In his brilliant Amusing Ourselves To Death Neil Postman argued that the form in which an idea is conveyed is not irrelevant to its truth evaluation. In fact, Postman said, the medium in which communication takes place is itself not philosophically neutral in any way. In his words:
Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.
What Postman had to say is that, while it may seem innocuous enough, a medium —an information technology— has its own set of philosophical prejudices built into its form. This is easiest to see when one thinks about how we tend to justify epistemic claims between different media. Note the differences between justification in the spoken word and the written word. Hearsay and personal conversation do not meet the requirements of the printed word in most cases, but in a courtroom the spoken word reigns by means of testimony from the witness. There are also various standards of justification internal to a specific technology, like the difference between the proverbs of a sage and and the lawyer’s more “austere” legalese in the spoken word, or the difference between the letter to a friend and an academic text in the typography.
This claim was importantly tied to Postman’s grander thesis in the book, which held that in America the society was not following the path of Orwell’s 1984, but that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The difference, he says, is that “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” His reading of modern American society revolved around the effects of the television on our philosophical bearing. He noted the schizophrenia of the medium and its deification of self. He saw the rise of an image-based culture over a text-based one, and his reading of the possible fallout caused by such a shift in medium has proven to be nearly prophetic.
I want to ask Postman’s question about a different medium. I wonder what the implications of the personal computer might be. Postman was well aware of this question in 1985 when Amusing Ourselves To Death was published:
Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it with their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology —that the principle difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data— will go unexamined. Until years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.
(I posted recently about discussions involving the “information glut” caused by the computers. Postman saw it coming in 1985.)
I agree with Postman about the need to examine this central thesis of computing, but I want to step back for a moment. Postman’s attack on the television has the great advantage of being a kind of one-trick pony. The television set has one fundamental principle, it entertains. From HBO to The Weather Channel, there exists nothing but the constant battle for ratings and viewers. The computer, then, is flexible in a way that the television cannot be. When you open the box with your new laptop in it, you have options about how you want to use it and what you want to use it for. (For example, you cannot use your TV to create much of anything, but creation is one of the great powers of owning a PC.) The PC is a world of opportunity admitting of all manner of media like the words spoken over Skype or the videos watched on YouTube.
The idea that I am playing around with here is that the philosophical bias of the computer is not simply dependent on the hardware. Where the real story to tell resides is in the software. “Technologists,” Jaron Lanier says, “make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (web-cams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online).” Such extensions usually are singular. They extend a part of us. The personal computer, on the other hand, is a medium for such extensions. It is not so much an extension of us, but a recreation of ourselves in electronic format. (Here we can see one of the philosophical implications of the hardware: the Singularity Principle and its pure reductive physicalism.) The hardware merely mimics our internal organs, the software mimics our abilities and our thoughts. In this way, each software paradigm has its own philosophical bent.
Lets begin with the operating system. At no time was it necessary that we have file systems, windows, launchers, buttons, or any type of GUI beyond text-based entry. All of these software-related changes took place because of some brainstorming technologist thinking up ways to streamline the user interface. File systems brought a kind of organization to the PC that tells us “everything in its right place” even when that may not be conducive to the task at hand. (Have you ever tried compiling multiple files from multiple programs into a single image or a single sound byte? It can be a headache. Some groups write their own systems just to streamline the process.) Note how each of today’s operating systems has its own persona. Linux is the freedom junkie, something akin to technological libertarianism. Windows is all business in a business world and its programs are as confusing as they are powerful. OSX claims creativity and ease of use at the expense of freedoms enjoyed by the other two. It seems most fitting to me that in an all business western world the market share of Windows users is still the majority in both the home and in the workplace.
Beyond the operating system we have programs like Photoshop and the audio tools like Logic Pro and Pro Tools. These programs have redefined their respective output media and force us to ask a number of questions of ethical, epistemic, and ontological import. The philosophical bent of such programs tends towards absolute freedom of change. A picture edited in Photoshop can be more sculpture than photography. At what point do we stop calling the edited work a photograph? In the case of audio, at what point do we stop believing in the singing voice of the auto-tuned pop-princess? At the end of the day we walk away with a very different conception of both photography and music than we once had. In some cases the change looks like the kind of artistic change that comes between modernity and post-modernity. In this case though, the changes are not part of finding a new critique of the prior work, but in perfecting it to an unreasonable and unrealistic flawlessness. This is especially true in the case of music where the digital medium tends constantly towards the inhuman.
Examples could go on and on, and much better writers, Postman (Technopoly) and Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget) among them, have given extensive treatments in this regard. I’ll leave you to read them rather than me. What I am most interested are two points at the heart of the examples. First, as I stated earlier, the computer is a recreation of the self. Second, software usually has the effect of dehumanizing everything it touches. Both of these are importantly related I think. In creating the computer in our own image we took up a central thesis: we can recreate ourselves in digital format. Thus, the software demands that you take it seriously as another sentient being. (Lanier’s favorite instance of the moment you might realize this is when you really believe that Google “knows” what you want.) This not only has the effect of changing the meanings of humanistic terms (“friend” on Facebook) but also allows us to abdicate activities in lieu of the machine. The great fear of the latter is the abdication of activities which indelibly enrich the human experience. Effectively, what may be most disturbing about computers is that it can demand we rethink not just our world, but ourselves.
I want to explore this a bit in a series of posts over the next week or so beginning with a short history and eventually ending in a return to postman’s central thesis. (Hopefully.)