August 24, 2012

Creepy Technology

The online magazine Slate ran an essay this week that asked the question, "Why Do We Love To Call New Technologies 'Creepy'?" The article was written by Evan Selinger, an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.

My initial reaction to that essay, posted here, was critical, but Selinger suggested in a tweet that I'd missed his point, which he said was "'creepy' discourse + normative analysis."

He's right, I'm sure, that I missed his point – to be honest I don't know what "normative analysis" is. So, with apologies to Selinger, I've reworked the essay to ask, simply, What is it about some technologies that makes us feel creepy?

There's an obvious correlation between creepiness and novelty. It's not unusual to be suspicious of strangers, especially when they have the potential to effect some degree of change in our habitual sense of the world. With technologies as with people, a measure of trust has to evolve.

Selinger's essay mentions that early railroad passengers sometimes developed a variety of symptoms that physicians came to recognize as manifestations of "train sickness." He suggests these maladies were a reaction to the creepiness of unfamiliarity, a form of "mania" that simply disappeared with time. Without going into detail (or normative analysis), it's worth noting that the experience of early train travel was considerably rougher and more dangerous than it would become as technologies of comfort and safety evolved. 

Still, I don't doubt that (to borrow Robert Hughes' phrase) the "shock of the new" had something to do with passengers' uneasiness. As a given technology weaves its way into our lives the creepiness factor usually fades, as does its "specialness" factor. We become acclimated to its presence, and then dependent on it. The miraculous and frightening become routine. I say the creepiness factor "usually" fades because it doesn't always. Plenty of people still find flying on airplanes creepy, for example. I'm one of them. Still, during periods in my life when work required frequent air travel, creepiness faded and acclimation set in.

There are two less obvious issues that help explain the creepiness we often feel in response to technology. One is that we're intuitively aware that, in terms of brute strength, technological power outstrips human power. You don't have to be a religious fundamentalist to see that technology is about achieving a degree of mastery over nature, other human beings, and ultimately death that was once believed to be the exclusive purview of God. But we're also aware that technological power cuts both ways, and thus is not only a source of security, but also fear.

Human vs. Machine (and Machine/Human) in Desk Set
Immediately after reading Selinger's essay I happened to catch on TV a showing of the old Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie, Desk Set. The plot, for those who don't know it, revolves around a group of women who staff the research department of a major television network. Much of their working day is spent answering questions from the public – someone wants to know who had the highest career batting average in the history of baseball, someone else asks for the names of the reindeer in "The Night Before Christmas." The women handle these calls with an impressive combination of dedication, good humor, and smarts. 

The conflict in the picture is supplied by the installation in their department of a new, room-sized computer named EMERAC (a variation of the names of the early computers UNIVAC and ENIAC), which the researchers assume has been brought in to replace them. It turns out (spoiler alert here) that the movie isn't really about the threat of automation – that's just an excuse for a romantic comedy that revolves around Hepburn's researcher falling in love with Tracy's efficiency expert/computer engineer. It's a formula that requires a happy ending, and indeed, in the end we learn that the researchers aren't fired, EMERAC is only there to help them.

That the plot goes in this direction perhaps explains why there's a note in the film's opening credits thanking IBM for its assistance in the production. In any event, by the end, Hepburn's character (who's named, surely not by coincidence, Miss Watson) is cheerfully learning to use the computer and cooing affectionately as it spits out answers to questions. Human and machine learn to live in mutually supportive collaboration; mistrust and fear give way to admiration and gratitude; the researcher accepts the engineer's proposal of marriage.

This seems a bit disingenuous. In truth, there's good reason for the researchers of Desk Set to fear the arrival of EMERAC. Countless workers, from the onset of the Industrial Revolution to today, have been replaced by machines. Technology has the power to make us obsolete, and we know it. That's creepy.

