by Christopher Butler on in culture

Chuck Klosterman, in his essay, “Fail,” (one of several collected in the book, Eating the Dinosaur) wrote:

“We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world. As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”

Is this really true? I tend toward thinking it is, particularly from my vantage point in a technology-driven industry as well as, frankly, my own tendency toward techno-pessimism. In a post from last month, I explored this theme a bit in terms of how we augment our bodies and experience with technology–that there is almost no separation between us and our technology. This quote from Klosterman gets at the same point, but it also brought to mind some trends that I see specifically in the workplace. Much of what we do is enabled by communications technology. In particular, email, instant messaging, shared calendars, project management applications, social media tools and the like enable a team to quickly mobilize and complete projects even if the resources are spread out geographically. This is the modern, web-working paradigm. While most of these tools have been a revelation as functional enablers of otherwise dysfunctional team setups, efficiency and cost savings, I wonder if they are always the most effective thing available to us. Actually, I’m willing to just come out and say that at least sometimes they’re not.

In some ways, tools like these encourage our own inattention to detail. For instance, during the long periods in which we coordinate communication between client, creative and development teams, it can be very easy to simply be a relayer of information, rather than a synthesizer of information, and I think project management applications make this an easy mistake to make. If you are inundated with input–phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc.–your main concern becomes to simply keep your inbox under control, not to deal with the substance of the input. If you can just get that message into the system, the right person, be they the developer or designer, will get to it. But what if you are really the right person? You’ve essentially put your work on someone else’s desk by blindly relaying it. However, to properly synthesize it, you’ve got to take enough time out to sift through the message, extracting the right information for the right person. If you have done this, plugging that information into a project management system works great. But if you haven’t, you’ve just started a game of ping pong that could last a while. When I see this happen, it occurs to me that the most human approach–actually having a face to face conversation–is the most efficient way to proceed. After all, aren’t these tools ultimately a simulation of face to face conversations? When you can’t be face to face, their value is clear. But when you can be face to face, it seems strange (aside from obvious value of efficiency and documentation) to use a technology that simulates a non-technological act.

I can make a good argument for this, but it’s really not that simple, is it? I constantly instant message and email coworkers that are working just a few steps away from me. It’s fast and convenient, and allows me to have multiple conversations at the same time. It also means that those conversations are documented, so I don’t have to remember them on my own. I can rely upon Google to remember them for me. Oh wait, that’s a whole other blog post

In any case, I suppose at the heart of the matter is always trying to make the most appropriate choice when it comes to how we communicate. Do you agree?

  • http://nolancaudill.com Nolan

    I mostly agree with your thought that it is the nature of our web work that encourages this inattention to detail, but I think the instant nature of the ways we send written communication (eg, IMs and emails) plays a big role.

    Fifty years ago, if I sent a written letter to someone and I needed to convey a precise message, I would absolutely make sure that there was no ambiguity and all relevant information was included, as any confusion would double what was already a painfully long (to today’s standards) lag. People made sure they said it right the first time.

    Today, there is little pain involved. Messed up that last email or IM? I’ll just type another that gets there in a blink. This sending around of non fully formed messages adds noise to the signal, weighing on our already over-stimulated brains. And since I don’t see everyone going back to the written-and-posted letter mentality, sometimes if there is a lot of information to discuss, face-to-face meetings are the way to go.

    I’m not saying that we need to go back to hand-written letters and never-ending meetings. I love the instant nature of how we work. It’s the low price point of “just sending a follow-up” that is the brainkiller.

  • http://lisaberry.net/home.html Lisa Berry

    that Chuck Klosterman quote is spot on I think. this issue of humans waking up and plugging into their machines seems to be rising like a volcano out of the water. It’s huge! and it’s forceful, and seemingly unstoppable.

    there was a Joel Stein piece in Time recently where he suggested that we actually prefer talking through type than seeing people face to face, because talking in person requires that we give them our full attention. We love multi-tasking so much that ‘full attention’ has become an arduous event.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Nolan: You make a good point. There’s something about the speed of communication that fractures our coherence.

