March 31, 2014

The Disease of the Age

“Originally intended to make simpler and easier the doing of necessary things, the introduction of machinery with its train of attendant evils has so complicated and befuddled our standards of living that we have less and less time for enjoyment and for growth, and nervous prostration is the disease of the age.”                      
Gustav Stickley

March 29, 2014

From Lascaux to Las Vegas: A Short History of Virtual Reality

So, Facebook is taking a major plunge into virtual reality, paying $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, which makes a headset that itself is something of a virtual reality, given that ordinary consumers can’t yet buy one.

Mark Zuckerberg is clearly giddy about the virtual reality future. Announcing the deal on (where else?) Facebook, he asked readers to imagine the possibilities. You’ll be able to enjoy a court side seat at a game, he said, or study in a classroom with students and teachers from around the world, or consult with a doctor “face to face,” simply by putting on a pair of goggles in your home. “People will build a model of a place far away and you’ll go see it,” he added in a conference call with reporters. “It’s like teleporting.” 

Experts quoted by Nick Wingfield and Vindu Goel in the New York Times weren’t so sure. One said he couldn’t see any compelling applications for virtual reality beyond gaming. Another said that he’s heard virtual reality being hyped as the next big thing for more than twenty years, and there’s no reason to believe Facebook’s partnership with Oculus portends anything different.

In my view neither Zuckerberg’s excitement nor the experts’ skepticism seem entirely justified. 

Zuckerberg presumably spends so much time looking at computer screens that he sees no significant difference between talking to a facsimile of a doctor through a virtual reality headset and talking to a flesh-and-blood doctor in person. He’s mistaken, of course, but the fact that the distinction blurs so seamlessly for him suggests why it’s probably a bad idea to bet against virtual reality being the wave of the future. 

Another reason for not making that bet is that virtual reality already has a solid track record, one that extends back as far as we do. Early practitioners include the tale spinners whose narratives ended up in Homer’s Odyssey and the artists whose haunting images of stags, bears and other beasts decorate the cave walls of Lascaux. 

It’s often said we tell stories to remind ourselves who we are, and to define who we are. The virtual realities of the sort Oculus is developing will be the latest manifestations of that basic human impulse, and not necessarily the most spectacular ones. 

It would be hard to beat the great cathedrals of Europe, for example, when it comes to teleporting one’s self to heavenly realms. Ralph Lauren has created some impressive virtual realities for more secular purposes. In the history of all-encompassing virtual environments, Disneyland was a landmark; Las Vegas may be the apotheosis. 

The best reason not to bet against the future of virtual reality is the difficulty we have confronting the reality we face in the mirror each morning. For millennia we've sought relief in various forms of ecstatic and narcotic experience. The reasons seem simple enough: Life is difficult, and death awaits. So it is that those seeking to create virtual realities have the deck stacked in their favor. We want to believe what they're selling.

This post adapted from my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology.

©Doug Hill, 2014

March 20, 2014

SXSW As Metaphor: More than a marketing opportunity

Austin's own Mysterious H performing at SXSW in 2010

A week ago I posted an essay on the absorption of the SXSW Music festival by commercial forces. Even as I was writing the piece, I was aware that, by focusing my comments on the schedule of official and sponsored events, I was ignoring the fact that those events hardly constituted everything that was going on at SXSW.

To the contrary, while the official and sponsored events may have been the festival’s most prominent attractions, they were not its most important ones.

What mattered most, I was sure, unfolded on the backstreets. That's where hundreds of little-known or unknown musicians played out-of-the-way bars and coffee houses, paying little or no attention to the branding crap that was being discussed and displayed in the high-profile venues.

Most of those musicians, no doubt, dream of becoming rich and famous. They imagine headlining, in future festivals, the sorts of stages where the likes of Lady Gaga, Jay Z and Coldplay held forth this year. At the same time I don’t doubt that many of them also sing (as Texas’s own Townes Van Zandt once put it) for the sake of the song.  
No limos, no roadies, no publicist
My assumptions in this regard were confirmed by Randall Roberts of the Los Angeles Times. Disgusted by Lady Gaga’s unctuous keynote address (in which she had the nerve to claim that “without these companies coming together to help us, we won't have any more artists in Austin"), Roberts headed off in search of “more darkened clubs and more dissonant vibes.” He found them.

“Go ahead and toast those who prevailed at SXSW by getting signed, licensed or folded into a future marketing plan,” Roberts wrote, “but the losers in this vicious cycle earned more respect.” 

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles made many of the same points, expressing dismay at the commercialism on the main stages (the headline on his piece read “Big Money Upends a Festival: South by Southwest Festival Starts to Feel Corporate”) before noting edgier things more worthy of attention in the clubs.

