kerfluffle at britannica.com 07.23.2008, 10:07 AM
posted by bob stein
The conversation on the Britannica site, and the related posts on John Brockman's EDGE, remind me as much as anything of the conversational swordplay typical of TV pundits, who are so enamored of their own words that they can barely be bothered to listen to or read each other's ideas, much less respond sincerely.
(Can it possibly be a coincidence that all the players in this drama are male? Get a grip guys! This is not about scoring points. You're dealing with issues central to the future of the species and the planet.)
And as long as we're dealing with missing persons, i was stunned to realize that not one of these media gurus references McLuhan, who as far as i'm concerned, not only asked more profound questions about the effect of media on humans and their society, but provided first-pass answers which we would still do well to heed.
Of the myriad posts and pages that now comprise the Britannica Carr/Shirky discussion, three posts are particular interest.
The first is from the critic Sven Birkerts, whom many people consider conservative. I don't. Rather, I see Birkerts as the most eloquent voice on behalf of what we are losing as we shed the culture of the Gutenberg age. Birkerts doesn't entreat us to stop time or throw wrenches in the wheels of change. He's just asking us to be conscious of what's good about the present.
Another is from George Dyson who writes in a way that in my worst nightmares i fear is prescient:
Nicholas Carr asks a question that all of us should be asking ourselves:
"What if the cost of machines that think is people who don't?"
It's a risk. "The ancestors of oysters and barnacles had heads. Snakes have lost their limbs and ostriches and penguins their power of flight. Man may just as easily lose his intelligence," warned J. B. S. Haldane in 1928.
The third is a comment by Blair Boland, which appears as a comment to Nicolas Carr's response to Shirky. Not only does Boland provide a taut history lesson, setting the record straight on the Luddites, but he states a fundamental issue of our time more clearly than anyone else: "who controls technology and for what ends?"
What both critiques share in common and take for granted is a smugly false and typically misleading disparagement of so-called Luddism. The original, much maligned Luddites are commonly dismissed as cranks, or worse still, "murderous thugs" and the "essential fact" of Luddite "complaint" twisted to serve the ends of propagandists for capital. Ned Ludd and his followers were not necessarily opposed to technological 'change' or 'progress' per se but the social context in which it occurred and the economic consequences it presaged. As Ludd expressed it, "we will never lay down our arms...['til]the House of Commons passes an act to put down all machinery Hurtful to Commonality". They realized that these changes were being undertaken undemocratically for the benefit of a narrow class of economic elites. Luddite anxieties were well founded as was their understanding of the implications for the working class in general, even though they couldn't have foreseen all of the consequences fully. Their protests and resistance was met with the most aggressive and "murderous" suppression by the British government of the day. Thousands of troops were dispatched to put down the rebellion, not only succeeding in ruthlessly exterminating the Luddite uprising but also serving notice to workers in general of the close bonds between the state and industrialists; and the means that could be employed to discipline intractable workers. The dire conditions of the working class in the new "industrial age' that ensued proved Luddite premonitions largely prophetic. These conditions still exist in many parts of the world. So while it's fine to fret over the impact of the net on the reading habits of the affluent, the concerns of the Luddites still haven't gone away. The important principle then as now, is who controls technology and for what ends? Taylor's time/motion practices further tightened the hold of the owners of production technology over the wage serfs operating that technology, again in a very undemocratic and restrictive way, "hurtful to commonality". These, as noted, are the same principles that guide much technological development today and are among the most worrisome aspects of its ultimate applications. "And now we're facing a similar challenge", to see that the latent democratizing abundance of the net is not "shaped" into the greatest expansion of social control and commercial concentration of power the world has ever known.
Gary Frost on July 23, 2008 10:34 PM:
"So the key, as I see it, is understanding the biases of the medium - ?as McLuhan would advise. We might learn to see our movement from one dominant medium to another less as a net gain or loss, but rather as a shift of landscape that can be exploited quite positively if we take the time and energy to honestly survey the characteristics and opportunities of the new terrain." Douglas Rushkoff
Kevin Champion on July 23, 2008 11:45 PM:
I'm very happy to read you highlighting these points. The biggest part missing to the "discussion" from my perspective is the question who? Who is the "we" referred to when questioning the ramifications of ubiquitous creation and consumption of new technologies? And by "who", I am really trying to get at more than just socioeconomic, language, cultural, or even generational privilege. The who that is so intriguing to me is the question "who" in relation to human development. For there to be danger to individuals (and thus society) from the use of the internet, individuals must use it. But individuals are spread out on an evolutionary continuum of growth and transformation. So it seems totally plausible that someone coming from one place in that continuum would use the internet to her/his detriment while another would harness its power to supplement her/his abilities. And overall, if technology is not working as a catalyst for human transformation and development (internal and external, individual and collective), then I do believe our excitement for its benefits may indeed be misplaced.
Monica McCormick on July 25, 2008 2:01 PM:
On the themes of who controls technology and recognizing what might be lost, here's a clip from the Fortune Brainstorm conference, "2018: Life on the Net." Joichi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons and Chairman of Six Apart Japan, speaks of how money can stupidly follow money with a focus on the very short term. His example of the internet economy (with enormous numbers of mobile users, and resultant huge sums flowing to service carriers, rather than to startups) is analogous to the Luddite's concerns: government and capital mutually reinforce each other's power, leaving the commons deprived of opportunity. Somebody in the audience calls him a "venture communist!"
(via Peter Brantley and siliconvalleywatcher)
Victoria Sandbrook on August 2, 2008 2:01 PM:
I'm just glad to see this debate as a whole swinging back into a positive outlook on the future of technology and culture. I grew up in one of the infamous generations of children who never remember life without a computer (I'm one of the older members at the "wizened" age of 22), and I have to admit that I'm tired of all the fuss about "the fall" because so few of the critics have offered ways to mitigate the horrors without backtracking and rejecting the benefits of technology entirely. Birkert's comment marks a positive change in this discourse, at least in the parts I've been reading. If we start using technology to start improving young minds, we might be able to stave off the prophesied Doomsday of human intelligence. If it is welcomed more often into classrooms as one of many mediums for intellectual growth, then younger generations can start to make better judgments about writing styles and registers and stop embarrassing themselves with poor grammar and telegraphic pseudo-sentences. Some people have already started this work, but I worry it's too few to save the reputation of my generation in the eyes of history.
If the conversation is changing, however, there might be hope. With the Luddites' concerns redefined and the argument of technology's proponents developing to better empower those of us who would maintain hope for the future, I think there's a chance I might not be so swiftly judged for my generation's penchant for emoticons and acronyms. I truly hope the global discussion about technology continues growing and changing for the best. And I hope that the viable solutions we can come up with are implemented before too many of us young'uns no longer taken seriously.
Petter on August 4, 2008 5:32 AM:
Happy to see Birkerts applauded here...
as I also commented at EB:
I think Birkerts' third point is key - shaping is no longer a deliberate, conscious activity. Those who would make it so are these days dismissed as moralists, Luddites, whatever. Since the discrediting of Marxism, it seems one can no longer question the enormous - and I fear, devastating - power of the market, without eliciting a weary "oh, we've been through that." It's useful to keep in mind that Huxley's dystopia is even worse than Orwell's, because it is self-inflicted.
Craig on August 4, 2008 7:52 AM:
Just to point something out: Carr did, in fact, mention McLuhan in his original post (Is Google Making Us Stupid?). The relevant passage is as follows: "As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation."
And, I must say, I almost fell over backwards when I read Blair Boland's comment. Beautiful. So incredibly true, and something I've been trying to articulate for some time.