    Lisa: Yes, it’s a real problem for me, too. Klosterman was also interviewed on a PRI show called To the Best of Our Knowledge and said, “We’re getting farther away from The Experience of Being Alive–so much so that I capitalize that phrase whenever I write it because I’m not even sure I know what that experience is. I think even my understanding of The Experience of Being Alive is now probably a media construction.” I see that happening, too. I know I don’t like it but I feel trapped in the momentum of more and more virtual experiences rather than real ones.

  • http://Website Shannon Mustipher

    The good news is that we still ARE human, and we can choose to accept and engage this reality through deliberate, considered, and dare I say – disciplined choices to lay aside our technological masks and prosthesis, and BE REAL – when they are not absolutely neccesary to the tasks at hand. To the pure, all things are pure, and yes, all things are allowed and but not all things are profitable – we have minds that understand that things and 99% of what go on in our lives are of our own choosing. I for one consider this a good time to be Alive, because Living in a time like this is a rather tremendous achievement – and a blessing.

  • http://lisaberry.net/ Lisa Berry

    john is always pointing this out to me too, that the tool is actually neutral, that our choice in how and when we use them is the real issue. i.e. the responsibility falls back on us.

    I can’t count the times I’ve said recently “it is time for another trip to the monastery,” because my head seems so full of low-quality information. It’s one way to re-find the experience of being alive by entering a situation where there is no access to a phone or the internet, and the people around you all choose to live that way. It sounds like detox or something.

    deliberate, considered, disciplined choices sound so good Shannon. Why do you think we find it terribly difficult to take off the technological mask in day to day (non-monastic) life, or to even remember to unplug?

  • http://Website Shannon Mustipher

    Lisa, We like the masks because we’re lazy cowards who don’t like to tell or hear the truth.

  • http://Website Shannon Mustipher

    And this is nothing new. Humans have been choosing to overlook or deny the existence of certain truths that describe reality since the beginning. We’ve gotten so good at it in fact, that now we’ve created a situation in which we may convincingly portray ourselves as powerless to stop it.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Shannon: Good point. Technology and the web are in and of themselves morally neutral. We have the ability to use them for good or for evil. I get discouraged easily with the overwhelming evidence that the predominant use of these technologies, while perhaps not always evil, is not exactly edifying. The internet and the web, in particular, could be such amazing educational tools. Someone who works for a regional ISP once said that 95% of the bandwidth online is used for things like pornography, virtual worlds, and multi-player games. The remaining 5% is what we commonly think of as the web (news, blogs, social networks, etc.). That is evidence of what we as people, left to our own devices, will do with technology–consume rather than build.

  • Alex

    I think Lisa’s right. We much prefer to avoid talking face to face, especially in professional settings, because there’s something about the in-person intimacy that makes us obliged to care more for the other person than we do over email.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Alex: That’s an interesting point, too. Way back in 2007 I wrote a post about some project management wisdom I’d gleaned in my experience and pointed out that

    “we all know that it is easier to email bad news because you can be just one step removed from delivering it and almost hide behind the technology.”

    This is not just true of email. I’ve recently heard all kinds of stories of people upset at finding out important or upsetting news via social network status messages, group messages, and the like. While these tools are obviously good at reaching more people than we’d be able to with other, more personal methods, they definitely fail at the personal part.

  • Andy Bright

    Good conversation here. Also, Chris, I saw your tweet today about saying no to new technologies. That’s the usual luddite response to something new, isn’t it? I mean, people are always trying to draw the line when they don’t understand or can’t see how a technology might better the culture. There’s no harm in trying it out and seeing whether it benefits you in some way.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Andy: There’s a big difference between saying no to a new technology and being a so-called “luddite.”

    In case readers aren’t aware, the term “luddite” refers to a movement of textile makers who felt threatened by new mechanical looms during the industrial revolution in Great Britain. They resisted violently, destroying equipment and fighting people. Since then, their name has been used to refer to anyone opposed to technological progress.

    First of all, I am certainly not opposed to technological progress. In my opinion, progress is not measured simply by brute forward movement, nor the frequent introduction of new gadgets, nor the incremental driving down in price of said gadgets. Sure, invention, production, efficiency, and reduction of costs are all aspects of progress, but they are certainly not the only relevant facet. Progress also includes social change and knowledge. Do we treat each other better? Do we know more? Are we making choices that will enable those things for future generations?

