Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Two Waves of Technology

Technology comes in two waves.

The first wave derives from existing practices, wherein the technology allows us to do something we currently do, only fast, or cheaper, or more conveniently. It isn't until the second wave that the long-term effect of technology becomes apparent. The second wave liquidates the original activity that was "technolo-gized", and replaces it with not only a new activity, but a whole new concept of what is to be done.

To trace the evolution, consider how phone technology has affected human conversation. For the longest time, people would meet in person and talk to each other. Then the telephone is invented, the motivation for which is undoubtedly the ability to converse "as before" but without having to be physically present. Thus, it made the "prior activity" more convenient, fast, and cheaper.

But with this increased capacity to converse came the diminishing of any single conversation.  The technology does not prevent old-school, lengthy conversations from happening. Rather, it gives rise to potentialities (speed, low cost, convenience) that create value trade offs that people must make. When a person can have 10 conversations instead of one, they have to make a choice. The technology does not "necessitate" the choice… but given other cultural factors, there will be a sociologically dominant choice. With conversation, there has clearly been a move away from singular, in-depth conversations in favor of shorter ones… a choice that the telephone created.

The effects of technology always force a choice in this way, and (given any culture) the choice that the majority are choosing is usually pretty obvious. It's not that everyone has to follow the technology or make the same choices… it's that most will. The determinism of technology is not at the individual level. After all, people have free will. But on the social level, the choices that technology offers up will be answered by some majority… and in retrospect, these seem pretty damned deterministic.

For instance, can we imagine any technology that makes things faster, cheap, and easier that isn't taken up straight-away by Americans? And even when such technology achieves these effects by bleeding the value out of something, it doesn't seem to make a difference. There are cultural values at play in American society that always seem to privilege speed, cost, and convenience over anything else.

There seems to be an unlimited potential for technology to sway the culture in this way. If this is so, then a strange logic applies here…. which is… that anything that exists today that contains nuances of meaning and value (i.e., quality) can probably be "automated" in some way so as to make it cheaper and faster. This is because "quality" takes time and money to construct. By removing the cost of quality via technology, we can consume the object a new way. Granted, the object is now "LESS GOOD" (i.e, fewer inherent qualities)… but it is also "FASTER, CHEAPER, MORE CONVENIENT"… and if these latter values are privilege by culture (which they are in America) then the sky seems to be the limit for how much quality can be removed from the object.

You would think that you can only remove so much quality before an object (or activity) ceases to be what it is. This becomes a philosophical question. For instance, what is the nature of an apple? Can you remove the seeds from an apple and have it still be an apple? Probably. Can you also remove the color if the skin? Hmmm. Ok. At least it would still have it's shape and flavor and texture. But what if you removed the flavor from the apple… presumably because a new high-tech apple farm could produce more of them faster, such that the high-tech apples (with no seeds, red color, or flavor) now cost 10 times less than an old-school apple, and will last indefinitely on the shelf, and won't rot if cut into slices. Let's just imagine a whole host of advantages this high-tech apple would have.

It's not hard to imagine that the preference for these high-tech apples would overwhelm the market, pushing old-school apples to the point of being a niche product… indulged in by gourmands who could afford their (now) higher prices. New apples would be everywhere. Old apples would have to be sought out. In time, old-school apples would disappear… and with them… the flavor, the color, the seeds… i.e., everything we formerly thought an apple to be.

Critics would say that the new apples aren't apples at all. Defenders of the new apples would assert that they still retain the shape of the apple, and that the chemically simulated fake flavor is actually just as pleasant as the old-school apple. They would argue that the red skin was simply an accident of pigmentation of a fruit, and not essential to being an apple. The manufacturers of new apples would continue to advertise their apples as before, with images of apple trees and grannies cooking apple pies, etc.

There arises then a conflict.  Is an apple to be understood as the naturally occurring object that grows on a tree, or is it understood to be the new product being referred to as an apple?  The majority (the mass market) will decide this issue. They see the the manufactured object as real. In time, what we know today to be an apple will disappear from consciousness.

By this logic, there is nothing in our world that cannot be systematically annihilated.

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