Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category
The new illuminated manuscript (photo by Cathy Kemp). Obviously not as beautiful as the older ones but awfully functional for those UP@NIGHT. And you can view illuminated manuscripts on the iPad. A good site for finding them: Wikimedia Commons, Illuminated Manuscripts by Name.
……Cadillac (1960), Winchester, Virginia, June 2010…… Ubik, first hardcover.
In his novel Ubik, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which corporations employ telepaths to undermine the interests of their competitors. In turn, the competition hires firms with anti-telepaths in order to defend themselves against their adversaries and protect their privacy. Dick is having a good time. The use of psychic powers by companies merely mimics the dirty tricks employed by current corporate spies. It’s still chess whether played in two or three dimensions. New frontiers, same games. (The best science fiction always makes the implicit present explicit.)
It seems that we face the world of Ubik today but on an even more personal level. The World Wide Web is a marvelous thing. But it doesn’t forget. If you say something you might regret or post an unflattering picture, it is caught by the Web and freeze dried. Employers, friends, strangers, those wishing you ill, or old-fashioned voyeurs will have you under their gaze with the click of a mouse for the foreseeable future. It’s hard living in a Facebook culture when we can’t always control how we appear. Different sorts of answers to this dilemma have been proposed. Some legal: prevent the firing of employees based on information that does not reveal illegal activity. Some technological: posts that automatically self-destruct after a number of months or years. Some positively Dickean: neutralize those who would do you harm by hiring a company to transform your presence on the Web. Here is how the latter strategy is explained in a current New York Times Magazine article by Jeffrey Rosen, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” (Catch the name of the company below, ReputationDefender. Dick might have called the company PsycheDefender.)
[W]ith the help of the kind of search-optimization technology that businesses use to raise their Google profiles, ReputationDefender can bombard the Web with positive or neutral information about its customers, either creating new Web pages or by multiplying links to existing ones to ensure they show up at the top of any Google search. (Services begin from $10 a month to $1,000 a year; for challenging cases, the price can rise into the tens of thousands.) By automatically raising the Google ranks of the positive links, ReputationDefender pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find.
Perhaps this is akin to how the anti-telepaths worked in Dick’s novel. But Dick’s concerns were not just with corporate dirty tricks. The issues were deeper. If one is always being watched, tracked in some fashion, defined by the gaze of others who one does not control, how does one become a person? Being a person involves the possibility of changing the course of one’s life, of making choices to be (somewhat) different from how one has been. The Web presents a real danger. We can find ourselves permanently defined by past words and deeds, some from the long past. Americans have always been especially attuned to the idea that we could remake ourselves, change our lives, start all over again, perhaps by going West. But the Frontier option is no longer available, according to Rosen.
In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege. The end of the Western frontier led to worries that Americans could no longer seek a fresh start and leave their past behind, a kind of reinvention associated with the phrase “G.T.T.,” or “Gone to Texas.” But the dawning of the Internet age promised to resurrect the ideal of what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called the “protean self.” If you couldn’t flee to Texas, you could always seek out a new chat room and create a new screen name. For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was a power that only Proteus possessed: namely, perfect control over our shifting identities.
But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.
One crucial point that the article does not address is that we appear to be shackling ourselves to a digital past at a time when real income for most Americans simply hasn’t been rising in line with the American Dream. We believed, and were led to believe, that economic progress would provide us with opportunities in which we could realize ourselves in new and different ways. The objects of our material desires, like the Cadillac pictured above, were objects that allowed our fantasies to play out. If I buy one of those, I can be like those who own them. If I buy this, and this, and this….I will be different. I will be free. Free of my past. Free of the past.
But now that the party appears to be over, the new technology of the Internet has stepped in. Give me an avatar and freedom will ring. Yet the Web may have as many bobby traps in store for us as the unfettered materialism of the go go economy myth. Unless of course we can call on a new company, ReputationCreators, that will give us whatever persona we would like. The catch…for a price that many of us won’t be able to pay.
June, 20, 2009. “The Daily Dish” (and other sites)
The uprising in Iran is one of the most important and compelling stories of the new millennium. How events unfold in Iran will be crucial to the region, but they will also tell us something about how future resistance against authoritarian regimes can be organized.
The MSM is having difficulty keeping up with events for the some of the same reasons that the Iranian autocrats are finding it difficult to shut down the protests and close off Iran to the world, namely, new technologies. Posted below are links to sites that should be helpful in keeping up-to-date.
The Daily Dish-Andrew Sullivan (the site that is the most comprehensive)
PM, June 20, 2009, President Obama’s statement:
The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.