    I’m very enthusiastic about the internet as a technology and the web as what we can build with it. While I’m often very disappointed with what we’ve chosen to do with the web, I see it’s incredible potential as a tool for good. But I can’t ignore the fact that our culture seems more and more to be content with entertainment and an obsession with information that exceeds its possible value (it ceases to be worthwhile information when we can’t remember what we’ve seen, heard or read). When are we going to decide that a state of constant distraction is just not good enough? Our lives are worth so much more than dumbing them down to an experience of staring at a lamp all day long, reading hundreds of bits of text, exchanging trivial notes with friends with whom we’ve never had a corporeal experience, and feeling as if we’re doing something though it doesn’t seem to actually change us in any meaningful way. My discontentment with the direction our culture is moving is what leads me to want to say no to some new technologies. It is not an uninformed choice. It is not an irrational fear of a technology that will render me obsolete as the Luddites feared. It is something I observe closely every day and am within my rational faculties in deciding is not what I want for my life to be all about. I don’t need one more way to receive information, nor one more way to share it.

  • http://developing1developer.wordpress.com/ Christopher Earl

    “…As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.”Nonsense. The invention, implementation, and consumption of technology is precisely what is unique about human beings. It is something that defines us as human.It’s fine to dislike certain technologies for certain reasons but there is no currency in simply claiming that we are somehow more human in the absence of that which we create. That’s just an empty non-statement.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Christopher: Klosterman’s quote, which I first heard in the interview he gave on an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge (on Reality), is definitely a complicated one. It occurred to me after hearing it that it is unlikely enough for a person to be able to truly perceive the quintessential human experience of being alive, not to mention be able to define what it isn’t! After all, having been born in 1980, I can’t really understand the experience of being alive without television. So it would be absurd for me to say that we were less human after television- how can I really know that? But I do think that what Klosterman says, however polarizing, strikes at an existential truth that I–and I’d bet at least some others–are experiencing now. It is the sense that I used to feel differently about life. Where the feeling changed on the spectrum of technological progress is fuzzy, but it’s unmistakable that something has changed about the way I feel about the experience of being alive.

    Your point about invention (I’d say creativity in general) being an essential part of of the human experience is an important one. To conclude that the essential human experience is more akin to a nomadic, hunter-gatherer’s life than a city dweller’s is purely a matter of opinion. It’s hard not to view the story of humanity through the lens of technology, but it isn’t the technology itself that defines who we are. That technology exists at all is a defining characteristic of humanity.

    It seems like the important question is this: Are we defined by what we create? Or, is there something else that is integral to humanity that we can understand and use as a guide to how we proceed in shaping our culture? If we’re defined by what we create, then we have an obligation to question what we produce and our motives for doing so. If we’re not defined solely by what we create, then we at least have the freedom to question what we produce and, again, our motives.

    There’s got to be some room for something in between the false dichotomy of “luddite” or living for gadgets. Whether it’s an Amish farmer with a cellphone or a conflicted Apple fanboy, people are complicated. When I question the value of a technology, it’s not out of an irrational desire to reject any semblance of civilization, but because I believe we are capable of much more than what we are settling for.

  • http://developing1developer.wordpress.com/ Christopher Earl

    Chris, thanks for your thoughtful response. I only took issue with the absurd notion that humans are less human when using the products of humanity. On the surface, though I understand the point may be more subtle, that is just plain nonsense.

  • http://newfangled.com Nolan

    Chris, I’m wondering if some of your discontent is coming from a selection bias inherent of reading about the web on the web. I know I definitely suffer from it at times and have to step back and regain perspective.

    We work in the web so we surround ourselves with social networks and blogs and RSS feeds. We know these things intimately. But here’s the thing: what seems so pervasive and encompassing to us is a complete unknown to most people.

    Take Google Buzz for example. I think I read about Buzz on every single site I visit. It seems like it is “the” thing, dwarfing all other news stories, but it’s just another thing that outside our web bubble has no significance. It’s just that all the people that write on the web have their web citizenry in common and there’s going to be a bias about what gets amplified. We participate in an extreme culture of navel-gazing.

    These web things are tools that we can choose to use or not. If Facebook or Twitter were to disappear, not one person’s life would be different (save the employees of those companies, obviously). If something could vanish and life continue basically the same, I have trouble seeing that these items are defining humanness or that we are being enslaved by them.

