Tag: technology

Technopoly, Tradition, and Symbols

Somewhere near the core of Technopoly is a vast industry with license to use all available symbols to further the interests of commerce, by devouring the psyches of consumers… We may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition.

Neil Postman, Technopoly, 170

And later:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advance. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption.

179

I wonder how many of us (myself included) have embraced the narrative that it is technical prowess/skills/expertise which provide our lives with meaning. If we buy this story — I’m guessing many of us do — it would mean that we have fully embraced the story that American capitalism is telling us. Our purpose is to build a life of economic success and productivity.

That would also entail other corollaries: that institutions which provide existential meaning (but offer little “practical” value) are useless and unnecessary. Educational institutions would be transformed, from places of learning critical thinking and reason and the history of human thought, to practical-skills training centers. Religious institutions would shift to become centers of political power and persuasion.

Finding ultimate meaning in life is replaced with productivity.

Information without Meaning

In the Information Age (the one in which we are living now), it’s really easy to assume that more information is always better. More information means being more informed, which should theoretically make us better citizens, better friends, better human beings. It should lead to increased knowledge, and to having a more coherent picture of reality.

As the amount of information available to us grows every moment, however, I think it’s safe to say that access to more information has not led to these outcomes. More information, somehow, makes us feel less informed. It also seems to lead to less coherent and cohesive understandings of what the world is like, and what it should be like.

Neil Postman makes this argument in Technopoly:

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (69-70).

In other words, we live in an age where the overarching cultural assumption is that more information leads to progress — scientific progress, human progress, economic progress, etc. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The glut of information that overwhelms our senses on a day to day basis leads us to question whether we know anything at all. And because of that, it leads to a lack of a unified theory about what human beings are and what human beings are meant to be.

In this kind of a situation, information becomes its own end, and a not a means to some other end, which it ought to be. Postman again:

To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to access information. For what purpose  or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask (61, emphasis added).

When reading this yesterday, my first thought was that, in some ways, the way information seems to act of its own accord in society to grow for its own sake is similar to the way capital (money) acts of its own accord within capitalism. Within capitalism, money always optimizes for the growth of money. Within what Postman calls “technopoly,” information optimizes for its own growth.

Without some overarching system in place that allows us to set information or money up as a means to some actual end, both of these become devourers of our time, attention, and ultimately our lives.

Twitter and the Shape of Our Knowledge

From Yascha Mounk’s piece at The Atlantic, “The Problem Isn’t Twitter. It’s That You Care About Twitter.”:

Being active on Twitter has practically become part of the job description for some of the most influential people in the country. Any politician, journalist, or CEO who does not engage with social media gives up a precious chance to shape the conversation. And any public or semipublic figure who fails to monitor what is happening on the platform risks missing attacks or accusations that can quickly find their way into the headlines of national newspapers and the chyrons of cable-news shows.

Obligation breeds habit and habit addiction. The most active Twitter users I know check the platform as soon as they wake up to see what they missed. Throughout the day, they seize on the little interstices of time they have available to them—on the way to work, or in between meetings—to follow each new development in that day’s controversies. Even in the evening, when they are settling down to dinner, they cheer attacks against their enemies, or quietly fume over the mean tweet some anonymous user sent their way. Minutes before they finally drift off to sleep, they check their notifications one last time.

I’ve been off Twitter for a while now. My posts still go to a Twitter account, @cdbaca, but I do not have access to the username and password, because I know the dangers of Twitter for my own personal well-being. But I’m not here to toot my own horn about my digital habits. I have enough other bad habits that prove I am no internet saint.

This piece at The Atlantic made me think of Neil Postman’s claim that new technologies bear new epistemologies. In other words, the technology that we use make us all think differently about two things: (1) what we can know and (2) how we know those things. In Technopoly, he writes,

new technologies alter the structure of our interests: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop. (20)

Postman was no technophobe — he’s just relatively hesitant about the uncritical use of new technology that’s so prevalent in our society. We should be wary, in other words, of uncritical engagement with technology, because the use of technology often (always?) comes with its own way of framing how we picture the world. The same is true for language, which is maybe the postmodern insight.

