programs intended to demoralize American soldiers. “Home Sweet Home Hour,” for example, was designed to instill homesickness among American soldiers.

To this history, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad now adds a new entry: the text message. Targeting Syrian rebels, the regime sent a mass text message to cell phones throughout the country with the message: “Game over.”

They appear to have embraced the limits of the medium and perhaps something of the video game ethos as well. Sadly, for the thousands who have lost their lives and the thousands more who have been displaced, the Syrian uprising has hardly been a game.