    There are some great things going on the Internet but they don’t get buzz. Tech pundits write about shiny things because they are pundits and that’s what they do. Having people jump social networks every few months is good business for them as they can write the same articles again just replacing the name of the company. The kind of people that become Facebook or Twitter addicts will keep getting sucked in because that’s just who they are. In my opinion, these are not the people that are going to disrupt any paradigms. These networks are giving everyone in the world a can of spray paint and a blank wall and saying, “Tell us what you think — it’s important and everyone cares.” My biggest fear is not that we are becoming entranced and enslaved by some software but that we are forced to acknowledge how average and boring we really are. If anything, I find that very freeing.

  • Liz Chambers

    Wow, you are all so well-written, I am not sure how to follow with anything that hasn’t already been stated. I think we are seeing a backlash to the “enslavement to ingenuity” everywhere. I see it particularly with food. People are sick of ingenuity, and want to either grow their own food, or buy it from the person who grows it. Farmers markets are booming, CSA’s, garden-shares, etc.Also, I see this architecturally, where people are designing buildings that are meant to encourage community. Whether or not the community is actually happening, I have no idea. But I think the idea is that people desire that “experience of being alive”, and technology or not, I believe being alive means having community with other people. I think technologies best intentions are to bring people together, and in some ways, it certainly does. But even as it might bring you into contact with more people, those contacts aren’t as deep. It’s possible to know a lot of people, but none of them very well. I think there’s certainly something to be said about creativity, but I also think that even more than the desire to create is the desire to communicate and be understood. I think technology offers many more people the allure of being able to communicate. However, I don’t think it gives us as much ability to be understood as we would like. Heard, yes, Understood, no. For most of us, this has been good enough, or enough to take the edge off. But I don’t necessarily think it takes a walk through a state park, or a trip to the monastery to experience being alive (though both can be rejuvenating, and necessary to some extent). I think it takes a good face-to-face conversation with another human being.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Christopher: Agreed. By the way, I visited your site yesterday and am interested in your career transition. How are you progressing in your 10-year plan? Also, how did you find this post?

    Nolan: There’s definitely a lot of truth to what you say. Keeping abreast of our industry is an exhausting, and potentially reality-distorting, task. If I were in some other industry, I might have a completely different idea of what big themes were important to society at large. However, I also do have the sense that consumer technology obsession is much more mainstream now than ever before. Social media obviously has much to do with this. A few weeks ago when the iPad was announced, my feed reader was overrun with responses–at a level that surprised me even with all the hype leading up to it. Again, due to the nature of what I’m inclined to subscribe to, this make sense. But the day after, I was at the gym in the evening and was even more surprised to see iPad coverage on every single television screen mounted over the treadmills, elliptical machines, and other equipment. This was extended, prime time news coverage of an individual piece of consumer technology, and the segments covering the iPad were longer than those covering President Obama’s State of the Union speech from the evening before (the same day as the Apple event). To me, this is indicative of a larger tech influence on our culture than most people would believe.

    Liz: You’re raising an interesting point. It seems to amount to a continual calibration of culture. We’re not just responding to ubiquitous technology, but also to the ways in which our consumption and creation have impacted (for better or worse) the environment we depend upon. I was talking to a friend the other day about how the privileged class of our society has the luxury of buying organic produce, handmade goods, energy efficient appliances and vehicles, shopping at co-ops, and the like, but the majority of our population still depends upon mass-produced industrial food from Wallmart. It’s troubling, because it’s not easy–and perhaps not even the right thing to do–to expect everyone to return to a more locally focused lifestyle even if the benefits are many. To me, this brings to mind the idea that as we become more technologically sophisticated, we seem to prefer our technology to be invisible. Sure, we may not have massive computer boxes humming in our living rooms anymore, but that’s because the slim, sexy laptop (or tablet, someday) that we use depends upon a massive humming computer box with a Google, Apple, Yahoo, or Microsoft logo on it somewhere else. There’s a contradiction there… Anyhow, this is a rich topic that could go on forever, so I’ll leave it at that.

  • http://nolancaudill.com Nolan

    Chris, thanks for replying. Your posts and comments always get me thinking.

    On your point about the iPad getting more coverage than the State of the Union, I’m not sure if this is a technology thing or just the average consumer’s desire for, frankly, useless crap which our web peers EXCEL at. I’m not saying that the iPad is worthless, but at the end of the day, it still just a computer which is not earthshaking in the least.

