Category Archives: Technology

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

“Let me exhort you, people: close Twitter and read a book. Take delight in something well-made, well-made because the author loved her task and sought to bring her best intellectual resources to bear on her work. Take delight in words crafted to increase the world’s store of intelligence, to share what the author knows and bring forth knowledge in readers. It’s a better way for us to live that to spend even a few minutes a day in the company of people who have made the cultivation of stupidity into a virtue.” — Alan Jacobs

Technically First

This happens to me all the time: I hear about a book (or movie or album, but usually book) and find it at my library, then I read it and see mention of another book or figure, sending me off into that direction, where I find another book to read. And so on. I’ll call it the Wikipedia Effect, which is a little less hippie-dippie than calling it the Everything Is Connected Effect, though it’s of the same spirit.

This time, I listened to the 99% Invisible episode on the U.S. Post Office, based on Winifred Gallagher’s new book How the Post Office Created America: A History, which I went to look at in the stacks. I didn’t end up checking it out, but as my eyes wandered a little farther down the shelf I did see an intriguing title: A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon.

Calling the story “heroic” is a bit much, but it’s a quick and well-done story of the small group of monied men in mid-eighteenth-century New York who staked their fortunes on basically willing the oceanic cable into being, even after some pretty serious setbacks. It’s a good companion with Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, a broader history of the invention of telegraphy.

I spotted it on a shelf at the library when I was looking for something completely different—is there a word for serendipity striking in the library? Librindipity?—but my interest in it made me realize I’m intrigued by the stories of how innovative technologies came into being.

In addition to these two books about the telegraph, I’ve already read a few books I think fit into this theme of the development of a revolutionary technology or notable technical achievement:

  • Screw and screwdriver (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Chairs (Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Photography (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit)
  • Longitude (Longitude by Dava Sobel)

Some of these were heralded in their time, known right away to be revolutionary, but some were not. I’m interested in both: how things came into being whether we noticed them or not.

A quick brainstorm yielded a few more ideas for future reading along these lines. (I’ll need a hashtag for when I catch up with these. Let’s go with #TechnicallyFirst). There’s no guarantee I’ll read these; they’re just ideas gathered in one place for future reference:

  • Transcontinental Railroad (Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose)
  • Interstate Highways (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift)
  • Electricity (Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes)
  • Pencils (The Pencil: A History Of Design And Circumstance by Henry Petroski)

Will have to keep adding to the list. But I thank A Thread Across the Ocean for sending me down this path, wherever it leads.

Now I Sit Me Down

“A chair is an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you, you rub against it, you caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting. If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more.”

Indeed it is. Witold Rybczynski’s new book Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History is one of my favorite genres: a nichestory (as in niche + history). Like the first Rybczynski book I read (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw), this one is a loving and learned micro-history of an everyday thing we usually don’t regard at all. The book weaves Rybczynski’s expertise and personal experience with stories about influential designers and craftsmen throughout history, along with some wider cultural criticism.

NPR’s review of the book has a nice collection of Rybczynski’s own illustrations from the book of the many different kinds of chairs he writes about. After reading this you’ll see them everywhere.

Track Changes

A good argument could be made for several different technologies being the ideal tool for writers. Pen and paper have proved durable and flexible but aren’t easily manipulated. Typewriters provide an attractive single-purpose distraction-free environment but don’t allow for easy duplication. Modern computers are powerful and multi-purpose, but easily distract.

We all are fortunate to live in a time when we can choose between these options. That wasn’t the case until certain benchmarks in history, which Matthew Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (which I learned about from the review in The New Republic). I was born in 1987, so I missed the period Kirschenbaum covers here (mostly the 1970s and ’80s), but I distinctly remember Windows 95, floppy disks, and everything going much slower than they do now. I wouldn’t chose to be transported back to the early 80s, when having a home computer required so much more work than it does now. Some people liked that work, and hey, to each’s own. But I’m a late-adopter. Whether it’s a new device, app, or other web service, I’m happy to let the early-adopters suffer through the bugs and relative paucity of features while I wait for things to get smoother and more robust.

