Monday, June 14, 2010

Mitochondria are a Technology that Re-structure Eukaryotes

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, of mild hero Steven Pinker has chimed in a bit on the ol' device culture debate (touching, as well, if only tangentially on the anti-Powerpoint sentiment that Nate was talking about in person a couple weekends ago (Nate will provide linkage to whatever thingy he read)).

Pinker's trying to be pithy in his little op-ed here, but I think his optimism is shallow. He explains away the PowerPoint issue without actually touching on the issue-as-such; it's fine for scientists to lecture with PowerPoint, that's what it was invented for, but when decision-makers vet their information via bullet points, or when information is exchanged in such ways, there are obvious chances and cases of information loss. Sure, to some extent, Pinker is right to point out that all of these softwares are the actual media that hold this information in the first place, but the simple presence of the information isn't sufficient to make it readable or intelligible.

There also seems to be a kind of what I would consider to be dangerous relativism in Pinker's attitude towards technology, as its represented here. That, technologies develop more-or-less spontaneously, that anything that isn't explicitly disallowed is inevitable, and that we train ourselves to use what we have, and to pick up skills on things that arrive after we've already trained ourselves in some other way. So anti-Pod-ites like myself have no problem with light switches (well, I have some problem) or record players, but hate the Pods, only because we're cranky and xenophobic. Which is stupid of us, apparently. Stupid of me. Because all technologies are essentially the same, in so far as they interact with our plastic brain in apparently predictable ways.

As a writing teacher, I tend to see writing itself as a technology which changes--or pre-conditions--the way we think (read some Walter Ong; that's essentially where I'm coming from). To come into language in a culture which utilizes writing is to already be writing, even when you're thinking, even before you've learned how to read or write. Literacy, then, is just a matter of mediation. Whether its stylus/clay tablet, pen/paper, typewriter, word processor, blog, twitter, whatevs. (If I were to let myself get snooty, and puke out some quasi-Heideggerian blah blah blah about writing as techne, and media as technics...) Mediation places the writer at various distances from the method and the content of his/her utterances. And maybe its just a value-judgment, but I find it rather terrifying how close devices bring us to the (apparent) content of our messages, while holding us alienatingly distant from the method of their delivery.

And the further you get from your methods, the more prone you are to catastrophic failure. Without its enabling technologies--satellites, cell towers, electricity, broadband communication lines, etc--device culture fails utterly. It disappears. Writing itself is a much tougher kill. It's pretty easy to re-invent paper and pencil. A lot fucking tougher to reinvent the iPod. Which isn't to say that I think that writing is safer than devicing, just that it's a more robust technology.

To return to Pinker's optimism that humans are actually capable of turning their devices off (I've seen little evidence for this (when I warned my students that I don't check my emails on weekends, they asked me what religion I am)), it seems like that presupposes that we actually know what we are doing as we use these devices. In order to stop doing something, it usually helps to know that you're doing it in the first place. Writing with a pen or even typing, since it involves a letter-by-letter construction of the words, is pretty easy to understand. Information being captured by a little camera, encoded, compressed, chopped into packets, sent to a cell tower and relayed and then unpacked on some other end, all happening in nearly real-time is much harder to understand or even notice. But its happening, and someone figured out how to make it happen. Pinker seems to propose instead that folks just concentrate on what they do--their particular niche in information's apparently entropy-defying exponential march forward--and then hurl that little bit of stuff into the web, and be happy that they're plugged in. So there's a lot of trust and hope in there, which I can't help but be utterly cynical about.

I was starting to write "but then what do devicers do when the power turns off?" but then I realized that if my mitochondria stopped working I wouldn't know what the fuck to do. So the post-human won't even have a notion of technology, since there won't even be that sense of interior/exterior that cuspers like myself keep harping on.

Which is to say, I agree with Pinker that language is a process hosted across communities, and always changing, always underway, but it doesn't seem to me that the current direction of communication technologies are really taking us toward some democratic wonderland of science-and-information-hooray! (but instead towards, let's say... subsistence idiocy and corporate feudalism).


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