A merger of man and machine goes poorly in David Cronenberg's The Fly

The second fundamental issue that the creepiness question raises is an existential one. It involves the alienation that exists between two separate orders of being: the organic and the mechanical. That's what the uncanny valley is about, I think. We instinctively recognize that a machine is trying to sneak across that boundary, and it puts us on our guard. A similar discomfort may be at the root of the creepiness some people feel about flying: there's just something unnatural about it. 

Desk Set gets lots of mileage out of this tension. The computer and the female technician who's brought in to attend it are both portrayed as cold, relentless intruders into a human community. Stanley Kubrick played brilliantly on that tension, too, defining the character of HAL in 2001 with two radically incongruous features: a heartless, staring eye and a voice that oozed creamy sincerity.

I realize not everyone agrees that a firm line exists between human beings and technology. There's no reason, many believe, we can't share ontological space with one another. Certainly the transhumanist point of view is that nothing could be more natural than humans merging with their machines. “[I]t is our special character, as human beings, to be forever driven to create, co-opt, annex, and exploit nonbiological props and scaffoldings," writes Andy Clark, author of Natural Born Cyborgs. "…Tools-R-Us, and always have been.”

I don't buy it, or, more accurately, I don't buy the implication that such adaptations are necessarily desirable. Human/machine intimacy is as likely to produce mutation as it is enhancement, in my opinion. This is a view that draws me to the work of artists like David Cronenberg and Philip K. Dick and philosophers like Jacques Ellul and Herbert Marcuse.

One of the more eloquent expositions of this perspective came from the theologian Paul Tillich. Like other existentialists, Tillich believed that uneasiness is endemic to the human condition. It's weird being aware that we exist and weird knowing that we're going to die. Our predicament leaves us with persistent feelings of, as Tillich put it, "uncanniness."

We've come up with lots of ways to avoid those feelings, and technology is high on the list. On one level we find technology reassuring because we think we can control it.  Even though we may not understand how it works, we believe it behaves, Tillich says, by rational, logical, "calculable" rules. We can surround ourselves with it, cloak ourselves in it, and feel secure. Tillich cites the home as an example. Its “coziness,” he wrote, holds “the uncanniness of infinite space” at bay. What the house or apartment offers individuals, the city offers humans en mass.

Like so many palliatives, however, technology can turn on us. It may not be as safely in control as we'd hoped. The potential for unease grows as our technologies become more powerful, more complex, and more self-determined. On some level we're aware that the relentless logic they're following is their own. We know they're not truly alive, but they seem to be. We wonder whose agenda is being followed. Creepiness ensues.

"As the technical structures develop an independent existence," Tillich wrote, "a new element of uncanniness emerges in the midst of what is most well known. And this uncanny shadow of technology will grow to the same extent that the whole earth becomes the 'technical city' and the 'technical house.'"

Tillich ends this passage with a pertinent, and creepy, question: "Who can still control it?"

©Doug Hill, 2012

August 16, 2012

Oscar P.

Oscar Pistorius

In case anyone was wondering, the argument here is not that ALL technologies are bad. 

Photo Credit:REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

August 15, 2012

Talking Technology!

Peter Diamandis

The July issue of Wired magazine includes an interview with Peter Diamandis, who can fairly be described as one of the more prominent technological enthusiasts on the planet. Among other things, Diamandis is a co-founder of Singularity University, co-author of Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, the company that recently announced plans to mine precious metals from asteroids in outer space.

The first question Wired asks Diamandis is whether he's always wanted to change the world.

"No," he answers. "My first ambition was to get off the world."

He goes on the explain that he's dreamed since childhood of helping humanity become a "multiplanetary species." We're driven genetically to explore, he explains, but there's more to it than that.

"I believe we have a moral obligation to back up the biosphere, take it off-planet, and give ourselves the safety of ubiquity."

The phrase "the safety of ubiquity" caught my eye. It reminded me of a comment by another of the world's leading technological enthusiasts, Ray Kurzweil. 

