Picture me in the office alone last night when I wrote this. It was thoroughly November. The post-sunset blue light peering in through the windows at me, layered up and ready to walk our and up the street, weary in that end-of-the-year way and grateful in the same, raw enough to send the words that follow. They are neither clever nor righteous. You have been warned ;)
What is the price of progress? It’s easy to imagine a future and what wonders it will offer — what new magic it will provide; what improvements it will make upon today; why it’s a worthy thing to wait for, to work for, perhaps even to suffer for. But what is its true cost? Is there any way to quantify it — really — when there is often so much unknown between now and then that all we can really know is that it will cost us something and probably more than we can imagine? And furthermore, who pays?
Recently, William Gibson, one of my favorite nowists, said…
“If I could have any information from our future, I would want to know not what they’re doing but what they think about us. Because what we think about Victorians is nothing like what the Victorians thought about themselves. It would be a nightmare for them. Everything they thought they were, we think is a joke. And everything that we think was cool about them, they weren’t even aware of. I’m sure that the future will view us in exactly that way.”
…and I thought to myself, we never really get to the future. Not The Future with a capital “F.” Gibson says, “the future will view us in exactly that way,” which is to say, the future is not us. No matter how much it is a future of our own making. It’s a game we get to make up, but never play.
We think we’re cleaning things up, but the future will say that we just buried it. We think we have outgrown oil because we drive electric cars, but the future will say we gutted the earth and burned coal. We think we’re being good to the forests by staring at screens rather than wasting paper, but the future will talk about our plastic, not our pulp. We think we’re inventors, but the future will call us consumers. We think our disruptions bring greater Democracy to the market, but the future will say we were the greatest oligarchy the world has ever seen. We think we love animals but the future will say we made them suffer while they waited to be eaten. We think we love each other but the future will say that we are racist, sexist, and classist. We think we can produce our way out of starvation, poverty and disease, but the future will say we had more than enough and were just too selfish to share it.
All of this assuming, of course, that there is a future radically different from our present. Things could get worse, after all, and then the future might long for us. But more likely, they’ll resent us for paving the way to their misery. Either way, we don’t look great.
It’s a strange thing to consider the vast chasm of reality between the marketing of our future and the operations of our present. Virtually every consumer technology is marketed on the basis of efficiency, convenience, simplicity, and most importantly, invisibility. Most of them are simply a plastic terminal to “The Cloud,” which is probably the best standalone 21st century reality chasm image you could ask for. A cloud is vapor. The Cloud is a server cluster. One is lighter than air, the other is heavier than a Walmart. One gives to the earth, the other takes from it. But gosh, doesn’t it sound just lovely that all of our selfies are up there, floating somewhere?
It occurs to me that technological progress relies more and more upon a sort of hyper-local NIMBYism. You know NIMBY. Yes, our town must have nuclear energy, but good heavens, keep the plant as close to the next town over as possible. Not in my back yard, thank you. We still have plenty of that. But we also have this NIMBYism that’s local just to me. Where I can scorn the launch of yet another unnecessary and excessive startup, but wait in an all-day line for a new iPhone to replace the one I bought last year. Or where I can resent jobs going “offshore” but promote my local business using sophisticated link-building campaigns that shelter me from ever meeting the Indonesians being paid pennies to leave my URL in blog comments. Where a book is celebrated as the efficiency gain of print-on-demand, but the “distributed copyediting service” remains in the blind spot. It’s too easy to take and give no thought to who gave.
I’m staring now at a photo I took a few months ago. While on vacation, I was walking along the shore in the evening, just as the sun was dipping low on the horizon and gilding the sea with its gold. How beautiful it was. And yet, taking it in with my body — with all my senses — was not enough. It never is, is it? Without thinking, I reached for my phone and captured what I saw. A cyborg’s reflex. A privilege. And as the very device I had just used to capture the beauty of the ocean was made by people who will never see such a thing for themselves, a profanity. How can we not conclude that? And how can we not stuff that truth into the deep, dark closet of our mind as an act of self-preservation? We’re human beings, not monsters. Aren’t we?
