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The rapid march of technological progress is masking the general lack of human progress, at least as people in Western nations have understood that phrase since the late 18th century and experienced it for much of the 19th and 20th.

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Another aphorism about youth and technology: If you truly believe all information is at your fingertips, you are less likely to really dig for it–or learn how to dig for it.

Technological innovation leads to greater efficiency: a simple maxim that seems to carry the force of law. But you don’t have to scratch deep to find other effects of innovation.

Hoping to stave off riots, Pennsylvania officials separated the red and white wines.

You can read books to discern those effects, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch or David Noble’s Forces of Production.

No time to read? Stroll into a Pennsylvania supermarket and gawk at a wine kiosk (left), a frightening cross between a vending machine, an ATM and a prison, brought to us by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Anyone care to argue that this technology is the most efficient way to sell wine? The machine obviously serves other purposes, mostly having to do with control–and they haven’ t even been very good at that.

In this case, technology’s other purposes are obvious. Other cases are less obvious, which allows me to circle back to highways, my original inspiration for blogging this year. Highways are synonymous with freedom. But why?

 

Here is yet another curious fact about A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, the book he published in 1920 to recount his experiences motoring across country in search of new highway routes. He rarely seems to encounter a horse and buggy (or a train, but we’ll leave that for another post).

This is curious because, supposedly, horses were the main method of transportation before the internal combustion engine came along. And Westgard was traveling mostly on existing trails, so somebody–or  some horse–must have been using them.

Buggies disappeared by the 1920s. Fringe stayed with us for another half-century.

When Westgard does finally encounter a horse, the poor animal is, of course, on death’s door. Westgard et al are winding their way up and through the Cascades in Washington state when they come upon this tableau:

an old man who was endeavoring to coax an emaciated old horse to exert another ounce of effort in attempting to drag a dilapidated buggy up the trail. The bony structure of the horse was so evident under its gray and mangy skin that he appeared more like a skeleton of a horse than one of flesh and blood.

Lest you wonder about what the horse was pulling, Westgard goes on:

The buggy was held together with generous applications and sundry bandages of baling wire. All in all, the whole outfit–man, horse and buggy–was about as nearly played out as any outfit I had ever seen in all my travels.

The man was apparently hoping to strike it rich in Canada (in case you thought he was hunting for cheaper prescription drugs). But instead, he served as a visible sign marking the end of the road for one technology and the birth of another.

Fittingly, the chapter ends not on a lament for the passing of the horse-and-buggy crowd, but on Westgard’s description of how the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was eventually paved.

 

 

Note the absence of operating instructions.

Today’s college students are tech-savvy, sure. But here is how I would boil down my experience of digital natives trying to navigate the Internet:

People may grow up in a forest, but that doesn’t mean they know how to climb trees.

It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

A long absence — i had to let the election and the last month of campaigning speak for itself. A nice rationalization, eh?

At any rate, I was recently at a panel looking back at the Web component of the 2008 election. Much of the discussion centered on how Obama could transition his use of Youtube, social networking, etc, from campaigning to governing. Hey look! It’s a presidential radio address on Youtube! [media swoons, populace  yawns]

It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly what I think about this, but here it goes. I think the transition from campaigning to governing, whatever form it takes, will be a big disappointment. Leave aside the difference between a focus on one goal, the election, and the more diffuse tasks facing a government, and chew on these:

First off, the people pushing for more electronic government rely too heavily on technology as a force for change. Culture always has and always will play a bigger role, and it is much harder to identify cultural forces than it is to hold up the latest shiny gadget. I’m not sure the culture of governing is apt to change just because of online videos and twitter. Never underestimate the power of bureaucratic inertia. If and when bureaucrats do change, it won’t be in any way that we can easily identify.

And it might not be for the better. One participant on my panel claimed the full potential of the Internet would have the same effect on government as the discovery that the world was round. Sounds nice, but I should have pointed this out then (what can I say, I’m a slow thinker): what mattered wasn’t the roundness of the world but Galileo’s discovery that it revolved around the sun, pushing the earth and its inhabitants out of the center of the universe. The internet seems to put us right back in that un-humbling spot.

Let’s say a bunch of people Twitter angrily about a long line at the DMV. What’s the state supposed to do? Rush over untrained workers from some other office to handle the crush? Or make a case for higher taxes so that the DMV can be fully staffed or stay open for more hours? You decide.

Second, Obama adapted Web tools to fuel an insurgent campaign against an institution, the Democratic Party, that had already anointed Hillary Clinton. It’s unclear how you adapt those tools to running an institution, whether party or government. Unless you are prepared to radically change the institution.

Third, too often  the assumption behind publishing reams of gov’t information online and fostering discussion seems to be that people will arrive at a rational consensus on where the country should go. For example, I saw a comment here asking how people can use a bunch of congressional info for the public good. When you come across a definition of the public good that every voting American can agree on — and a set of policies designed to get there — get back to me. If I’m still alive, I’ll gladly entertain debate on the use of this particular info.

Fourth, the debate simply overlooks how much our forebears were able to do without the Internet. Adopt the reforms of the New Deal and the Progressive Era? Populate a continent and build the world’s largest economy? It should be obvious, but no one appears to appreciate it. Technology alone does not guarantee sweeping political change. It could even hinder it.

Electronic mediums seem to inflame differences rather than bridge them. It’s why testy email exchanges degenerate so quickly. They take away as much of our common humanity (our physical presence being a big part of it) as they let us share.

To continue the Google is making us stupid thread (see below)…perhaps the Internet is doing to information what the assembly line did to cars and toys and air conditioners and televisions. It made them into endlessly proliferating commodities outsourced to the lowest bidder. Writers who want to make more than a pittance will have to unionize, become celebrities or rebrand their output as a luxury product worth a steep premium.

So I was thinking more about this Google makes us stupid article, and I realized the author was too quick to blame technology for shortening attention spans. What if the main culprit was the relentless push for higher productivity?

Interestingly enough, the author (Nicholas Carr) mentions Frederick Taylor, who used a stop-watch to boost productivity among factory workers starting in the early 20th century. And he goes on to talk about how productivity is now more easily measured among “knowledge workers” (you can see the impact in attempts to measure journalistic output and “rightsize” newsrooms) But I don’t think Carr went far enough in analyzing economic forces. He was content to look mostly at the tools.

You could blame the assembly line for killing craftsmanship and ramping up productivity, just as you can blame the hammer for making us weaker — our ancestors drove nails with their teeth. But people had to invent the assembly line and convince and/or force other people to use it, regardless of its long-term impact on their lives. The same could be said about the Internet.