Twitter is really interesting in this regard, and I think — I hope — that some of us are coming to our senses about the way that heavy Twitter use forms our sense of what we can know and how we know it. Limiting ourselves to short, pithy sentences that attempt to convey religious, political, philosophical, or existential meaning will absolutely have an effect on how we view those spheres of human life.

And ultimately, I wonder if that means that we ought to extend Postman’s thought about the effects of new technology. New technologies don’t just bear new epistemologies; after we accept that new epistemology (or framework of knowledge), we are led towards a new metaphysics (what reality really is), and ultimately a new way of understanding values (aesthetics and ethics).

Gain Knowledge. Not Too Much. Mostly from Books.

In a world where we consume and regurgitate information on an almost endless basis, it would be prescient for us to think of our information consumption in terms of diet.

What do we know about healthy eating right now? Basically, good consumption habits boil down to one simple rule for most people: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, there are acceptable variations on this rule for human flourishing, but the simplicity and truth of Michael Pollan’s statement stands. Too much of any non-plant-based food is generally bad for us. And we know that sugar (especially refined sugar that is added to food) is particularly bad for us.

I’ve been thinking about what the informational or educational equivalent of Michael Pollan’s rule above would be. Perhaps: “Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.” Right now, this is not the standard rule for most people. We don’t really need to be convinced at the moment that knowledge is a good thing, so I don’t think I need to defend “Gain knowledge” here. Humans are knowledge-amassing creatures by nature.

The second sentence presents a bit more of a problem. “Not too much.” Really? Is there such a thing as “too much” knowledge? I think the answer is likely “yes.” We live in the age of information. Much like the fact that most Westerners have access to a nearly limitless amount of food, we also have access to (what feels like) an infinite amount of information. How many of us spend our time standing in the “stream,” (see Mike Caulfield’s distinctiong between the garden/stream metaphors when we think about the internet) consuming text, images, and video at a rate that prevents us from comprehending that which we consume? It stands to reason that access to an infinite amount of information is a bad thing. Or, at minimum, that such access prevents us from having the ability to form useful, coherent understandings about the world as it is. Constantly standing in the stream of infinite information means constantly consuming disparate hot takes on whatever today’s events are, or whatever people are outraged about right now, or whatever entertaining meme or video happens to catch the eye. Further, infinite access means our attention is constantly disrupted, which therefore disrupts any chance we have of thinking deeply about one issue.

Finally, our final sentence: “Mostly from books.” Maybe this is an unfair one. The internet is extremely helpful in many ways; without it, many of us would not know many of the things we know now. And that includes understanding social and political issues in new ways. But let’s come back to our analogy — Michael Pollan is making an argument that most of our food that we eat should come from plants and not meat, animal products, or (presumably) refined and processed ingredients (such as refined sugar).

I’d like to focus on the sugar bit, because that’s the most likely candidate for making a connection. Refined sugars are particularly bad for us, and they are also particularly addictive (I’m not going to link to anything. A ten second Google search will prove me right). Sugar gives us a quick, easy burst of energy, but it often goes unused, and so our body stores that energy as fat. This leads to obesity, sluggishness, and a high likelihood of disease in a variety of forms. In the age of access to infinite information, the information we often have access to is no different than the sugary, highly processed, low-nutrient food that we all have constant access to. And that information is often consumed by us, and forms us so that we become intellectually sluggish and unable to think clearly or rationally about the world. Books (and other long-form literature), however, give us a chance at a different kind of intellectual formation. They demand our attention. They help us to train those intellectual muscles that otherwise become weak when our intellectual diets are pulled from social media feeds. Why? Because those feeds are bent towards outrage, and are actively grabbing at your attention, which ultimately leads to a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” This doesn’t mean that all books contain and bequeath good quality knowledge. But I’d be willing to bet that books are more likely to properly form our intellects in ways that a pure digital diet cannot.

So: Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.

The Objectification of the Body

Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as its next great frontier. And in order for its vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language. Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

“The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting”

When I think of Kierkegaard’s distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, I’m most often thinking of knowledge, and how we, as individuals treat those objects of knowledge with which we interact. I wonder, though, if the objective/subjective divide can be applied elsewhere — not only internally, but externally.

Here would be a prime example: the body. The ever-growing tech industry demands that our very selves be quantified, measured in bits, and analyzed for optimization. This was  and is true for Facebook, the ad industry, Amazon, and so on; now it seems to be true for how we think of our very bodies. The human person, body and mind, is simply a complex set of algorithms — code that can be re-written with the right amount of objective understanding.

