Sunday, March 9, 2014

Talking tech talk

Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and want nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it doesn't get what it wants.

But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign human institutions like art, the economy, and law to reinforce the perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in your conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to reinforce your faith.

One of the books I'm currently reading is You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. Lanier is sharply critical of current trends in thinking about computers and information. Because he's an innovator in virtual reality, it's hard to dismiss him as a Luddite crank. Oh, I'm sure some do, but on the web you'll also find people insisting that Obama was born in Kenya to Elijah Muhammed and Chairman Mao. While I'm still in early chapters he seems to be making the point that you can do wonderful things on a computer, and also do wonderful things offf of it, but in each case you as a person have to make the choice to do it. While a lot of techno-libertarianism seems to amount to a hope that machines will make better choices for us than we make for ourselves.

Someone I've been reading about recently is Donald Deskey, an industrial designer from Minnesota. Industrial design is an interesting topic in that it shares some concerns with art, but takes place outside of the art world and is presented to people who may not consciously be looking for an aesthetic. And Deskey, along with other designers like Paul Frankl, Raymond Loewy, and Norman Bel Geddes, helped to make things look the way they did through much of the 20th century. Exammples of his work can be seen here and here, and yes that second page include the "target" box for Tide detergent. He and the others created the environments you remember from old movies and TV shows, and maybe your childhood as well.

Now we're not necessarily talking about deep thinkers here. Deskey, Loewy et al essentially took a look at what the Bauhaus was doing and stripped the Marxism from it so that golf cart riding executives would pony up for it. But it's a humanistic kind of aesthetic all the same. They were invested in the idea of the future as something that ordinary people would live in. We should expect no less now.


susan said...

Although I haven't read Jaron Lanier's book I have read some interviews and articles and think he makes some very valid points. He reminds me of the books we read some years ago by Neil Postman (speaking of another who was described as a Luddite crank) - Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly - arguing that technology is never neutral. He also stated that science and technology are both our friends and our enemies; what technical innovation introduces as 'voluntary and optional' soon become 'compulsory and obligatory', ie, cars and traffic rules.

What's happening with extraordinary speed these days is that our culture is being radically altered without the benefit of any guiding values or precepts about what is best for people and the greater community. Instead, what we see is frenzied competition between tech giants whose only aim is to make the most money from entertaining us more completely.

His greatest worry was that we'd soon reach a point (and considering he died before the internet became totally ubiquitous) when every aspect of our culture ultimately bows to technology and it becomes the central, defining idol of the way our minds work.

The fact that more than ten years after Neil Postman's death Lanier, one of the great tech innovators, is very concerned about the 'open culture' having become orthodoxy is very telling. That our society has become hollowed out is a worry. What we don't need is a situation where the ideology is more important than people. Let's hope we haven't gone that far yet.

Thanks too for the story and links about Donald Deskey. I didn't know about him previously (nor the Tide box), but I see what you mean about he and his compatriots designing products for ordinary people. The pictures were very cool.

Ben said...

Neil Postman is someone who I've read about/heard about but haven't directly experienced his work. He sounds very perceptive, so I'm interested in remedying that.

Technology isn't evil in itself, but it's not neutral. Nor is it necessarily friendly to the great mass of people who embrace it. It serves those who pay for it. Naturally, those tend to be the same people who can afford to pay for everything else too. This is why there is and should be anxiety over jobs disappearing.

Passivity is another problem in a technologically advanced society. The digital realm can feel like a very active activity when it often isn't. After a certain point there's little difference between web surfing and channel surfing. So yeah, that's among our problems.

Glad you liked the pictures. I got interested in Deskey and a few others because I got curious about what industrial design could teach other arts. There is something there, in terms of unity of affact and purpose.