The book explores several things I’m moderately interested in — chiefly literature, philosophy of writing, and the technical aspects of early personal computers — so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see what it came to. Since Kirschenbaum goes deep on those things I’m only moderately interested in, I found myself skimming through several passages that someone more invested in the topic might find more worthwhile. Overall, though, I thought it was a nice niche history, with perspective on where we’ve come from as a creative species and how the tools writers specifically use have shaped their work.

How Tweet It Is

At the beginning of December I had my wife change my Twitter password so I couldn’t access it. I’ve learned that I’m a cold turkey guy. Maybe I have some elements of an addictive personality, because for things like social media that act as mini dopamine triggers, I can’t use them moderately. I’m either on them every day, usually several times, or I deactivate the account and pretend they don’t exist for a time in order to unclog my mental plumping.

I really like Twitter. It’s nice to communicate occasionally with people I admire, get the latest on the things I enjoy, and above all share the things I’m proud of or interested in. I don’t have to deal with the spam and garbage trolls that celebrities and well-known figures endure, so it’s generally a pleasant experience.

I just sought it out too much. This sabbatical forces me to live without it for a time—to rewire my brain to not think in tweets, seek validation in retweets and likes, and be proud of how clever I am.

It feels good. I’m not rushing back.

The Typewriter Revolution

typewriter-revolution

I discovered, located at my local library, checked out, and read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter’s Revolution within about two days. And wouldn’t you know it, now all I want to do is use my typewriter.

Reading this beautiful book—nay, merely getting a few pages in—inspired me to uncover the IBM Selectric I that I inherited from my grandma when she moved into a different place and get the ink flowing again. Despite the incessant hum that accompanies electrics, I love the whole process of using it, and the basic thrill of having a piece of paper stamped with the words of my doing without the overlording influence of the Internet and that blasted distraction machine we call a laptop. I can’t wait to write more on it, and to retrieve the other typewriters from my parents’ storage and see if they can’t be brought back to life and service.

Usually when we see a typewriter in action these days, it’s at the hands of a young Occupy Wherever libertine or an elderly, quite possibly curmudgeonly, traditionalist: people who don’t accede, intentionally or otherwise, to the Information Regime (as Polt’s Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto calls it). My chief connotation with them were my grandma’s missives on birthday and Christmas cards, discussing the weather and congratulating me on recent academic achievements. “Take care and keep in touch,” they would always end. Perhaps she was on to something. Taking care of ourselves and our instruments, keeping in touch with them and each other; these are the principles inherent in the Manifesto, which affirms “the real over representation, the physical over digital, the durable over the unsustainable, the self-sufficient over the efficient.”

It’s easy and tempting to scoff at these “insurgents” for not giving in to the Regime, or for doing it so ostentatiously, until you actually consider why typewriters remain useful tools and toys. The possibility that I might find some practical application for these not-dead-yet mechanical wonders, and do so without ostentation, thrills me. Here’s to the ongoing Revolution.

How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:
moon

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:
time

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):
scale

Or Lightyear.fm, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:
lightyear

Make Yourselves Whole Again: On ‘Dataclysm’ and ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’

In a sloppy but understandable attempt at satire, Justine Sacco tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she got on a long plane ride to South Africa. During the flight her tweet went viral, enraging the easily enraged bastions of social media and catapulting the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet around the world. When she landed in Johannesburg she was out of a job and in the throes of a scorching, unmerciful online public shaming.