“Somewhere within the big, loud, heavily branded party that thronged the streets of downtown Austin” he wrote, “…there was still the core of what SXSW has done since 1987: provide exposure for striving musicians, many of them independent.”
Outer Minds performing at SXSW last week.
In my earlier essay I cited Jacques Ellul’s contention that rebellion in the technological society is readily co-opted by the forces of technique for their own purposes. Chief among those purposes, in addition to creating lucrative marketing opportunities, is the safety valve rebellion provides the frustrated masses, allowing them to harmlessly blow off steam without posing any real threat to the continued operation of the machine.

While I think there’s great truth in that argument, I also think it demonstrates one of the more striking examples of Ellul’s occasional tendency to overstate his case. Creative ambition doesn’t necessarily exclude genuine love for the music, or genuine conviction. Well expressed, those feelings can, in turn, provide those who hear them with genuine, meaningful inspiration.

Yes, nearly everything these days gets corporatized, but not everything. The machine is powerful, but not yet all powerful. A good song, or dance, or poem, or play, or painting, or story, can replenish a little of that reservoir of human spirit that technique so relentlessly sucks dry. That’s no small gift, and one we need to make sure isn't drowned out by the marketing people with the loud megaphones. 

©Doug Hill, 2014

Credits: Mysterious H and walking musician photos by Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman.  Outer Minds photo by Josh Hanner, New York Times.

A Different Take on the Automation/Jobs Debate

Recently I participated in an online discussion on the issue of automation and jobs, featured on O'Reilly Media's Radar blog.

The discussion turned into a debate when a lawyer/scholar named James Besson weighed in to argue that there's every reason to believe that in the long run technology will increase rather than reduce employment, as he and many others believe it historically has.

I'm not so sure that will be the case, although I acknowledge that predicting the future with any accuracy is an uncertain enterprise, to say the least.

One of the main points I made during the exchange with Bessen was that the potential for automation to create or eliminate jobs is not the only concern we need to be thinking about. Just as important is the quality of jobs that automation bequeaths.

While it's true that technological advance has often created jobs, often as not those jobs have consisted of repetitious tasks that numb the mind and kill the soul. Workers may earn a living, but their jobs can hardly be described as fulfilling. They essentially become machines who tend the machines.

I laughed this morning to see that the Onion had posted an article that makes essentially the same point, satirically. Its headline:

"Chinese Factory Workers Fear They May Never Be Replaced With Machines." 

March 13, 2014

SXSW as Metaphor

A couple of weeks ago I posted a reflection on the controversies surrounding the techie invasion of San Francisco. It was entitled “San Francisco as Metaphor,” and my basic point was that there’s nothing unique about the migration of money and power from Silicon Valley northward to the city, given that one of the fundamental characteristics of technology is a constant drive to expand its sphere of influence. For that reason the takeover of San Francisco by the power and values of technique is symptomatic of a process that’s occurring all over the country, and all over the world.

As it happens, last week the annual South by Southwest festival kicked off in Austin, and I’ve been struck by the degree to which the same arguments apply there. As Matt Honan pointed out in Wired, SXSW Interactive used to be a “sideshow” to SXSW Music. Now it’s the main event.

Indeed, SXSW Music itself seems to have been thoroughly interpolated by technology. A look at this year's schedule shows that many if not most of its panels have less to do with music per se than they do with the machinery of music, or with music as filtered through some combination of technology and economics—the methodological and ideological construct that Jacques Ellul called “technique.”  

My favorite example is a book signing by the authors of “Hit Brands: How Music Builds Value for the World’s Smartest Brands.” Here’s how the publisher describes the book on Amazon:
In the battleground for hearts and minds of customers, music is one of the most powerful tools that brands can use. In this definitive guide to how brands harness the power of music to drive business, three leading industry experts show you how to create and execute successful music strategies with lasting impact.
It turns out that “branding” occupies a whole section on the SXSW Music schedule. Sessions include “Using Music to Sell Other Stuff” and “Fashion + Rock n Roll: A Timeless Bond.” The latter session promises to answer the question, “How can fashion brands create authentic partnerships between celebrities and musicians?”

There is no more pressing question in music today, I submit, than how to create that elusive quality known as “authenticity.” 

For those of us old enough to remember Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You," all of this seems to confirm that we now inhabit a brave new world in which values that once prevailed have been turned upside down. There was a time, children, when rock and roll was subversive—that was its one of its main reasons for being. Believing that it actually was subversive may have always been an illusion, of course, but that was the idea.