Kurzweil is the author of The Singularity is Near, which predicts that by 2045 humans will merge with their machines, creating a new race of immortal super-beings. He's also Peter Diamandis' co-founder at Singularity University. Among the many fantastic predictions Kurzweil makes in his book is this one, on page 29:
The law of accelerating returns will continue until nonbiological intelligence comes close to 'saturating' the matter and energy in our vicinity of the universe with our human-machine intelligence…Ultimately the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.
Set aside for the moment the presumption that we can know the destiny of the universe. The question I would like to ask Kurzweil and Diamandis is whether they've taken a good look lately at conditions here on Planet Earth.

If they have, I would then hope they might be able to tell us how they can possibly look forward with eagerness to the day when human intelligence will "saturate the universe," and on what basis they could describe such a state of affairs as "the safety of ubiquity." 

Photo credit: The Guardian/Andrew Brusso/Corbis
©Doug Hill, 2012

Annals of Childish Behavior™ (continued)

Cat Marnell

In proportion as men can command the immediate and vulgar applause of others, they become indifferent to that which is remote and difficult of attainment.
William Hazlitt (1777-1830)

As noted in my post on blogging yesterday, in theory it's possible to strike a reasonable balance on the web between contributing something worthwhile and naked self promotion. I also noted that in the technological society striking a reasonable balance is not a priority. Case in point: the notoriety of the Internet's latest "It" girl, Cat Marnell.

The second of three articles on Marnell in New York magazine called her "the famously drug-addled beauty editor." She gained a substantial following, we're told, covering cosmetics for the web site, where she wrote as much about her addictions as she did about makeup. Her employers asked her to enter rehab. She did, briefly, got bored, resumed her habits, and left Soon thereafter she landed an agent, a lucrative book deal, and a position as the "narcissism and pills" editor at another web site. Reality television producers are said to be in hot pursuit.

A few quotes convey the range and depth of Marnell's persona:

On the symbiosis between cosmetics and drugs: "I’m bad all of the time, and beauty products are fixing me. Without beauty products, I would have never gotten through my life. I owe everything to them. They’ve afforded me unlimited debauchery." (New York magazine, April 15, 2012)

On leaving “I'm always on drugs. I couldn’t spend another summer meeting deadlines behind a computer at night when I could be on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends and writing a book, which is what I’m doing next.” (New York Post, June 14, 2012)  
On why her blog posts became so popular: "I think what people really want to see right now is someone who’s being honest about being a complete mess. I’m really, deeply unhappy all of the time, but I just work it. But I’m also on speed all the time, like I'm on speed right now, so I never shut up. So like, people get to hear about it and I think they like that. It feels like a running narrative.(New York magazine, June 18, 2012)

On why she was an hour and half late for an interview:I’m using drugs very heavily this week, O.K.? And it’s screwed up my whole body.” (New York Times, August 8, 2012)

Marnell demonstrates the maxim that nothing succeeds like excess, the coarser the better. It's a formula that's become infinitely more relevant in an age of information overload. On the web, only the loud survive. As mentioned above, Marnell left, but a quick look at the site reveals that she's far from the only writer there who's learned that Outrageous = Attention = Success. A deputy editor named Mandy, for example, offers a piece headlined, "I Can't Stop Hate-Masturbating to Paul Ryan." Here's an excerpt:

I mean maybe the porn-loop in my brain goes like: "Hey Paul Ryan, my name is Mandy Stadtmiller, and I'm going to change you. You are no longer going to be a hate-swilling, personhood-advocating, steal-from-the-poor-give-to-the-rich-propagating, right-wing, complete and total messenger of Satan dickhead lying evil Republican asshole because we are about to have the most penultimate fuckfest in the history of fuckfests."

And maybe he's like, "------."

Because he doesn't say anything at all. Because THAT'S WHEN HE JUST FULL ON FUCKS ME. He lifts my skirt up, moves my panties aside, zips down his trou and fully just goes for it while we're on top of the Lincoln monument and stuff.

