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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Jaron Lanier … argues that digital networks that make information appear to be “free” have had the effect of making it harder for people to be compensated for their talents. We become laborers who cheerfully contribute to the value of the network (consider the staggering array of talent on display on YouTube), but that value accrues to whoever owns the network. Our desire for recognition from other people makes us post our best efforts online, and it is the ideologists of “free” who become billionaires while promoting the spirit of sharing.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Joint attention is an actual experience that we have. By contrast, the attentional commons is best understood as a purely negative principle, by analogy with the “precautionary principle” invoked by environmentalists. The point of being aware of the attentional commons is not to make it happen but to refrain from damaging it; to be aware of the valuable absence that creates space for private reverie, and indeed for the possibility of those episodes of joint attention that arise spontaneously and make cities feel full of promise for real human contact.

What this boils down to: Please don’t install speakers in every single corner of a shopping mall, even its outdoor spaces. Please don’t fill up every moment between innings in a lazy college baseball game with thundering excitement. Please give me a way to turn off the monitor in the backseat of a taxi. Please let there be one corner of the bar where the flickering delivery system for Bud Lite commercials is deemed unnecessary, because I am already at the bar. The attentional commons is an idea that I hope will catch on among those who are in a position to make such sanctuaries happen: building managers, commercial real estate developers, and interior designers. Here is a modest proposal: Could the Muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once every twenty minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm “Yes! We want some emo in here!”

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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Further, such squeamishness [engendered by subjectivism] creates a certain normative vacuum in our public spaces. In walking off the field of our shared moral and aesthetic life, we cede that field to corporate forces, which are not at all shy about offering up a shared experience: the emo coming out of the sound system. That’s what we end up with. The way anonymous others leap in on our behalf and install these systems, without anyone taking responsibility for them, makes the shared experience unavailable for discussion. It can’t be subject to disputation, and this is why it feels suffocating.

The taken-for-granted presence of the Muzak system spares us the exposure that comes from bringing forward one’s own taste for others to respond to…. And this process is self-reinforcing: the saturation of public space by the inevitably lame manufactured experience spurs us to plug in our earbuds, reinforcing our self-enclosure.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

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To say it simply, newspapers should, for a start, get out of the information business and into the knowledge business. What do I mean by “knowledge”? I define knowledge as organized information—information that is embedded in some context; information that has a purpose, that leads one to seek further information in order to understand something about the world. Without organized information, we may know something of the world, but very little about it. When one has knowledge, one knows how to make sense of information, knows how to relate information to one’s life, and, especially, knows when information is irrelevant.

It is fairly obvious that some newspaper editors are aware of the distinction between information and knowledge, but not nearly enough of them. There are newspapers whose editors do not yet grasp that in a technological world, information is a problem, not a solution. They will tell us of things we already know about and will give little or no space to providing a sense of context or coherence. Let us suppose, for example, that a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy hurls a Molotov cocktail at two eighteen-year-old Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem. The explosion knocks one of the soldiers down and damages his left eye. The other soldier, terrified, fires a shot at the Palestinian that kills him instantly. The injured soldier loses the sight of his eye. All of this we learn of on television or from radio; the next day we are told about it again in the newspaper. Why? The newspaper will add nothing, unless it can tell something about the meaning of the event, including why this event is in the newspaper at all. There are at least forty wars presently going on someplace in the world, and we can assume that young people are being killed in all of them. Why do I need to know about this event? Why is what happens in Jerusalem more important than what happens in Ghana? Will this event in Jerusalem have an effect on other events? Is this something that has happened many times before? Is it likely to happen again? Is someone to blame for what happened there? In this context, what do we mean by “blame”?

A newspaper that does not answer these questions is useless. It is worse than useless. It contributes incoherence and confusion to minds that are already overloaded with information. After all, the next day someone will be killed in Bosnia, and the day after that, in Indonesia, and the day after that, someplace else. So what? If I were asked to say what is the worst thing about television news or radio news, I would say that it is just this: that there is no reason offered for why the information is there; no background; no connectedness to anything else; no point of view; no sense of what the audience is supposed to do with the information. It is as if the word “because” is entirely absent from the grammar of broadcast journalism. We are presented with a world of “and”s, not “because”s. This happened, and then this happened, and then something else happened. As things stand now, at least in America, television and radio are media for information junkies, not for people interested in “because”s. I might pause here to remark that it is one of the most crucial functions of social institutions—the church, the courts, the schools, political parties, families—to provide us with the “because”s; that is, help us to know why information is important or irrelevant, socially acceptable or blasphemous, conventional or weird, even true or false. Some of these institutions do not do this work with as much conviction as they once did, which makes it especially necessary that a knowledge medium be available. And there is no more fundamental requirement of a knowledge medium than that it make clear why we are being given information. If we do not know that, we know nothing worth knowing. But there is something else the newspapers must do for us in a technological age, and it has to do with the word “wisdom.” I wish to suggest that it is time for newspapers to begin thinking of themselves as being not merely in the knowledge business but in the wisdom business as well.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?