How do we be humans? How do we balance our drive to explore and create — those things which are embedded in our very nature — with our responsibility as moral beings to one another? How do we acknowledge, on the one hand, that creativity often relies upon risk-taking in order for its fullest potential to be realized, and, on the other, that creativity can also veer unchecked into purposeless production, excess, and destruction? Our burden is to remain ever conscious of our role in creation and be willing to question every step forward, isn’t it? Even at the expense of our freedom to make, so that our want does not become wanton. And it is a burden. It’s work to maintain this balance. Without it, you have Roman decadence and you have moral panics. You have Google glass in the shower and you have Christopher-Nolan-doesn’t-do-email. And in the middle, maybe you have weird mashups of forward and back. Retro. Steampunk. Amish using cellphones. The fashionable luddism of Will Bailey of Facebook Paper fame. Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!!! All of these, of course, are the signs of a search for balance waged without slowing down.
No one knows exactly what the future costs. But there are people now, paying the true price for the present, who could probably give us a good estimate. Would we give up the freedom to wade in the ocean, or the freedom to gaze up at a mountain? Do we believe so much in the value of cheap, pocketable computers that we would we be willing to pay the price of living in a factory with nothing but monotonous, dehumanizing toil to look forward to? I sincerely doubt it. Where is The Jungle for 2014?
And yes, writing this — on this shiny machine, using this publishing software in the cloud, with this free time and cognitive surplus I have, and the entire context in which it exists — shows that the critique is easy. The
solution sacrifice is hard.
All of that and I didn’t even mention Echo. You’ve already seen the commercial, I take it. There’s plenty to critique there: Who makes ads like these? Who thinks they’re the right message? I mean, besides white guys in their forties? But that’s a critique of the ad — one that should be had, absolutely — not of the product. The ad is evidence that Amazon has no taste — as are several of Amazon’s products — but I’m not sure I could say the same thing of this product. At least not yet. In theory, it could be ok. It certainly would be strange to use Siri (or be at all enthusiastic about voice interfaces) and other connected products like Sonos or Nest and dis Echo. Echo, after all, is just the combination of all of them. I have Sonos at home. If I could say, “Sonos, play Empyrean Isles” and then Sonos played Empyrean Isles, I would think that is pretty darn cool. I have Nest at home. If I could say, “Nest, turn up the heat to sixty-four degrees” and Nest turned up the heat to 64°, I would think that is pretty darn cool. One of the hallmarks of 20th century futurism was the omnipresent conversational computer. And one (just one) of the mistakes of the 21st century pitch for its precursor is in not selling it right. Don’t sell it as yet another techno-thing that the guy who forces everyone to look at him through Google Glass forces on his family. A brilliant Echo ad would have waited until halfway through to even show the thing. It would have showed Mom talking with an invisible voice, nbd, Star Trek style. It would have sold a future, not a sexist present. And it certainly would avoid any indication that the Echo is more than just a talking speaker, that it’s an always-on intercom that takes what you say — whether directly to it or not — back to the Borgazon for BIG DATAing.
Heavy Rotation: This week, it’s been all about Sinead O’Connor for me. Maybe that’s because I’ve been thinking about my stepfather, who bravely just started a new job at a startup where he is certainly one of the oldest employees (and undoubtedly one of the smartest) and who introduced her to our house back in ’87 or so when her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, came out. Or maybe it was Sarah Larson’s piece on her in the NY’er that I read week. I don’t know. But, what Larson wrote is spot on: “In her songs, all of her impulses—ferocious honesty, political engagement, introspection, boldness, love, protectiveness—become art.” No matter what form her music has taken — and it’s taken many, some better than others — I’ve connected to it because of who she is and how that absolutely, ferociously radiates outward. The Lion and the Cobra will always be my favorite (its first single, Troy, especially), and her follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, is great. But good lord, out of nowhere she released How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? in 2012 and, based upon how many times I’ve listened to it start-to-finish, I might rank it right up there with her first. It’s unexpected and gorgeous and edgy and funny. As for her latest, I’m not sure yet what to say about it. But I’m inclined to agree with Greg at Sound Opinions, who said that the second half of the record was way better than the first. For the better half, see: Take Me to Church. She sings this refrain: “Take me to church. I’ve done so many bad things it hurts. Take me to church. But not the ones that hurt ’cause that ain’t the truth.” How can you not be alive right now and be like, trust.
Recent Tabs: Global capitalism, wherein cows are the money. And here comes some scary privacy stuff: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party.” Captured by your TV! You are not entitled to be horrified by this, though, according to the new director of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters. Because he says that privacy has never been “an absolute right.” O rly. On that note, would you let any corporation put a homing device on you? Well, as it turns out, you already have. That should do it for this week’s dose of technodystopia. On a slightly more cheerful note, Paul Ford once again shows us how to talk about computers without sounding like you’re talking about computers. And on an absolutely more cheerful note, this is probably the best argument for doing yoga that I have ever seen.