Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Digital thoughtlessness


  1. I can relate completely, that's why I define myself as a "technological rebel" of sorts. I mean, what happened to the old adage, "if it isn't broken, don't fix it"? Even today you could get along pretty nicely using analog technologies, but, I'm afraid that, as species, we're becoming lazy. We like the convenience of having something do the hard work for us, be it shaping a piece of metal on a lathe, or trusting our electronic word processor to take care of obsolete and nagging things like spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

    That's the reason why I'm actually writting the draft of my second book on my IBM Selectrics.

  2. agree - google will never replace human knowledge as a process and virtue - it's like saying intelligence=information. Just reduces everything to terms a search engine programmer might understand.

    It deserves a name: the Gadget Fallacy - the innate, unquestioned opinion that any new gadget or digital tool is automatically superior to any previous way of doing things, in a total sense.

    The physical, human and tactile world is not mutually exclusive from the digital domain and v. versa - they both express relations and ways of doing things. The tech heads confuse the potential of what can be done or expressed with the tools, by thinking the gadget is the proper content. But does the gadget make for better writing, better art, better ideas...?

    Increasingly, I want less options, and tools that do one (or maybe two) things really well, that facilitate creativity through limit. And if it's properly tactile or requires hands and some coordination or the rest of the body - all the better. reens

  3. But that Casio! I had the same one but in black plastic band. I spent hours and hours with the stopwatch...

    1. We had this competition for the shortest stopped time interval - 0,16, 0,03, i don't remember which was the record. Hours and hours, hours and hours. Luxury edition with fluorescent back-light.

  4. Brin's idea is echoed in the way that technology is approached in the secondary education classroom. It boils down to that old canard that "new is good, old is bad" and you must ascribe to the new or be the reason students don't have "the skills." The skills being whatever consortium of reformers deems to be the best. Humbug.

  5. As I type this response about the push/pull of digital and analog culture, I am well aware of the irony that I am using a totally souped up laptop capable of digital rendering. It doesn't get used for that. I am more than happy to have a solid state drive that won't crash and corrupt the bytes that make up my life.

    When I press "publish", electrons will speed through an unknown number of servers and back again with an updated view of this comment string.

    This evening, I helped one of my daughters straighten out the file structure on her (not Apple) MP3 player. The Micro SD card probably has more memory capacity than mission control for Apollo 11.

    In between fiddling around with music files, we caught up on the PianoGuys and Vihart on Youtube. We watch TED videos on a fairly regular basis.

    In short, we live in an age of digital miracles. The Internet is the ultimate brain candy.

    There is, of course, a caveat: The age of digital miracles is worth as much as each individual makes of it. I live with people who like exploring knowledge in all forms. I work with peers in environmental policy who depend on digital research and collaboration to create better buildings.

    From my perspective, the downside is hyper-speed of change empowered by all that digital collaboration. Fast doesn't necessarily mean better in policy, news or politics. All this networking empowers propagation of fact, fiction, half-truths and downright lies. It happens so fast that people can't tell the difference one way or another. Many have given up caring or trying.

    About that watch... I still love transitional HMI. Give me Nixie tubes, Panaplex, segment LEDs... all so sparkly and fresh in a near-past kind of way. Most importantly, I can almost figure out how they work. That part is important since I have been tearing stuff apart to see how it works as far back as I can remember. I can't "see" what goes on inside my computer and that is somewhat disconcerting.

    Here is another fun and fresh irony. The daughter that takes most after me swims rapidly through the sea of data that is the Internet. Click! Click! Click! Non-linear/random, just like her father. But she is also the one that likes building junk robots and wants to do what Dean Kamen does when she grows up. She prefers actual dead tree books and pushed us into taking a class and getting Ham licenses out of some sense of analog romanticism.

    That was all very random and deserves one last random parting thought. Until the zombie apocalypse, we will live as one with the digital beast. Once those electrons quit moving in an orderly fashion, all that instant knowledge on tap, and our family photos, will be lost. Until all the books go the way of the typewriter, I will cheerfully continue to build our family analog library. Someday, we'll be using peddle powered generators to send tidbits of information out by Morse to the other analog holdouts.