Maybe Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction can be appropriated here, in defense against the quantification (and thus, the objectification) of our own bodies. [An aside: we often speak of objectification and bodies as if the only way to objectify bodies is “sexually.” Although I am not denying this is a reality, it seems as if the current health trends in tech show that we are moving towards the objectification of our own bodies.] We are not computers. We are not programs. We are whole human beings, with wills and hearts and minds and bodies, more than the sum of our parts. Therefore, instead, maybe we need a subjectification of the body: a being-in and enjoying-of the body.

On Concentration and Dopamine

With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery.

Harriet Griffey – “The Lost Are of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World

Interesting — the thought that our actions on social media and our inability to concentrate on one task could theoretically cause the rise of depression and anxiety via hormones. It’s long been known that heavy use of social media has a direct effect whether we feel anxious or happy, but the thought that our actions are replacing one set of hormones (dopamine and serotonin) with another (adrenaline and cortisol), and that’s the cause, actually brings me some hope. This would mean that behavioral/habit changes could bring us back to the point where we want to be — focused, creative, calm.

What we need, then, is communities and social groups that help us to form habits over and against the prevailing, standard habits that a society plagued by technocracy sort of “automatically” gives us.

Alan Jacobs on Technocracy

Their great fear is that, if the war is won by technological prowess, then why shouldn’t the technocrats who won the war be given the task of rebuilding society after the war? And this is what all the figures in the book were afraid of — that the winning of the war would actually inaugurate a technocracy that would be extremely difficult to displace from its throne. And they were exactly right. That’s what we got. If they wanted to prevent that from happening, they started too late. The technocracy was already largely in place, and as soon as the major American universities — and Harvard is the signal case here, under James Bryant Conant — explicitly put themselves in service to what Eisenhower would later call the “military-industrial complex,” then technocracy had a death-grip on our social order.

“Christianity and Resistance – An Interview with Alan Jacobs”

The question for us, post-technocracy, is: how ought we resist technocracy as all-consuming, and is that even possible?

Are We Adults, or Not?

From Cal Newport, on the “digital wellness” movement:

I’m a grown man. If I’m checking my phone every 5 minutes, or playing video games instead of paying attention to my kids, I don’t need an animation of a dying tree to nudge me toward better habits, I need someone I respect to knock the stupid thing out of my hand and say “get your act together.”

Earlier in the post, he calls this whole movement “infantilizing,” and I have to say that I agree. Some things in our lives can’t be taken care of by sheer willpower — I recognize that addiction is a real problem for some people as it relates to sex and pornography, drugs, food, and gambling. But does all this focus on “digital wellness” that Apple and other companies are focusing on really fix the problem we’re talking about? Or does it just treat bad habits and laziness as a kind of addiction that needs to be solved by taking away our power to make decisions for ourselves?

I fear it may be the latter. If we are adults, and we know that our (digital) actions are not conducive to making good work and living good lives and cultivating good character, we ought to have the wherewithal — no, the conviction — to put away those childish things and pursue a better, fuller life.

The Pain of Leaving Facebook (And Why I’m Doing It Anyway)

Leaving any social media platform comes with its own set of baggage. As much of an idealist as I am about privacy and relationships and the ability of humans to participate in civil discourse and thoughtful conversation together, I can’t help but feel the pain of fully deleting an account on a platform like Facebook (which I’ll be doing shortly). And Facebook – along with the rest of its smaller counterparts and competition – knows this. My history on the service stretches back to 2007, almost exactly 11 years ago to the day. There are photos there of my last year of high school, all of college, my wedding, the day our two daughters were born, and all the moments in between. There are conversations, moments in time that I thought were valuable to recount, history that I will necessarily lose when I delete my account, no matter how much I try to archive all the content I have housed there.

