Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tools, Gadgets, and the Hive

I have worked with kindergarteners all the way up to Yup'ik elders in Bush Alaska and I have always stood by one central principal in my work: It is not technology that defines us as a culture, but how we use it. The voices of students in their multimedia projects is music to my ears. The author of the story created in videos, musical scores, images, and blogs on the internet should be the focus, not the tool or medium they choose to create in.

“Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier observes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

This is the takeaway I got from You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. Ironically, I am writing a blog about the print media I just finished reading. In effect, you are now selecting my regurgitation out of a brilliant technologist/anthropologist's thoughts rather than reading, hearing and analyzing his thoughts on your own. I will not attempt to summarize or review Lanier's works here, only point out some of the most intriguing points I found interesting, insightful, or disagreeable. 

The philosophic (if accidental) guidance technology offers to modern societies, indeed humanity as a whole, is astounding. I wrote recently about consumerism after reading Want Not (J. Miles) and fear the culture of waste may be our collective undoing. Technology streamlines processes, cheapens labor, and generally improves the well-being of the employing organization. The waste produced is an acceptable byproduct. Who decides on these levels? Who created these parameters? The answer is "we" did. "We" do this in every relationship whether human-human, human-God, human-nature, or human-technology. The problem is that politics, religion, environmentalism, and the ubiquity of technology infrastructures can lead to licentiousness and ineptitude. Lanier asks the question, "How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?" After thoughtful consideration, compare this idea to the file system of modern computers. The file, the idea, was a concept adopted out of necessity to ship product quickly and build applications efficiently. The world without files now is simply unfathomable. So too is a world without religious strife and political polarity. The danger is in the belief that files are fact... or that there will always be war and human suffering, as gravity is simply part of science, a fact. Oversimplified? yes. important? most certainly.

"The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in several trucks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree-and that the chunks had versions and need to be matched to compatible applications" Lanier goes on to say, "what files mean to the future of human expression? This is a harder question to answer than the question "How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?" At least you can compare English speakers to the Chinese speakers, but files are universal. The idea of the file has become so big that we are unable to conceive of a frame off to fit around it in order to assess it empirically." (Lanier)

Files being locked into the philosophy, the foundation, the genetic code, of all computers to some is not something to take lightly. Who chose to make this decision and how we, the consumer, choose to accept these choices is not just a question for the 'techies' out there, it's a question that may concern the future of humanity. The future of the internet is quite possibly to become a single "file" of human accomplishments, culture, ideas, knowledge, and understanding. This terrifies me because group-think or crowd-sourcing inevitably leads to negative outcomes.

You may disagree with me at this point and yes I may be traumatized by the Borg, Terminators, and War Games as a youth, but the truth is this: Many believe that computers of the future will be so fast and so complete in their aggregation of humanity that they will make better decisions than any single human. Decisions are not so easy to make though. Algorithms cannot guide humanity. The agreement of the majority cannot be right all of the time. This is the foundation of Judeo-Christianity, in fact; Humankind is inherently cruel and sinful. The idea that a computer (programmed by humans and bereft of central truths) could be a moral compass for a society is ludicrous, but the success of Credit Karma and buzz around artificial intelligence suggests otherwise about societies opinions. 

The danger I see is that we belittle ourselves to make computers seem more powerful than they really are. Previous generations to mine could complete long division in their heads but children nowadays can't figure out the price of a candy bar with 5% sales tax. Lanier puts it this way:

"Did that search engine really know what you want, or are you playing along, lowering your standards to make it seem clever?"

I am careful to measure the impact of the tools I use in my daily life. I have been following the research of Dr. Ruben Puentedura for some time now and I recommend this as a measuring stick for useful application. In this model, technology is judged by it's alteration of your pre-conceived notions of what you wanted to occur. In the classroom this is an easy example and you can read more here if you wish. For now I'll use the business environment instead: 

You could use a ledger to keep track of sales/transactions, but substituting a CSV would be easier and even searchable for specific amounts, names, etc. > You could use the CSV for a while, but augmenting it with graphs and sorting by columns with Excel is more useful > You have the information in a static document and find it useful, but you could now allow for collaborative modification of the document, indeed modifying the concept of the file itself, by creating a SQL database editable with various applications and users > To completely redefine the project and vision of the data, it's collection, etc, your business could use SalesForce to create a community in and around the data in a virtual sense...

Lanier very clearly defines technology (mostly computers, the internet, AI) as a tool. A tool, then, should be praised for it's usefulness, not how new it is. 

Mr. Lanier sensibly notes that the “wisdom of crowds” is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that “it’s great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance” but argues that the site’s ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice — even the voice of an expert — is eminently dispensable, and “the idea that the collective is closer to the truth.” He complains that Wikipedia suppresses the sound of individual voices, and similarly contends that the rigid format of Facebook turns individuals into “multiple-choice identities.” A Rebel in Cyberspace (by Michiko Kakutani)

How does all this fit together then? I think the tool we have at our disposal now is the internet itself. Will we use it to find the best and the brightest authors and ideas? Will we share, blend ideas, and work positively together? Or will he continue to define ourselves with check boxes while conforming to the machinery of databases and social websites. This behavior leads to fewer real connections and creates systems of impersonal, insincere false-realities prone to negativity. The hive mentality pervades everything from the local newspaper's comment threads to online gaming. Communities that develop online are uninhibited and aggressive in their position as members of the hive. With anonymity comes unabashed frankness, unfiltered by society norms and laced with pent up anger we don't allow ourselves to share normally. Cyberbullying and harassment become more and more commonplace as we dull our perceptions about the morality and consequences of our actions. In order to humanize each other online, we must reintroduce creativity and flexibility to our presence online. Status updates and tweets tell us a lot about ourselves, but we must have a voice to flesh out the rigid tables of information collected by all of the Facebooks and Googles out there. 

We must resist the urge to blur the thoughts of the masses into a single "file." My aim is to respect the uniqueness of an author's work online, intellectual property, and the sanctity of media in any form, regardless of it's searchability or digitization.