Young (who appeared at SXSW this year to discuss his new audio streaming system, Pono) was making what has turned out to be a mostly futile protest against the co-optation of rock and roll by the very establishment powers it ostensibly challenged. Again, in its relentless drive toward expansion, technique endeavors to turn all things to its own ends, including the neighborhoods of San Francisco, including the rebellious authenticity of rock and roll.

Cutting loose at SXSW

Jacques Ellul argued that, to a point, rebellion serves a valuable function in a world dominated by technique: It harmlessly dissipates unruly emotions that might otherwise disrupt the functioning of the machine.

"Technique diffuses the revolt of the few and thus appeases the need of the millions for revolt," Ellul wrote.
Human impulses are confined within well-defined limits and become the objects of propaganda, profit-seeking, contractual obligations and the like…The supreme luxury of the society of technical necessity will be to grant the bonus of useless revolt an acquiescent smile.

Photo credit: Neil Young by Danny Clinch, Rolling Stone

March 11, 2014

A Great Many of Us Are Haunted

I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t mean just the United States or Europe, but our whole world-wide technological civilization, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash, and probably deserves to.
          W.H. Auden

March 2, 2014

Some very nice endorsements for "Not So Fast," updated

Not So Fast continues to receive some very nice endorsements from some very knowledgeable people. Here's an updated selection:  

Not So Fast is a really fine piece of work. Wish I’d written it. Anyone who might want to reflect on the implications of more than three generations of scholarly criticism of technology should read the book. The same goes for any scholars who have been thinking about technology and who desire to see how their work may have been more publicly appropriated – or , indeed, who may wish to deepen their own understanding of what they have been doing. Doug Hill is a solid independent scholar in the best sense: A Lewis Mumford for our time.”
                – Carl Mitcham, Colorado School of Mines, author, co-author, or editor of any number of seminal books, among them Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy; Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology; The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics; and Research in Philosophy and Technology. 

“Technology is a troubling and confusing force in contemporary culture, and it’s good to see Doug Hill discuss it so calmly and clearly. His book is special in avoiding the rigorous and severe arguments of philosophers and other academics and in being both firm in its views but relaxed in its attitude. The reader hears the voice of a very well-informed writer without being bullied with all that knowledge. There's good reason to believe the book will reach an audience that has been neglected and that it will help to advance the public conversation on technology that is so necessary and so lacking.”
               – Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana, author of Crossing the Postmodern DivideTechnology and the Character of Contemporary Life, and Holding on to Reality

“Lively, fast moving, always entertaining, Not So Fast offers a grand overview of the extravagant hopes and dire warnings that accompany the arrival of powerful new technologies.  Blending the key ideas of classic and contemporary thinkers, Doug Hill explores the aspirations of those who strive for the heavens of artifice and those who find the whole enterprise a fool’s errand.  This is the most engaging, readable work on the great debates in technology criticism now available and a solid contribution to that crucial yet unsettling tradition.”
– Langdon Winner, author of Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in  Political Thought and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology  

"This is the technology criticism I've been waiting for – aware of the history of technology criticism and the history of changing attitudes toward technology, and at the same time attuned to contemporary developments. Not So Fast is readable, meticulously sourced, and, above all – nuanced. I recommend it for technology critics and enthusiasts alike."
            – Howard Rheingold, author of (among other books) Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs and Net Smart

"Doug Hill’s Not So Fast has to be one of the five best books on technology I’ve read over the past decade.  Hill has a remarkable command of the technology creators, analysts, and critics, such as Ellul, Heidegger, Kurzweil, Gates, Jobs, Mumford, Borgmann, and McLuhan.  He approaches technology from several helpful angles.  His prose is clear, convincing, and often droll!  Not So Fast must be part of any reflection on our culture and future." 
            – David W. Gill, Professor of Workplace Theology & Business Ethics, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, President, International Jacques Ellul Society

Not So Fast reflects, in addition to Doug Hill’s consummate skill as a writer, his deep knowledge of the history and the philosophy of technology. His reflections are grounded in that knowledge and at the same time are original and profound. I've worked and traveled in the highest reaches of the tech world for more than twenty years and I still learned much from this book."
             – Allen Noren, former Vice President, Online, O'Reilly Media 

“Not So Fast addresses the primary questions of the day: how can we construct a coherent story about what is happening to us? And what can we do about it? Anyone interested in the future of the human project will benefit hugely from Doug Hill’s lucid performance."
             – James Howard Kunstler, author of Too Much Magic, The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere 

“Never have I experienced such a probing, in-depth analysis of the push-and-pull of technology as a driver, determining force, savior or disease of our species.”
                – Roger Cubicciotti, former chair, Center of Innovation for Nanobiotechnology, North Carolina Biotechnology Center; Visiting Scholar, Department of Physics, Wake Forest University