Looking Past the Tools

Friday, October 21, 2005


Sunset over the Negev Desert near Mizpe Ramon, Israel.

I want to take a moment to think about digital art and digital media and what directions these quickly-evolving fields may be moving in. I’ve been overwhelmed with getting acclimated to the city and the program and the people and I don’t feel like I’ve been stepping back away from everything often enough to objectively process it all. Or something smart-sounding like that. So now’s the time.

We live in a time of information automation. That’s what will define the second half of the 20th century and the beginning part of the 21st in high school history textbooks in the year 2700 (or WWII-WWIII-Interwar Period history class infopill that kids of that time will take). And the people who will fit in the best will be those who are the most capable at either designing or using the tools of information. Obviously. Make the hammer or use the hammer — those are the two roles. If you don’t understand hammers, you’re not going to help build the next WTC.

And the whole digital-info-tech-net thing that’s happening is essentially about the tools. It doesn’t seem to be about philosophy or lifestyle except as those things are impacted by the tools. (“Oh, I can watch my new episode of Lost on the subway!”) The philosophies, I’ll venture, are still modeled more-or-less on the progressive philosophies of the 60s (or, at least, the ones that have been stereotypically attached to that decade): openness to diversity, technological rationalist utopianism (ie, all of our problems are solvable if we just think about them long enough), and aestheticism ranging from the epicurean to the hedonistic. Maybe I don’t go back far enough when I say that I feel these basic tenets haven’t changed much since the 60s. Maybe they were laid down as far back as Oscar Wilde or Nietzsche — or even the ancient Greeks and Epicurus himself. (Which would either be disappointing or reassuring, depending on your perspective.)

But the tools have evolved radically. Especially in the period between the 1960s and 2005. I don’t need to get into the PC revolution and the internet and mobile tech — this point isn’t controversial.

What to make of it? Is the goal of a hypothetical leading-edge thinker (ie, not me), then, to brainstorm ways to build upon these same base philosophies and to do away with old barriers using this brand-new tech? I can connect to my friends all over the world instantaneously with cell phone calls, e-mail, and instant messages. I can do things like automate publishing and advertising systems to make money as an information provide while hardly ever actually doing anything beyond making sure the webserver’s still alive. Some cars page emergency rescue when the airbags deploy. Soon my refrigerator will reorder milk for me and my sofa will tell me to get off my ass and go to class/work. Etc. Again, we all should be very aware of the trends I’m talking about.

There’s plenty of room left in this tool-development area for thought and progress, though I sometimes wonder about the ultimate utility of some of the newer, more progressive tech. Let’s talk about getting TV shows on your iPod. Is even a really good TV show something that is so good that being able to access it anywhere is useful? Everything bad is good for you, except when we’re so distracted by how much better our bad things have been getting that we don’t pay attention to making the good things better. For example, getting poor kids hooked up to the internet might be a step in the wrong direction. It’s like showing a kid how to use a hammer when, maybe, a more efficient way to help him or her rise above their station would be to sit down one-on-one and teach them some basic math concepts or read through a mind-expanding, inspiring book. Just giving technology to people may not be the best way to help them out — especially something as utterly distracting as the internet and the world-wide web (I know from experience — it can be a huge time-waster). Informational tools are only as good as the information they contain, and I wonder what books could be purchased for the price of a $1,000 computer to help out disadvantaged people (for example). I’m digressing. I’m not trying to rant about how books are so much better than the web. It’s not necessarily true, for starters. The web is very powerful. I’m talking about what the powerful web actually communicates.

Maybe what I’m getting to is that all of this progress seems not to be altering what we do as much as how we’re doing it. I’m not sure I’m thinking any better about the world as a result of my predilection for computers and tech toys. I’m only a month into my studies at ITP, but I’m worried that I’m getting too far into learning how tools work and I’m feeling like I’m setting off on a cross-country drive by just picking the roads that look the most interesting at the moment without any overall map as a guide. I trust Red Burns and I trust my professors (and classmates), or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate in this program, so maybe this is just a personal issue — that I need to make sure to pull my own head up and away from learning how to do the cool new thing with Processing or Quartz Composer or Max/MSP or my little blinking LED projects or whatever and think about how this will fit into and evolve the goals of the philosophies mentioned above. These philosophies (eclecticism, utopianism, aestheticism) are so broad; there’s plenty of room for exploration.

I worry that the sheer power of the technology and the fact that we’re growing towards some sort of a peak point of human diversity (where we simply can’t get more culturally, racially, and sexually more mixed-together) will pervert these good philosophies. That diversity will become fetishization, utopianism will become aggressive capitalism (aka opportunism), and aestheticism will become mindless consumerism. Again, I doubt I need to argue to anyone reading this that American culture, at least, is diving deep into these waters (cf. Paris Hilton, The Anna Nicole Smith Show). And the technological developments of the past century (and beyond) — mass communications, mass production — have enabled this change. (I’m not America-bashing, here, and I am definitely not trying to allude to some fictional state-of-nature purity or anything — I’m quite happy to live at the time in which I’m living. Americans in general have relatively easy access to the things they need to enjoy a good life, some exceptions notwithstanding.)

The point, though, is that this seems like the starting point for rethinking — or refining — some of these tenets which I think most people in ITP and most people I associate with regularly would agree with. (To repeat: eclecticism, utopianism, and aestheticism.) It’s hard not to agree with these ideas. But learning from our technological successes how they can run amok may be useful to really thinking about how we should change the way we think about ourselves, the world, and our goals in the future. Maybe this is a bit bigger than developing the refrigerator that automatically orders milk or the next cool interactive piece of museum art. Not that those aren’t both totally valid and interesting in a more limited scale…

I don’t know anything. I’m just throwing ideas out…

I’m definitely not dissing anyone who chooses to concentrate on designing cool gadgets or communications art. That’s probably what I’ll be doing with my life, as well.

Hey guy...

Posted Sat, October 22, 2005, 4:37pm EST by Claudia

Any thoughts on The World is Flat in relation to your comments?


Posted Mon, October 24, 2005, 9:57am EST by Lee

You are describing a common reaction to rapid advances in technology. Faced with rapid technological advances, many folks have the feeling of being all dressed up with no place to go. Or, or having 5,000 channels and nothing to watch. I think this accounts in large part for the growing fascination people have with religion and spiritualism. They feel there must be something beyond the tube. Unfortuneately, this yearning often takes counter productive form, from Luddites burning factories during the Industrial Revolution, to people today refusing to believe in some of the obvious truths of science, such as evolution (and more unfortunately, refusing to allow anyone else to believe these truths). It is the role of wise people to find the path between technology for technology's sake, and the complete rejection of technology.

Give the money to the libraries

Posted Sun, October 30, 2005, 3:56am EST by Dan

... that's what my first programming professor said when I asked him about how best to use technology in lower education.

I'd like to think we're ready, as a society, to start rethinking our power structures. Big Media shouldn't be big much longer if you believe what you read on the blogs. I feel like there is a cultural gap between those who mainly turn to the TV for their entertainment and those who primarily use the Internet.

I'm not sure how everything will play out ultimately, but I know the technologies that interest me most are the ones with the potential to replace traditional power structures.