I was on Twitter the day #HasJustineLandedYet was in progress. When I figured out what it was about, I probably chuckled, thought “Sucks to be her…” and clicked elsewhere. But Justine, freshly captive prey of the collective shaming committee that is the Internet, wasn’t allowed to move on. The invisible, crushing weight of public opinion had pinned her to her momentary mistake. Jon Ronson interviewed her about this experience for his new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, an eye-opening panorama of the dark, menacing, deceptively fleeting phenomenon of online shaming. His dissection of these digital witch hunts led him on a listening tour of other recent victims like Jonah Lehrer, Lindsay Stone, and Adria Richards, who were, months or years after their respective ordeals, still haunted by a modern twist on PTSD. Call it Post Traumatic Shaming Disorder.

Before her Twitstorm, Sacco was director of communications at IAC, the parent company of OkCupid, whose co-founder Christian Rudder wrote another fascinating book recently released called Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking). I read Dataclysm right after So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was fortuitous not only because both books feature the Justine Sacco saga, but because Rudder’s deep dive into the data about our online selves—dating site profiles and otherwise—weaved perfectly with Ronson’s closely observed stories of public shaming. And the joint conclusion we can make doesn’t look good.

The “when we think no one’s looking” part of Rudder’s title is key here. Dataclysm focuses on OkCupid users, but he might as well be writing about Us. “So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication—asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority—also makes it frightening,” he writes. Nearly everything we do online we do when no one’s looking. Even if a real name and picture is attached to a Twitter profile viciously trolling the Justine Saccos of the web, the ramifications are few. Kill that account, another will pop up.

The really interesting stuff, then, is what lies beneath the cultivated online personas, the stuff we don’t have incentive to lie about or craft for a particular purpose. What if your Google searches were made public? (Because they basically are.) Our searches would paint a much finer (though not prettier) portrait of ourselves than our Facebook posts, try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise.

Compared to Facebook, Rudder writes, which is “compulsively networked” and rich with interconnected data, dating sites like OkCupid pull people away from their inner circle and into an intentional solitude: “Your experience is just you and the people you choose to be with; and what you do is secret. Often the very fact that you have an account—let alone what you do with it—is unknown to your friends. So people can act on attitudes and desires relatively free from social pressure.”

OkCupid users are prompted to answer questions the site’s algorithms use to find other compatible users. The answers are confidential, so like Google searches they tell a more nuanced story about the user than whatever they write in their OkCupid self-summary. And yet there persists a wide discrepancy between what people say they believe—what they tell the algorithm—and how they actually behave on the site. The stats on who they chat with, for how long, and whether an in-person date occurs end up revealing more about a user’s preferences than their expressed beliefs.

Does the same apply to the hordes of people behind #HasJustineLandedYet? They might not be quite as evil and sadistic in real life as they seem online, but they can afford to play-act in whatever persona they’re cultivating because they’re protected by distance: abstractly, the virtual world being a different, cloudier dimension than the physical one; but also concretely, in that the odds of bumping into your shaming victim on the street is practically nil.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and Dataclysm travel on the same track, but start out in opposite directions. Both concern themselves with the real-life implications of desire, how it’s wielded and to what end. Desiring companionship, love, or sex, OkCupid users seek opportunities to encounter whatever it is they’re looking for, personal fulfillment usually being the ultimate goal. Ronson’s case studies, heading the other way, illustrate the deviousness of desire—when on the road to euphoria we carelessly or even intentionally run down whoever gets in our way. “There is strength in collective guilt,” Rudder writes, “and guilt is diffused in the sharing. Extirpate the Other and make yourselves whole again.”

Yet neither book is as depressing as I’ve portrayed them. Dataclysm wades into a bevy of interesting data-driven topics, like the most common and uncommon words used in OkCupid profiles based on race and gender, how beauty gives people a quantifiable edge, and the emergence of digital communities. And Ronson’s journey leads to a host of stories, historical and contemporary, that lend depth and nuance to a social phenomenon desperately in need of them.

Above all, these books should make us think twice before hitting Send. “If you’re reading a popular science book about Big Data and all its portents,” writes Rudder, “rest assured the data in it is you.” Whether we’re chirping into a stupid hashtag or perusing profile pics in search of The One, someone is always watching.