    For example, what if some pop diva had announced that she was pregnant the morning of the speech? Of if a big celebrity had died? Or the Super Bowl was on that day? If you were to poll the man-on-the-street, more people could probably name more Jersey Shore cast members than their local political representatives. (Cue depressing Pew Report)

    Definitely our technology is becoming more mainstream but I feel like it’s not changing culture that much but just giving people another way to surround themselves with a world of their creation. Where our grandparents would come home and not read the newspaper to isolate themselves, young people log on to Facebook to get to the same end.Now how do I feel about our industry enabling that? I hate it, and like Tim O’Reilly, I wish we would “stop throwing sheep.” The creators of most of the useless web stuff are not molding society’s tastes, they are just giving them their bread and circuses.

  • Emlyn

    Chris, in reference to your thought, I agree, it’s best to make the most appropriate choice depending on the situation, however I have a preference for face to face communication.

  • Ryan

    There’s the issue of which came first, the chicken or the egg. @nolan is getting to one side of it by writing that the web industry is responding to the wants of the people. But then there’s the other side where an industry can create a need. Prior to Facebook, millions of people didn’t seem to need to poke eachother over and over or have a wall to communicate through. These tools tap into existing but unfulfilled desires but they also create a new normal for culture once they get established.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Nolan: That would be my main goal with anything I post–engaging the mind. Yup, the chicken and the egg problem that @Ryan brings up. Is our culture defined by what we make, or do we make things in response to our culture?

    Emlyn: Glad to hear from you! I hope you “stop by” again sometime.

    Ryan: Great point- I would have wanted to say the same thing ;-)

  • http://newfangled.com Nolan

    To Chris and Ryan: just to clarify my point about the “breads and circuses” that these developers are giving us, I agree that new ways have been invented for people to spend time online (like your poking and wall-writing points) and these create new avenues of distraction, but I was taking a bit higher view that all of these are symptoms of the larger problem of constantly finding ways to entertain ourselves. I see Facebook as taking advantage of humans to go to the easy and amusing, not creating new tendencies, so I’m not quite seeing a chicken-or-egg problem, but more of a realization of Huxley’s Brave New World.

  • http://work.ableparris.com Able Parris

    I read through this post and all of the comments yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about it since.

    Also, a friend just linked me to this post on minimalism, and I think it is talking about what Chris feels about new technology.

    It elaborates on a quote by Socrates:
    “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Nolan: You’re right, and I think the post Able linked to sums that up pretty well (see below).

    Able: I like how minimal that post you linked to is. The author is really on to something with the notion that the less you try to squeeze in, the more you can full enjoy what you do engage with. This was a good point:

    “…consider reading just the quality stuff, and if a blog or Twitter feed doesn’t deliver quality consistently, consider dropping it.

    Learn to love less television, movies, chatter, spending, shopping, eating out, junk food, technology, consumption, productivity. You get the idea.

    When you focus on enjoying less, you focus on full enjoyment.”

  • Molly

    *freedom to question* – – *freedom to produce* – – *continual calibration of culture* – – *Socrates!* I love it! I wish I’d been earlier to the table, but wonderful and inspiring thoughts all around…

  • http://Website Storm

    Mankind has been enslaved by television and the internet.

    I suggest you destroy both.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Molly: Thanks for the enthusiasm!

    Storm: Epic comment. I’m not sure I have that kind of power, though.

  • http://Website Ray

    Hello, Chris. Sorry to be so late responding to the discussion, but . . . .

    Improved or otherwise apparently more effective tools are very difficult to resist. Granted, humans are not the first animals to use, or even to make, tools. Ravens, crows, Darwin finches and probably other birds not only use conifer needles and other natural objects to catch insect larvae burrowing under tree bark, but will also bend the needles to make them more effective. That having been said, there is a highly dynamic relationship between the evolution of modern humans and the evolution of their tools. That dynamic is very different to the effect upon non-hominid animals of the ability some of them demonstrate to make and use simple tools. The difference is both qualitative and quantitative. The hominid toolkit changed little, and that slowly, from homo habilis until early homo sapiens. Over the last hundred thousand or so years, and more so from the transition from hunting-gathering to sedentary agriculture about ten thousand or so years ago, the changes ramify and the rate of change accelerates ever more dramatically. Tool innovation and use gives rise to culture; and culture is central to being modern humans.