As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.
Martin Luther King once said – “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.
Obama has been criticized for not saying enough. Wrong! He has played this absolutely correctly. We don’t need to give Iranian autocrats any more “reasons” to blame foreign interference. Obama could not have prevented the violence by taking sides. He could have only weakened the oppostion’s hand. We all know where Obama, the community organizer, stands on this one. There will be time for tough talk.
Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you have not seen the final BSG episode.
Okay, we can all breath a sigh of relief. BSG, which began in the shadow of 9/11, ended its last episode with images of a beautiful summer’s day in New York City. We have, if you will, a degree of closure, and with humor. Some, however, don’t appear to be clued in.
GINIA BELLAFANTE of the NY Times (March 20, 2009) writes in her review of the final episode, “Show About the Universe Raises Questions on Earth,”
But the show could not break with the genre’s tradition of hokey, hopeful earnestness. Landing finally on a pastoral facsimile of Earth, the human-Cylon partnership vows to start anew with pledges not to let science outpace soulfulness. One hundred fifty thousand years later, a city of neon stands on the green terrain — as well as the assumption that we won’t make all of the same mistakes over again.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The show does not end on a note of hokey, hopeful earnestness. It ends on a comedic one that frames questions that it raised about technology and the environment (especially in the last episode) in a satisfying fashion. How so? Setting right two basic errors in Bellafante’s review will get us off to the races. First, the crew of the BSG was not on a facsimile of Earth. Had this been the case, the conclusion would have made little sense and lost its punch. No, the crew had found good old terra firma. Second, there is no assumption that our species won’t make the same mistakes all over again. As a matter of fact, all we are told is that there is a chance that we will not do so, because not all complex systems behave identically. And the possibility that the future might be different from the past is only offered after seasons of hearing over and over again about the myth of eternal recurrence; it has all happened before and will happen again. Yada, yada, yada. If anything, the latter was overplayed and hokey, not the “assumption” about the future in the last scene.
But what Bellafonte really misses, and which says a great deal about how we should now understand the trajectory of the show, is the sense of humor displayed at the end of the final episode, one that we had not seen sustained earlier in the series. The remnants of the human race find an idyllic ancient earth and proceed to give up their technology (by sailing their ships off into the sun–yes, a bit corny). All hope for humanity seems to lie in a kind of pastoral utopia. But then a green Central Park appears and the “angel” versions of Balter and Six are found in present-day Times Square. They are seen standing and looking at a magazine article at a newsstand (how New York/how urban!) about a 150,000 year old Eve that had been discovered by scientists. This Eve is clearly supposed to be the child Hera that the crew of BSG rescued. During this scene Ron Moore, in classic Hitchcock fashion, appears. (Ronald Moore was the executive producer and a writer for the series. He worked on the script for the finale.) Baltar is wearing his oh so urbane sunglasses, and is in one of his dandyish outfits (which is pretty funny in itself given that it’s a hundred and fifty thousand years since we first saw him dressed to the nines). Six is dressed in NY model mode. They saunter off. A discussion ensues about whether humanity will screw things up again. Not necessarily is the word, but certainly no guarantees. During these last eight or so minutes, we hear “All along the Watchtower” playing from a boom box, and we are shown playful toy robots, some of whom are dancing. The scene is bathed in color. I won’t go into any more detail. Suffice it to say that it is in stark contrast to the deep darkness of almost all of BSG, and this darkness is stripped away not only by urban sights and sounds, but by humor.
There is a serious point here. One can read BSG as an anti-technological jeremiad. I mean, for gods sake, Adama wouldn’t even allow wireless communication on the BSG for fear that the Cylons could hack into the computer system. And of course there are those all too deadly Cylons, etc. Yes, the relationship to technology was always more complex than this in the series. But in the last 30 minutes of the show they really had us going. It looked as if the series had been hijacked by an anti-urban, technophobic wing of the Green Movement, offering us a pastoral utopianism in the tradition of Thoreau and friends. Return to the land, build cabins, love nature, destroy your technology, leave your cities, etc. Instead, by having the show end in the Big Apple (get it/Apple, Eve), after a clearly respectful treatment of the wonders of nature, there is acknowledgment of the need to preserve nature and that human beings are social/urban creatures, that is, they “inevitably” build cities full of life, sound, fury, color, and playfulness. The message is not especially hokey: we have to hope (and by implication, work) in order not to screw things up again given the powers that our species can unleash. Here’s Moore on the topic:
TVGuide.com: Why did you choose to end the show with Six and Baltar walking through Times Square?
