The Virgin and the Data Center

A reader passed along a link to story in Motherboard about one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers (ranked 25th to be exact), which just happens to be housed in a deconsecrated church in Barcelona. Torre Girona Chapel is now part of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and it is home to the supercomputer known as MareNostrum 4. The site has been named the most beautiful data center in the world, which is an actual award handed out by Data Center Dynamics.

Here is one view of the exterior:

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And here is one view of the inside:

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As my correspondent put it, “the commentary writes itself.”

It’s tempting to see in the repurposed church an allegory of sorts, science and technology vanquishing faith and religion. It may be closer to the truth, however, to see instead something more akin to a displacement: science and technology assume the place of faith and religion. And in this case, we might put the matter more pointedly, data and computing power assuming the functions and roles once ascribed to the deity—source of all knowledge and arbiter of truth, for example. Ian Bogost’s 2015 essay, “The Cathedral of Computation,” comes to mind as do the aspirations of immortality embodied in certain strands of transhumanism, strands which amount to what I like to think of as (post-)Christian fan fiction.

Relatedly, we might also see an apt illustration for the often forgotten entanglement of religion and technology in the western world, a story told well by the late David Noble in his classic work, The Religion of Technology.

“Modern technology and modern faith,” Noble argued, “are neither complements nor opposites, nor do they represent succeeding stages of human development. They are merged, and always have been, the technological enterprise being, at the same time, an essentially religious endeavor.”

“This is not meant in a merely metaphorical sense,” he continued, “to suggest that technology is similar to religion in that it evokes religious emotions of omnipotence, devotion, and awe, or that it has become a new (secular) religion in and of itself, with its own clerical caste, arcane rituals, and articles of faith. Rather it is meant literally and historically, to indicate that modern technology and religion have evolved together and that, as a result, the technological enterprise has been and remains suffused with religious belief.”

I have some reservations about certain details in Noble’s work, but the general thesis is sound so far as I can judge.

Finally, of course, I was reminded of the well-known passage from Henry Adams, who, in the third person, recounts his impressions the dynamos assembled in the Palace of Electricity at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring — scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breath further for respect of power — while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy, the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

One should note, though, that data centers tend to be a bit louder than the dynamos Adams describes, although apparently some think it makes for good white noise.


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Winners, Losers, and One-Eyed Prophets

The ur-text of media criticism is the section in Plato’s Pheadrus where Socrates tells the legend of Thamus, an Egyptian king, and Theuth, the god who invented writing and presented it as a gift to Thamus. In the story, Thamus surprises Theuth by failing to joyfully embrace the gift of writing. Here is a portion of that exchange:

But when it came to writing, Theuth declared, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus replied, “Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

The story of Thamus and Theuth is discussed at length by Neil Postman in the opening chapter of his 1993 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. While Postman is ordinarily thought of as the sort of thinker who would be inclined to agree with Thamus, he first points out that Thamus has erred. “The error is not in his claim that writing will damage memory and create false wisdom,” Postman explains. “It is demonstrable that writing has had such an effect. Thamus’ error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden. For all his wisdom, he fails to imagine what writing’s benefits might be, which, as we know, have been considerable.” Every technology, he adds, is both a blessing and a burden.  This much should be obvious, but it is not:

“[W]e are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo … They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”

Postman grants that there are one-eyed skeptics, too. They see only the new burdens of technology and fail to reckon with the blessings. The point, of course, is to see with both eyes wide open.

Further on in the opening chapter, Postman wrote of another principle to be learned from the judgment of Thamus:

“[N]ew technologies compete with old ones—for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view. This competition is implicit once we acknowledge that a medium contains an ideological bias. And it is a fierce competition, as only ideological competitions can be. It is not merely a matter of tool against tool—the alphabet attacking ideographic writing, the printing press attacking the illuminated manuscript, the photograph attacking the art of painting, television attacking the printed word. When media make war against each other, it is a case of world-views in collision.”

Finally, here is Postman’s discussion of how there are always winners and losers in the game of what would later be called technological disruption. It is instructive to read this and remember that Postman is writing before the birth of the commercial internet and before digital media has come into its own. Some of it will sound a bit dated, but much of it resonates nonetheless.

“We have a similar situation in the development and spread of computer technology, for here too there are winners and losers. There can be no disputing that the computer has increased the power of large-scale organizations like the armed forces, or airline companies or banks or tax-collecting agencies. And it is equally clear that the computer is now indispensable to high level researchers in physics and other natural sciences. But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steelworkers, vegetable-store owners, teachers, garage mechanics, musicians, bricklayers, dentists, and most of the rest into whose lives the computer now intrudes? Their private matters have been made more accessible to powerful institutions. They are more easily tracked and controlled; are subjected to more examinations; are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them; are often reduced to mere numerical objects. They are inundated by junk mail. They are easy targets for advertising agencies and political organizations. The schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable to children. In a word, almost nothing that they need happens to the losers.”

I recommend Technopoly to you. It’s 25 years old, but holds up pretty well in my view as an accessible, well-written primer on thinking critically about technology.

Final word to Postman:

“New technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. As Thamus spoke to Innis across the centuries, it is essential that we listen to their conversation, join in it, revitalize it. For something has happened in America that is strange and dangerous, and there is only a dull and even stupid awareness of what it is—in part because it has no name. I call it Technopoly.”

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.