    Culture also feeds back to tool use and innovation as the cultural process becomes complex and participants become invested in it. This can lead to further acceleration, as when domesticated animals, longbows, crop rotation, motor vehicles, computers, radio telephones and the Internet became available and affordable to the many, rather than only to the gentry, the wealthy, industrial and commercial concerns, and DARPA. On the other hand, societies or power blocs within them may be able to retard innovation. Consider the effective supression of the production and circlation of scriptures in English in England in the 15th and early 16th Century; the expulsion of the Jesuits and Portugese from Japan and supression of firearms in the late 16th, 17th and 18th centuries; the centrality of economic and social systems based upon chattle slavery in large parts of the United States from the declaration that all men are created equal into the mid-19th century; and the resistance of the insurance and other capital industries to reform for the benefit of non-corporate persons early in the 21st century. In the first three cases, resistance was ultimately overcome, though at terrible cost; in the last, the issue so far remains contingent. It may be worth noting that in the first three cases, technological innovation had a hand in overcoming the resistance: mechanical printing; steam navigation with accurate longitudinal measurement; and capital organization, railroads, the electric telegraph, breechloading firearms and ironclad warships all had their parts in overcoming the forces of reaction.

    As to the use of technology in modern communications, it seems to me that process discipline is as important as ever. Recent studies discussed on NPR’s On Point indicate that multi-taskers generally get less done than they think and get it done significantly less well. The more accessible I am, the less I get done. However much communicants may wish the instant gratification of 24/7 accessibility, it serves neither them nor me well. Leave me a message with meaningful detail and I will get back to you. Let’s meet when the reasonably necessary prep work has been accomplished and optimize the prospect of getting the job done right the first time. Your mileage may vary.

    As to the technology available today, it is, from my perspective, particularly interesting how very rapidly it becomes ho-hum to the average user. A case in point. In Dec 2009, my domestic partner and I came to the end of our then current Verizon Wireless commitment. Based on initial research we had done in Sep, we went to the Vz Wireless store, thinking that we might spring $300 plus another two year commitment for a Droid for her and a Plain Old Cell Phone for me. We found that (perhaps courtesy of the Droid introduction) the enV3s which had been $150 net of rebate each three months previously were now $40 for two, net of rebates. What’s that the reader yawned? So what, they aren’t SmartPhones? That’s true. But they are darn good cell phones, with: about six hours talk time, more than a week of standby time, qwerty keyboards, Bluetooth, micro SD storage expansion, MP3 capability, three mega-pixel cameras with LED flashes, text-to-speech and more other features than I shall likely learn to use before our new commitment is up, all in a 4.1 x 2.1 x 0.7 inch package which masses 3.8 oz. The reader is still yawning? My point exactly. This is a phenomenal set of improvements in function and functionalityover the cell phones of 2000, and at a much reduced volume and weight to the single-function cell phone of 1990; it is to the handi-talky or squad radio of 1970 as a corporate jet is to a Model T; and it is the Clarke dictum functional equivalent of magic to the communications world of 1950. But what I’m comparing it with is technology from 60 years ago, says the reader, rolling her eyes? Yes, it is. But the tech of today might as well be magic or holy miracle for all that most users understand of how it works or what to do about it when it stops working, other than soliciting help via some other device; even if the rate of innovation and replacement is so vastly accelerated that an enV3 is just so last year.

    So does it make sense to use all of the phone’s features? Not to me. Reasonable minds may and will differ, but texting seems to me an application to use Because You Can. It will almost always be more efficient to touch-type or Dragon-dictate an email to someone (with attachments) when I want a documented communication; and to phone call them when documentation is not necessary or speed is of the essence. For the work I do, if I had to give up one or the other, it would be the cell phone. Email with attachments is where it is at, for me. With computerized composition and editing, image/pdf document management and internet communications, one can have all of the power of paper, instantly transmissible anywhere in the world and (perhaps best of all) without the paper. Even so, it is a great convenience that both tools are available to me.