Moore: Two things: One, Dave Eick and I had the image of number Six walking through Times Square in her red dress a couple of years ago. We thought potentially that that was just a great visual note to end on. And that also came out of the idea that we eventually wanted the show to directly relate to us. That the show was always intended to be relevant and be current to our society and lives and that it wasn’t completely escapist — “Oh here’s a story about a bunch of people who are not related to us on Earth at all.” We wanted it to ultimately circle back and say look, these people were our forbearers[sic]; in a real sense what happened to them, could happen to us. Look around you. Wake up. Think about the society that you live in and we wanted to make that literal at the end. TV GUIDE March 20th, 2009.
My understanding is that this show was still being written during the American election. The last sequence may have been shot after Moore knew Obama was going to get the nomination. Perhaps we will hear from the people at BSG about whether the American election had an impact on the finale.
P.S. This was a TV series that was broadcast and developed over some five years. It can’t be judged by the standards of a two hour movie. And science fiction, at its best a genre of ideas as well as action, is extremely difficult to pull off in a visual medium. All in all, BSG had a pretty damn good run. And the values of its cast are worth noting. Here is Edward James Olmos, Admiral Adama, and members of the cast at the UN on March 18th, 2009.
To say that Americans have had a love affair with technology is the most humdrum of cliches. The idea that new technologies will not only make life easier for us, but will help bring us together as a people, is not new theme in American folklore. Long before there was the Web, or the radio, or even a developed telephone network, American philosophers and social critics dreamed of how new technologies might transform us, make us into a community in all of our diversity. In 1892, as a relatively young man, George Herbert Mead, a pragmatic philosopher in the American grain, wrote a letter to his wife’s parents. It’s worth quoting.
But it seems to me clearer every day that the telegraph and locomotive are the great spiritualizers of society because they bind man and man so close together that the interest of the individual must be more completely the interest of all day by day. And America in pushing this spiritualizing of nature is doing more than all in bringing the day when every man will be my neighbor and all life shall be saturated with the divine life (emphasis added). (See, Gary A. Cook, George Herbert Mead, The Making of a Social Pragmatist, p. 31)
This relatively youthful Mead thought that the locomotive and the telegraph would bring us closer together. And so they did in their own ways. Now the Internet appears to be doing so in a qualitatively different fashion. But before moving on to discuss the Internet’s place in the current election, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the dark side of our commitment to technology. For example, we have recently been promised nearly bloodless wars in which burnished flying machines, decked out with starship instrumentation, will seek out and destroy our enemies. The Iraq nightmare began with the promise that high tech would produce “Shock and Awe,” and a quick end to war.
But in this election, the prospect of utilizing technology to make Americans feel as if they are part of a national political community, is no longer merely a fantasy of the early devotees of Apple computers. Although it has been said many times and in many ways, and in ways that were suspect, it does seem that the Internet has finally come of age. No doubt Obama would not be where he is today without his campaign’s creative use of Internet technologies and software. (See, Joshua Green’s piece, “The Amazing Money Machine” <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/obama-finance> and Marc Ambinder’s “His Space” in The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/ambinder-obama
Yet technology by itself is blind. Obama’s experience as a community organizer has let him frame how the technology could be used. He and his people have pioneered paths for merging the virtual and the real worlds, for moving from on-line communities to real world communities and back. What happens on the Web doesn’t just stay on the Web. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is part of an older American tradition, one that supported the development of technology without worshiping it. And one that spoke a great deal about community and social responsibility. Mead was part of this camp. And so was his good friend John Dewey. They were called progressives in the early 20th century. They were on the non-Marxist Left. (Yes, we once had a vital non-Marxist Left.) Sometimes we forget that this tradition preceded New Deal Liberalism.
What is happening is not just about Obama and his campaign. It is about words: their profusion, polyphony, and heartfeltness. People are writing to each other, again and again. And not just to friends (or one’s wife’s parents), but to strangers. Have Americans ever written so much in such a short space of time? Do all the words in all of the (paper) letters that Americans have written since the Declaration of Independence equal 1/10 of the words on the Web in the last five years? (No doubt, someone, somewhere, has made a calculation.) Commentaries abound from people who never had a voice in the mainstream media. They talk, argue, commiserate, plan, plot, comment, organize, and vent. Yes, a lot of junk, some hate, but also speaking and listening. Will this conversation resolve economic inequalities and racial divides? Of course not. As a matter of fact, we will have to work to make sure that new technologies don’t increase class divisions or centralize power in unimagined ways. Yet, all in all, we are engaged in an impressive conversation. It may not be the New England Town Hall, but for a country of 300 million, it’s an interesting way to help promote political communities and community.