In the "news you can use" category there's a column headlined, "Every Month Is Anal Sex Month With These Simple Tips." Its author, Emily, is's managing editor. She's also an anal sex enthusiast. "I love everything about butt sex," she gushes. "I love having it, talking about it, fantasizing about it."

I offer these examples not because I find them shocking but because I find them stupid. Apparently they're intended to convey an attitude of freedom and empowerment. The profile for's namesake, celebrity editor Jane Pratt, says that her motto is "Live and let live." Her "Anti-motto" is "Judge." Her site's mission statement reads as follows: is where women go when they are being selfish, and where their selfishness is applauded.

Now that's a formula for success.

Is modern culture being overwhelmed by an epidemic of childishness? José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1930, thought so. Annals of Childish Behavior™ chronicles contemporary examples of that epidemic. The childish citizen, Ortega said, puts "no limit on caprice" and behaves as if "everything is permitted to him and that he has no obligations."

Photo Credit: New York magazine/Mint&Serf at the Broadway Chapter/Courtesy of Cat Marnell

©Doug Hill, 2012

August 14, 2012

A Blog Post on Blogging

A note to my readers: I posted a version of this essay about a month ago and subsequently took it down. I worried that some of the personal struggles it discusses might serve to undermine the primary purpose of my blog, which is to attract potential publishers to my book. Given the subject matter the essay addresses, my reservations in that regard were both ironic and precisely to the point. I also found that withdrawing the piece seemed to have a chilling effect on my willingness to "put myself out there" in general. For those reasons I decided to put the essay back up, with some additional thoughts in the two concluding paragraphs.

I'm breaking a blogging silence of more than a month today to post something that for me is unusually personal: Some reflections on the practice of blogging. 

I started this blog for a very specific reason. I needed to build a "platform" that would help convince book publishers and agents that the book I've recently completed on the history and philosophy of technology is worth investing in.

As everyone knows, we live in an age of information overload, and any author in search of a publisher will find that there's no shortage of available advice on how best to go about succeeding in that environment. Virtually all of this advice focuses not on the book itself but on the promotion of the book. To have any hope of gaining an audience today an aspiring author must find some way to raise himself above the crowd of other aspiring authors, all of whom, like him, have unprecedented avenues of online access to the overloaded attentions of the public. Hence the necessary construction of a platform.

A platform is advertising, pure and simple. You stand on your platform and wave, frantically, thereby turning yourself into a "brand." Many of those who offer advice on how to get published literally use that term. Again, the quality of the book isn't the issue. It's the recognizability of the author. Granted, it's possible to become recognized for the quality of your ideas, but anyone who believes that there's a correlation between recognizability and quality hasn't noticed who's on the covers of supermarket tabloids lately. Impact – sensation – is what matters, and in an age of information overload your best chance of creating impact is to pummel easily digestible ideas into the collective consciousness with machine-like regularity.

The pressures of platform building take on an air of absurdity when your subject is the question concerning technology. One of the things that's kept me from blogging recently has been the completion of an article on Jacques Ellul for the "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe. In that article I mentioned Ellul's belief that human beings are increasingly struggling with the necessity of accommodating themselves to the inhuman demands of technique. "Never before," Ellul wrote,

has the human race as a whole had to exert such efforts in its daily labors as it does today a result of its absorption into the monstrous technical mechanism. The tempo of man's work is not the traditional, ancestral tempo; nor is its aim the handiwork which man produced with pride, the handiwork in which he contemplated and recognized himself….What was once the abnormal has become the usual, standard condition of things.

I realize that my complaints about this will likely come off as useless whining, a self-serving reluctance to face up to the conditions of the modern world as it is. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, etcetera. I find chilling the eagerness with which so many today are willing to adapt themselves and others to technical demands, striving as they do to turn necessity into a virtue.

