5 Apr 2010

Technological stagflation?

April 5, 2010 Uncategorized Comments Off

Nicholas Carr suggested two years ago that Google is making us stupider; the extension of which is that we, the digital natives of the world, are less able to pay attention that we used to, as the machines are training us to think like them.

However, as I wrote about earlier, there are those that suggest we built the machines to fulfill an innate human need. Which would naturally imply the machines are in our image, not turning us into theirs.

This topic has been argued all over the web, but I’ll weigh in (again). No one still mourns the loss of an oral culture, which happened with the development of a written language (and even further when printing was invented). Why then would we mourn the trade of a hoarding intellectual culture for a foraging one? The machine merely frees up neurological cycles for a different sort of work.

As far as (as Yoffe suggests in her piece) the addiction portion of the argument stands, that’s part and parcel of what makes us human. We seek rewards; rewards, tangible and intangible, are motivational. Receipt of reward leads to repetition of behavior. Just like (my favorites examples) sex and food, or smoking or cocaine or grades or work-related raises or anything else that involves some sort of positive feedback, whether external or internal. When any of those cross the line into addiction, that’s bad.

I don’t know why we have this sort of cultural propensity to slap a veneer of morality over everything. Change is neither inherently bad nor good, it’s merely change. As humans, we do what we do more effectively than any other species on the planet: we adapt. That adaptation itself brings change, which is neither bad nor good; it merely is. To apply value judgements to that sort of cultural change is to fight against a tide and lose (look at health care) in the name of one’s own personal judgements — and not even that, one’s own comfort. Change is uncomfortable, and, as humans, we see discomfort as “bad,” ergo, the application of moral judgements to a concept that has no inherent moral value.

Because I love food metaphors, here’s one: Alcohol is bad. We tried to ban it, as it’s such a great social ill. But banning it ignored that alcohol itself wasn’t bad, overconsumption of alcohol is bad. That is, the human propensity for overindulgence is bad, whether or not alcohol is the vehicle. Besides, there’s a theory that alcohol is responsible for civilization in the first place, that tribal peoples settled in order to produce alcohol, thereby creating more complex societies. It’s not the thing that’s the problem, it’s humanity’s (over)use of the thing.

Every time there is some sort of shift that redefines success, there is a resultant selective pressure, with adaptive success driving evolution. Technology is one such artifact of human culture. The consequences of human use are the part of the process with a moral dimension, not the tool and really, barely even the use.

The Internet represents a great democratization of the tools of cultural production. Some (like Benkler) thinks this can totally supplant paid labor. Others (like Carr) think this is the end of credible information as we know it. But let’s look at everybody’s favorite example of a shortsighted industry in crisis: the music industry.

The studio system arose because the mechanisms of production were expensive: not everyone could afford a reel-to-reel tape machine, much less had the skill to run one. So studios rose to ensure that the most proficient musicians — or the most salable, which for this argument we’ll take as the same — had access to the expensive, and scarce, resources. Musicians, in performance, profited from a scarcity of skill, as instruments were neither scarce or dear. Studios profited from the scarcity of tools. Fast forward to the digital age (and I’m not even talking about the Internet, let’s say the 80s) when digitization changed the tools so relative skill was much less scarce. Anyone (with a keyboard) could “play” a trumpet — except that music stagnated, because democratization of tools is disruptive, and it takes awhile for the value of skill to rise. That’s why innovation happened in the 90s, and pop music was good again. Then, tools were democratized again — and pop music hasn’t advanced much in the naughties. File sharing isn’t really the problem. A (history suggests temporary) lack of innovation and artistic stagnation due to democratization of tools is behind plummeting sales.

But then, I don’t really buy determinist arguments.

Comments are closed.