Think, for example, of how the words “community” and “conversation” are now employed by those who use the Internet. I have the impression that “community” is now used to mean, simply, people with similar interests, a considerable change from an older meaning: A community is made up of people who may not have similar interests but who must negotiate and resolve their differences for the sake of social harmony. …

Think of how television has changed the meaning of the phrase “political debate” or the word “public”; or the phrase “participatory democracy.” In his book The Electronic Republic, Lawrence Grossman argues that new technologies will make representative democracy obsolete because they will make it possible to have instant plebiscites on every issue. In this way, American voters will directly decide if we should join NAFTA or send troops to Bosnia or impeach the president. The Senate and the House of Representatives will be largely unnecessary. This, he says, is participatory democracy as it was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I have no objection to borrowing a phrase from an older media environment in order to conceptualize a new development; we do it all the time. But it has its risks, and attention must be paid when it is done. To call a train an “iron horse,” as we once did, may be picturesque, but it obscures the most significant differences between a train and a horse-and-buggy. To use the term an “electronic town-hall meeting” similarly obscures the difference between an eighteenth-century, face-to-face gathering of citizens and a packaged, televised pseudo-event. To use the term “distance learning” to refer to students and a teacher sending e-mail messages to each other may have some value, but it obscures the fact that the act of reading a book is the best example of distance learning possible, for reading not only triumphs over the limitations of space and co-presence but of time as well. As for participatory democracy, we would be hard-pressed to find any similarity whatever between politics as practiced by 5,000 homogeneous, well-educated, slaveholding Athenian men and 250 million heterogeneous Americans doing plebiscites every week; it is dangerous to allow language to lead us to believe otherwise.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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In her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, Esther Dyson tries to assure those who worry too much about the new electronic world that human nature will stay the same. Of course. If we mean by “human nature” our genetic structure or biological needs or fundamental emotions, no one has argued that technology will alter human nature (at least not by much). But human nature is not the issue. What is at issue are the changes that might occur in our psychic habits, our social relations, and, most certainly, our political institutions, especially electoral politics. Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content. Ronald Reagan, for example, could not have been president were it not for the bias of television. This is a man who rarely spoke precisely and never eloquently (except perhaps when reading a speech written by someone else). And yet he was called The Great Communicator. Why? Because he was magic on television. His televised image projected a sense of authenticity, intimacy, and caring. It did not much matter if citizens agreed with what he said or understood what he said. This does not in itself suggest that he shouldn’t have been president or that he did his job poorly. It is to say that television gives power to some while it deprives others. It is not human nature we worry about here but rather what part of our humanness will be nurtured by technology. I have often wondered how Abraham Lincoln would have fared on television. Because of the invention of photography in the 1840s, he was the first president to be the subject of continuous comment about his looks (ugly and ungainly, many said). Would it be too much to say that Americans must be eternally grateful for the absence of television when Lincoln made his run for the presidency? Or perhaps we might say that had television existed, no such person as Lincoln could have become a serious candidate for president.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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It is doubtful that one can think of a single technology that did not generate new problems as a result of its having solved an old problem. Of course, it is sometimes very difficult to know what new problems will arise as a result of a technological solution. Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the thirteenth century in order to be more precise in performing their canonical prayers, which they needed to do seven times a day. Had they known that the mechanical clock would eventually be used by merchants as a means of establishing a standardized workday and then a standardized product—that is, that the clock would be used as an instrument for making money instead of serving God—the monks might have decided that their sundials and water clocks were quite sufficient. Had Gutenberg foreseen that his printing press with movable type would lead to the breakup of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, he surely would have used his old wine press to make wine and not books. In the thirteenth century, perhaps it didn’t matter so much if people lacked technological vision; perhaps not even in the fifteenth century. But in the twenty-first century, we can no longer afford to move into the future with our eyes tightly closed.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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