It's true that some people feel perfectly at home in the rapid-fire world of the daily blog and do genuinely valuable work there. More power to them. It's true as well that amidst all the superficial tripe, technology does offer us incredibly convenient opportunities to engage with an infinite variety of important, incisive information. As many have noted before me, though, it's the overwhelming volume of the flow that's the problem.

It's often said that in order to keep from drowning in information we must learn to filter out what we don't need. Easier said than done. Filtering is a labor-intensive, consciousness-absorbing activity. It goes back to what Huxley said about the doors of perception, and to what the philosopher Don Ihde has said about the inevitable trade-off we make when we use technologies of amplification: In the process of focusing we narrow. Looking through a microscope allows us to see micro-organisms, but while looking at them we can no longer see the table we’re sitting at, or the room we’re sitting in, or the stars.

Ellul often repeated the maxim that at some point a change in quantity becomes a change in quality. The Internet carried us past that point long ago.

Sages regularly insist that it is through contemplation that one gains insight into the true nature of things. Plotinus said in the third century that the discernment of spiritual truth requires one to "watch in quiet till it suddenly shines upon us; preparing ourselves for the blessed spectacle as the eye waits patiently for the setting sun." It seems evident that a culture that celebrates sounding off at every opportunity drives itself in precisely the opposite direction.

Another reason I haven't been posting blog entries recently is that I've been depressed about the lack of response my book has received from the agents I've approached. Depression, of course, is one of those human inconstancies that interfere with the flow of production, and for which technique has accordingly supplied numerous technical (pharmaceutical) remedies. My reluctance to employ these remedies has led to delays in the construction of my platform, for which I have no one but myself to blame.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The latest agent to reject my book said that in his opinion it's better suited for the "academic or professional market" than for general-interest readers. It could be that he hoped to deliver the bad news with as few words and as little insult as possible. He may have hated what I'd written for any number of reasons and been too polite to say so. Nonetheless there was an implication in what he did say that my book would require more heavy lifting intellectually than the average consumer today will tolerate. Perhaps that's an accurate assessment. Even if it is, though, it's a sad surrender to the vicissitudes of technique.

It just so happened that on the day I received that last rejection I was absorbed in Richard Holmes' magnificent two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although I don't begin to compare my own talents to Coleridge's, I noted with particular interest the following passage, in which Coleridge responded to criticisms that his essays were too obscure for general readers:

I must of necessity require the attention of my Reader to become my fellow-labourer…to retire into themselves and make their own minds the objects of their steadfast attention…No real information can be conveyed, no important errors rectified, no widely injurious prejudices rooted up, without requiring some effort of thought on the part of the Reader. But the obstinate (and towards a contemporary Writer, the contemptuous) aversion to all intellectual effort is the mother evil of which I had proposed to war against, the Queen Bee in the Hive of our errors and misfortunes, both private and national.

I'm a reporter by nature as well as experience. That means that I'm a reactor more than an initiator. I enjoy collecting and synthesizing ideas from disparate sources. In the process of doing so I hope to make an original contribution. I'm also a reflector, meaning one who reflects. It's not in my nature to churn stuff out. Building a platform doesn't always lend itself to those pursuits.

A recent essay in the Guardian newspaper questioned whether using social media to build an audience for books is as effective as it's supposed to be. Its author, Ewan Morrison, noted the advice of social media gurus that authors should spend 20 per cent of their time writing and 80 per cent of their time building a platform. Its seems obvious that this "20/80 rule" is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. Put another way, it demonstrates the accuracy of a phenomenon frequently noted by Jacques Ellul: that the technological society constantly demands that we focus our attention on means rather than ends.

There's a reasonable balance to be struck, I hope, between naked self promotion and making a thoughtful contribution to the discussion. The 20/80 rule isn't it. As Ellul also frequently noted, reasonable balance isn't a quality the technological society takes very seriously.

©Doug Hill, 2012