    Well, that was longer than I intended. Guess I will have to splice it into a blog entry ;-)

  6. Your sowing of ideas always yields the best harvest of comments, Richard. I can't really add anything except the gaps are more telling than the "content" they push at us. There are many real books that are nearly impossible to get but yet are not in the queue to be digitized. It's the difference between Project Gutenberg and Google Books - "What deserves to be read?" vs. "What do browsers want to see?" I don't always know what I want to see, but I often know I don't want what's pushed at me.

  7. Thanks to everyone for your great comments.

    One example of the "dysfunctions" I mentioned: NPR ran a story this morning about the threat of a paralyzing cyberattack on the US by Iran or its friends. Undermine our computers, and our society will grind to a halt. -- So by all means, let's computerize everything down to the scale in the gym!

    1. Richard, what's really worrisome about the rush to digitalization is this bizarre and utterly baseless notion that nothing is really permanent until it's been digitized. I find this especially with folks in the music world. But our digital storage systems are in fact the most fragile ever devised. For instance, I transferred my vinyl LPs to CD and foolishly got rid of most of the originals. Well, the CDs all failed within a year or two, so I lost that music. Computers don't generally last more than a few years, and hard drives crash at the least hiccup from the power grid. Now our County government is scanning all documents, deeds, records, etc., and SHREDDING THE PAPER! As I said to our County Clerk, "What happens when the lights go out?" Let's face it, when the power goes down, all our wonderful digital devices are just so many worthless plastic sculptures.

      Now, I own books printed in the 1500s, still in great shape and perfectly readable. We have papyrus from the ancient Greeks, and of course stone inscriptions. Cuneiform tablets tell us about Sumeria and Babylon. Cave paintings dating back 50,000+ years tell us much about our most distant ancestors. But what will we have of all our current data - all of it dependent on a massive power grid - 50 or 100 years from now, especially with resource depletion looming in all areas? If the Romans had had digital technology, what would we know of them following the Dark Ages? Are we going to be the first generation to leave no records but our waste, our pollution, our crumbling, jerry-rigged buildings?

      Though sometimes I think that might not be a bad thing....

    2. Amen, Brian. Digital objects are easy to reproduce, modify, and publish -- but they're very fragile. This blog will not exist in 100 years (or even 10 years) unless it benefits from many deliberate interventions and very good luck, but the slips of paper on which I've typed the typecasts will exist in 100 years barring natural disaster or deliberate disposal.

      My students and I were recently treated to a close inspection of some items from Xavier University's special collections, such as Bibles handwritten on vellum from the late middle ages. The quality of the material and the precision of the scribal art and illumination are astounding. Hard to reproduce, hard to modify, hard to publish -- but durable and drenched with meaning.

  8. Richard, thanks for this interesting and insightful post. The complaint you filed is such a fitting ending!

    To this day, I've kept a couple of analog wind-up watches. They still keep good time, they look great, and they've got loads of character. What's more, I enjoy the ritual of winding them in the morning. It meaningfully resonates with my own inner winding when I tell myself that I am ready to face this day. And it sure beats just staring at a utilitarian digital watch... not much to stare at really.

  9. Thought-provoking post, Richard. Sergey Brin's statement implies that we don't ever need to know anything. We can just look it up in the supposedly infinite index. And, of course, we don't need to evaluate what we look up.

    I love your comment about the importance of forgetting and ignoring 99% of what we encounter (we are the 99%!). In his books 'Cronopios and Famas,' Julio Cortazar offers readers a chapter on how to climb stairs. The section is, essentially, a detailed and dispassionate description of what we do when we climb the stairs. Of course, if we followed Cortazar's directions with precision, we would never be able to climb the stairs. Treated this way, climbing the stairs becomes a strange and utterly foreign phenomenon.

    I'm with George Clinton: Free your mind and your ass will follow.

  10. Wow. I couldn't agree more, Richard.
    Brings to mind Postman's book "Technopoly". Postman left us too soon, I'm afraid.

  11. As somebody who works in an academic library, let me say that the library not accepting paper gifts doesn't necessarily mean they don't like paper and only want electronic. For instance, our Library is doing the same thing, but because it costs money in terms of cataloging and other personnel in tough economic times (our budget for the next fiscal year has been cut significantly).

    Also, space can, potentially, be a concern too.

    Though, as a whole, libraries are leaning heavily towards electric. No denying that.

    Other than that, I agree with most of what you've said.

    1. Thanks for this, Jason. I am making an assumption about the University of Cincinnati that may not be warranted!