Information Overlord

We are seduced by and dithering with some mind-boggling stuff these days – magical gadgets, apps to enable whatever the hell comes to mind, wireless (!), interleaving social networks, the delight and terror of being geo-located, etc. These objects and experiences are often lumped together and referred to as “technology.” We don’t yet get what we sacrifice or gain by this tech-driven new world order, or how it will ultimately affect us as individuals, as generations, as a culture. Of course, our underlying motivations as human beings remain pretty stable (from survival straight through to enlightenment), but the way we can go about things now is all different. Implications abound. A faceless evil foe emerges from the uncertainty: technology itself (never terribly well defined when the witch-hunt is on). The foe is also the enabler. Agnostic pipes blissfully propagate these ideas, unaware they are being demonized, allowing us to consume them on whatever miraculous screen we happen to be peering at.

Here are a couple recent examples of technology – in particular the volume of information it allows us to access – being discussed in the popular press.

The Visionary: A digital pioneer questions what technology has wrought [] – Jaron Lanier has spent his incredible career envisioning ways for technology to delight and empower us, but is disappointed by the dominance of information in the system. We’re not thinking creatively enough. Technology is a harsh schoolmarm. It limits us with its relentless focus on information.

Such objections have made Lanier an unusual figure: he is a technology expert who dislikes what technology has become. “I’m disappointed with the way the Internet has gone in the past ten years,” he told me at one point. He added, “I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.” … Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine. “The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant,” Lanier told me. “And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.”

The Elusive Big Idea [] – According to the more academic Neal Gabler, information is overwhelming ideas in our culture. Technology is a sandstorm. It blinds us, prevents rational thought. The compelling notion that our culture is drifting towards a post-Enlightenment and post-idea state is undermined by his facile assumptions about how people use technology and in particular in this quote, social networking tools (and why, and for what).

For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus. To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

Can we please get beyond Twitter-is-for-talking-about-sandwiches? Interaction and ideas on Twitter and other technology-enabled platforms for human communication are as rich and prosaic as humanity itself. It’s quite easy to find “thoughts organized into words” and “grand arguments” on any social networking site on any given day. These are not trivial forums for discourse at any level. To reduce the effects of technology on social interaction in this manner is simplistic. It does not live up to the quality of intellectual thought that the author himself calls for as the central idea of the article. I guess we might interpret this as just more evidence of the ill-effects of Twitter on our culture. The aforementioned Jaron Lanier, himself a player in and product of the world of technology, seems to be, incidentally, the kind of big thinker that Gabler pines for.

We sacrifice agency when we cast technology as an outside force acting upon us. Technology is still, as of this writing, made by and for human beings. There is no technology. If technology prevents us from having ideas and represses our humanity, then we do that to ourselves.


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