Sunday, March 09, 2008

Doggerel #141: "Technology"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

A lot of woos out there like to complain about how "technology" is ruining our lives. They don't seem to get any more specific about what they mean "technology." Technology isn't just the stuff you need to plug into a wall to use. Technology is pretty much anything people use. It doesn't matter if we're talking about PSPs or stone knives. It's just a matter of what other technology you need to make it. I don't see any magical cutoff point where one tiny additional step of development makes something inherently bad. (Thanks go to Dunc for suggested improved verbiage)

Worse, a lot of woos don't have any real concept of what life was like before certain inventions. Many alties have no idea how common disease used to be. Some of them would benefit from seeing what life is like in countries without modern health care. Other alties complain about the commonality of cancer, trying to blame some single issue for it. Of course, it's largely thanks to advanced medicine that we can die from cancer much later in life, rather than preventable childhood diseases. I will not be surprised if they switch to complaining about people dying of old age if we manage to discover methods to prevent and cure the various forms of cancer. They will then cite how rare it was for people to die of old age back in 'the good old days' and make stuff up about the ancients knowing immortality secrets.

The issue gets a great deal more complex if you're talking about the social and economic aspects of technological advancement. A lot of woos, however, don't see it that way: They usually posit some golden age when everything was allegedly perfect, everyone read only Shakespeare, and stuff. Being able to communicate and research more quickly is apparently supposed to lower the quality of art for unknown reasons. I could go on about other issues, but that would make for a much longer post.

7 comments:

Dark Jaguar said...

On a slightly off-topic note, I have to say that even people I otherwise agree with seem to get on the "new media is evil" bandwagon all too often.

I am so sick of this or that commentator saying "now people are surfing the internet more than they are reading", which always comes across to me as about as logical a statement as "I fly more often than I fly". What do you think people do on these amazing tubanets? Generally, they READ. I myself have learned many things just reading, gasp, online! Books provided online can be updated on the fly, but the ones on paper don't. I'm not saying books should all just be thrown away, because not all their data is available online yet :D. Seriously though, I have no idea what they are on about.

The other thing that gets me about that is the whole generic "reading would solve so much" bandaid people slap on it. Kids today ARE reading, and a lot, but they are primarily reading fiction. Even if it was Shakespear, it's still fiction and isn't really teaching the kid anything.

I think what I'm getting at is while illiteracy is the first step to a doomed person, it's not because knowing how to use drawn symbols to represent words is itself a requirement of knowledge, but rather because that's the most convenient way to store, and recall, vast storehouses of data. If we get to the point where instead data can be instantly downloaded into our heads Matrix style, reading won't be necessary at all except for historians, and those who don't know would be able to learn how in an instant anyway so it would be a moot point.

All I'm saying is it doesn't matter if they are reading from paper or liquid crystal. It just matters WHAT they are reading, and that's the point so many people seem to forget.

Akusai said...

I read an excerpt from Susan Jacoby's new book The American Age of Unreason, which sounded very promising, until two paragraph in it became an ignorant screed against new media. To some people, even intelligent, informed people, newspapers are simply better than the 'net; a book, any book, no matter how shitty, is better than the most well-put-together video game. Jacoby lays part of the blame for America's anti-intellectualism squarely on the feet of all modern forms of information and entertainment.

She actually pined for the days when three monolithic news stations on TV all reported more or less the same thing.

What is it with people?

Dark Jaguar said...

Well everyone's capable of falling into confirmation bias and false attribution of causes.

It may be that some people in their youth set some goals as to "skills I need to survive" and then when they learn them, they lock them in. Then, when progress inevitably happens and the list of skills the average person needs to survive changes, maybe they get upset at the world for "interfering". I sometimes get this impression when I talk to people who don't like "new technology", but it's always been like that. I just fear that I myself may become that way decades from now. I guess it just takes trying to stay as flexible as possible and realizing that learning is a constant process.

Eh, but I suppose I just ran off on a suppositional tangent there. Regardless of why it is, all too often they make a lot of unjustified complaints about this or that. Nothing is even offered to back up their claims and more often than not they don't even seem to realize what assumptions they are making by the nature of their comments.

Dunc said...

Even if it was Shakespear, it's still fiction and isn't really teaching the kid anything.

Whoa there! Good fiction can be very educational. For one thing, you can learn how to spell "Shakespeare" correctly. ;)

"New Media" would also be an excellent Doggerel candidate. It is neither an evil monster destroying our culture, nor a magical portal into the trans-humanist utopia. I see just about as many proponents of each...

Anybody read Robert Prisig's "Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"? Dodgy metaphysics, but I do think he has some interesting ideas on the whole pro- and anti-"technology" divide...

Technology is pretty much anything people use. It doesn't matter if we're talking about PSPs or stone knives. It's just a matter of how clever the people had to be to make it.

I would have to take some issue with that - the people of the Mesolithic weren't really any less clever than we are, they just had access to different resources and pre-existing technology. Much of their technology was remarkably elegant and effective given the resources available, and requires a great deal of skill and knowledge to produce and use. Believe me, flint-knapping is hard. As for the first guy who figured out that if you bang two very specific rocks together just right, you can create a spark which, if it lands on a carefully processed and prepared piece of the right kind of fungus, will create an ember which you can then (with the right technique and materials) blow into flame... I reckon he made a greater technological advance than the Apollo team. Even if you know exactly what all the steps are, how to do them, and why they work, it's not an easy thing to do. To figure out how to do it by yourself, without knowing in advance that it's even possible, or having any of the scientific concepts that would lead you to think that it might be possible, or ever having encountered anything similar before... That is just frelling amazing.

Bronze Dog said...

I would have to take some issue with that - the people of the Mesolithic weren't really any less clever than we are, they just had access to different resources and pre-existing technology.

Yeah, I slipped on the phrasing a bit. Probably should have said something about the cumulative cleverness, since modern technology is building on the work of others, effectively supplementing the most recent inventor's cleverness with that of generations past.

Kind of cumbersome to write, though. Suggestions for a short corrected version?

Dunc said...

Ummm.... How about something along the lines of:

"It doesn't matter if we're talking about PSPs or stone knives. It's just a matter of what other technology you need to make it. I don't see any magical cutoff point where one tiny additional step of development makes something inherently bad."

Of course, there are the primitivists... You know, those nuts who reckon that the first big mistake was the development of language, and that it's all been downhill since then. Still, who cares what they have to say? ;)

Dark Jaguar said...

Okay you got me there Dunc. Missed an "e" at the end.

It's also true that some people can overestimate technology and think a borg style utopia is always just around the corner. Still though, while it would be foolish to deny that the internet can and is being used for bad things, I'd say just like with all previous revolutions the good far outweighs the bad.