So why do such a thing? Many reasons come to mind, which I’ll get to shortly. The challenge with taking a step like this, however, runs the risk of my sounding awfully self-righteous, as if I know better than the masses how one ought to manage social relationships and personal memory. So before I embark on giving my reasons, let me say this: this decision is purely about myself. If my reasons for leaving Facebook (and, perhaps, other services that I’m having a slightly more difficult time letting go) sound good to you, great! Consider leaving. If you disagree with me, great! Perhaps the benefits outweigh the negatives for you; I hope it continues to do so. In any case, here are a few reasons I think Facebook is worth leaving:

  1. Our social lives have changed drastically since the introduction of social media, and I don’t think it’s for the better. Isn’t it strange that many of our conversations now start with “Hey, I saw your post on Facebook about your trip [or your new baby, or your new job, etc.]!” Worse yet, I think there are events that we don’t recount with one another because we assume people already know about them because we posted that information on social media. What have we lost here? Discovery, the “natural” flow of conversation when talking to close friends, wondering how people are doing and have a person-to-person interaction. On the other side of this, because we give and get updates about our lives on social media, when we physically interact with a friend or family member, we assume we know their current life-happenings. This stunts social interaction further, preventing depth and intimacy.
  2. I have proven to myself, time and time again, that I lack self-control when I have access to social media. I have a vision in my head of the kind of person that I want to be. A writer, a thinker, a caring, loving father and husband. I want to be a coffee roaster, I want to be an insatiable reader. I want to research deeply, become obsessed with a topic and delve as far into it as is possible. The reality is, I am barely any of those things, if at all. I cannot fully blame this on social media – this is largely a self-discipline issue. Nevertheless, my access to a service like Facebook, with its never-ending feed of things that are going on in my family and friends’ lives, is a black hole for my attention. I may be able to resist it for months at a time by deactivating my account or simply by virtue of losing interest in the service. But at some point, I always, always come back to the service, and slowly lose my ability to focus on that which I find most important. I don’t want to look back on my life in ten, or twenty, or thirty years, and regret that I spent time looking at a screen, hoping to catch glimpses of what others’ lives were like instead of doing my very best to live the life I want to live.
  3. Civil discourse, persuasive debate, and thoughtful dialogue simply cannot happen consistently on Facebook, and yet we continue to try to shoehorn Facebook into a service that provides a space for those things. A lot of people smarter than me have already made this point, many times over. Suffice it to say that I think Facebook and services like it lend themselves to the dehumanization of individuals too easily. We get angry or upset or worked up about something going on in the public sphere, and we write a post about it on Facebook. Soon enough, people are piling on with their own opinions, either in agreement or disagreement, and because Facebook’s algorithms are bent toward outrage, that’s the post everyone sees that day. This may not be so bad if our participation in these conversations were thoughtful and caring. But because of the nature of digital space, we have no social, physical context within which we can make judgments about the intent of dialogue. Further, we too easily write scathing, mean-spirited responses that we would never say in person. Why? Because a picture with a name attached to it does not register socially the same way that a physical human body in front of our eyes does. I believe in civil discourse and the necessity of thoughtful conversation, and in its necessity for the future of our local and global communities; Facebook stands in direct opposition to that ideal.
  4. (This is my nerdy point, so skip it if you want to.) I believe in an open internet, and Facebook and services like it are working directly against such an understanding of the internet. I was introduced to the idea of the “open internet” recently, although I experienced the internet as “open” in my earliest days of internet access. What do I mean when I say “open internet”? I mean I want an internet that isn’t wholly controlled and owned by any single service. I mean I want people to be able to speak from their own “digital turf,” while interacting with other people on theirs. As of right now, everything that I have uploaded to Facebook, including images, text posts, videos, and blog posts (through their “Notes” feature) is owned by Facebook. I have no way of knowing what they’ll do with my information once I delete my profile. What I do know is that there are parts of my life that I think should be mine but that, once the profile is deleted, I will lose access to those things, for good. As of right now, this website (cdbaca.org) won’t do what Facebook did, but I hope that it will continue to grow into a space I find personally meaningful, and I will own and control all of that content on my own. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram function like “walled gardens,” where users’ access is controlled and defined by the service they are using – that’s not the future internet I want to see.

Too often, people leave services like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram out of anger or cynicism or apathy. I don’t want to be that person. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and despite the losses I’ll face when deleting my profile for good, my bigger concern about the continued use of the service is how we can best become good, thoughtful, rational human beings. Facebook may offer a shadow version of those things, but I doubt whether it can ever reach that ideal. I’ll do my best to find it elsewhere.