Archive for November 2009
The first commercial computer was the Lyons Electronic Office I which was used in 1951 to perform vast calculations pertaining to the fabrication and consumption of biscuits. You see, after the war, J. Lyons & Co., a popular chain of British tea shops, was confronted with an appetite for pastries so astronomical (which is understandable given years of tedious disputes with Germany), that the human mind was incapable of solving unaided the problem of distributing tea cakes to their customers.
Hidden in this story is the true meaning of all information technology.
A brief statement of the problem.
There is an old logical puzzle called the Sorites Paradox, first articulated by the Megarian logician Eubulides of Miletus. It predates the stored program computer by 2,000 years but it similarly concerns the production of pastries:
Would you describe a single grain of wheat as a heap? No. Would you describe two grains of wheat as a heap? No…. You must admit the presence of a heap sooner or later, so where do you draw the line?
This problem was of keen interest to the philosophical community for thousands of years, principally because the Greek recipe for tea cakes called for two heaping tablespoons of sugar. Some philosophers went so far as to vow to grow a beard and engage in pederasty until a solution to the problem was found. But all efforts were in vain; the problem remains unsolved to this day.
Unfortunately, the problem has become ever more acute in the modern era. In fact, far from only destabilizing the metaphysical fabrication of pastries, it has further undermined every area of society. Consider the process of voting. If no one voted, one vote would affect the outcome. But if millions of people vote, one vote makes little difference.
In fact, the defining characteristic of the modern era is that every aspect of society is heaping. To understand how this came to be, we must revisit ancient history.
Some scientifical facts.
During the pre-historic era, when mankind lived in trees and swam in lagoons, we lived in small clans and tribes of dozens of people. During this long honeymoon period in homo sapiens history, we evolved our cognitive abilities through careful grooming and diligent fornicating. The brain developed the ability to speak languages and sympathize with other people and feel jealousy and kindness and all that other stuff. In other words, we evolved a social technology that equipped us for living in society and dealing with the sufferings engendered by the existence other people.
But that social technology is ill-equipped to deal with the humongous heaps of the modern world. We meet hundreds of people every year and can’t remember any of their names. We evolved language and vocal chords to cover long distances but somebody put skyscrapers in the way and anyway we now live like really long distances away, like you have to fly an airplane to see them or at least ride a bicycle. And then there are these celebrity neanderthals like Ashton Kutcher who are adored for their plumage by a multitude who greedily read every banal detail of his private life in magazines like Star that ship millions of copies to every end of a giant sphere whose radius is 6,378.1 kilometers; or on a Twitter that delivers every inane thing he tweets to 4 million people, 10 times daily. It goes without saying that this would not be possible if not for a defect in our programming in the face of the massive scale of the world.
Everything has become a giant fucking heap.
The modern world is profoundly inhumane. Mankind is incapable of reasoning about the heaping constructs of mass culture using the technes of intimacy that are an hundred thousand years old. For example, we need to be constantly reassured that celebrities are just like us. They eat waffles and pick up dry cleaning. If we do not share this understanding of Ashton Kutcher, we become overwhelmed by existential anomie and commit suicide.
Human beings need to understand one another in terms of primordial intimacies because man has no other tools for understanding the solicitations of man. But if the size of the world no is on longer amenable to the ancient intimacy technologies, then mankind must invent information technologies that rehumanize the world.
Thus the proliferation of social software on the web. The reification of the social graph in Friendster; the Facebook Newsfeed and the Twitter; and the Foursquare all serve this one purpose: to rehumanize an inhumane world. Let’s consider each of these technologies one at a time.
- Friendster’s reification of the social graph makes it possible to understand the ties that bind us all together when we only have room in our brains for the intrigues of a few dozen relationships.
- The Facebook Newsfeed and the Twitter make it possible to share in the thoughts and intimate moments of those who inhabit different neighborhoods, and different schools, and different jobs, and make different choices than us from amongst the vast cornucopia of mass-produced art sold to us by the culture industry. Finally,
- the Foursquare coordinates the alienated existence of cosmopolitan voluptuaries into a shared bacchanal.
Technology and self-criticism.
I cannot help but be a technological optimist because technology is mankind’s only bulwark against the barbarism of heaps. But I’ll grant that technology is imperfect; it is sometimes fair to criticize the Tyranny of Technology. The usual argument goes that all these tweets and text messages and notifications that “a software update is available” leave no space quiet, provide no room for contemplation. It is true: we do live in a world of interruptions; interruptions created by information technology. But we should not be surprised by this fact and no more should we despair of it. One generation of technology solves the problems of the previous but causes new problems all its own. The next generation of technology repeats this story; a story as old as mankind itself. This is the dialectic of history.
Do not doubt, then, that a technology will arise to solve this problem too. We, the makers, shall fabricate a machine to furnish its user with quiet and contemplation. In fact, at this very moment, I have a patent pending on a pair of contemplation goggles. And in just a few weeks I will release a beta of a contemplation-inducing goggular Twitter client. I’m sure it will be received to massive acclaim and to the profound benefit of humanity.
So! Old men: do not fear for the future. We young people, we hackers and makers, we have it all under control. We know the true meaning of information technology. We shall save us all from the giant fucking heaps.