    As for the experience of being alive, yes, it is very important to get unplugged and outside. Life and nature are going on all around us, even in the city, and well worth the time and effort to encounter. A couple of days ago, I enjoyed an encounter with a house centipede, without any effort at all. Still, electronic communications can be a multiplier. The prospect that I will ever physically go to any number of places around the world is slight at best; but I have a nodding acquaintance with many of them via Nova, Nature, Blue Planet, The BBC Atlas of the Natural World, etc, etc, etc. My daughter may live 100 miles away and other friends and family further still, but I can be in touch with them as often as we like by using electronic media. I no longer need to treck to a library to conduct research and then accept the limitations of its collection while I am working or recreating. Do people waste and abuse the media? Of course, but that is just one aspect of the jumped-up juvenile baboon behavior one learns is part of the human condition for at least part of humanity in that survey course in anthropology in college. If not already discovered, there is probably the then and there equivalent of pornography waiting for modern illumination in some as yet unlit gallery at Lescaux. Where technology is cheap and commonly accessible, individuals should try to optimize the use of it; but not all will.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    I’d like to introduce my uncle (Ray), the author of the above comment, to the conversation–we call him Uncle Tio (long story), but a most excellent infinity-oriented nickname.

    Uncle Tio: Your first point is a rich one. It speaks to the portion of the conversation between Christopher Earl and I centered around the uniqueness of human culture and its relationship to technology. It’s interesting to reframe that thought in light of technology made by other species for sure, but especially to consider how the advance of human-technology-culture may affect the advance or halt of (perhaps) bird-technology-culture. Would it have been possible that Earth be dominated by bird culture, rather than human? I don’t know, but it sure would make a great science fiction novel.

    By the way, your point about technological suppression is a pretty significant aside to parsing the differences between human-technology-culture and other species’ technology-culture. Humans are always going to be able to foil their own attempts at progress. Whether hoarding “proprietary” knowledge/techniques/resources to maintain a balance of power or outright suppressing of technology, human emotions will steer the direction of progress every time. One I could add to your historical survey would be the suppression of the electric car by the oil lobby in the 60’s and 70’s. Boy, is hindsight 20/20 on that one…

    In regard to the “ho-humming” of technology, there’s a great video clip of comedian Louis C.K. on Conan O’Brien’s program that nails this. He says at the beginning, “Everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” He then goes through a long (and hilarious) rant of technology that we take for granted.

    “A couple of days ago, I enjoyed an encounter with a house centipede, without any effort at all.” There’s nothing I could possibly add to that to make it any better than it already is.

    You’re last comments hit at the central point: sorting out the how of technology’s impact on culture. We get to choose! I just posted about a small presentation I gave yesterday at our company’s winter retreat in which I focused in on the idea that we must choose how the culture of technology will shape the culture of our company, so that we, in turn, can do a little shaping of that culture with the things we do and make.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response to this post and conversation. I was talking with a coworker this morning about how rich the conversation around this post has been–really, far more rich than the seed post itself, but that is the power and value of the web in a nutshell!

  • http://Website Uncle Tio

    Hello Chris. The seed post was fine. It lead to a great deal of interesting discussion.

    Very interesting thought about bird culture. I have a vague recollection of a passing mention in an sf novel (perhaps by James Blish?) about 1970 of competition between birds and fallen hominids or enhanced simians in which an advantage held by the birds was their superiority in ritual. For a non-fiction treatment of ritual in birds, see the later episodes of BBC Bristol’s The Life of Birds, especially episode 7, “Finding Partners.”

    Great example of technological supression. Another which relates to it closely is the supression (virtual destruction) of the extensive urban, suburban and interurban electric light rail (trolley) network which existed prior to the rise of Standard Oil and the proliferation of automobiles and paved roads. It was possible circa 1920 to travel from Boston to Detroit by transfers between interurban trolley systems. To the best of my recollection, your grandmother’s parents to be trolleyed from Revere, MA to Portsmouth, NH to be married about 1917 or 18. American Heritage had an article on the subject in the late 1960’s, which can be accessed at:

    I do not watch late night TV and had never heard of Louis CK, but what a great video clip, absolutely spot on. Thank you!

    I look forward to watching your winter retreat presentation. Again, thank you so much for inviting me to participate.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Uncle Tio: Your mention of non-fictional treatment of ritual in birds was very popular over here! Also, I just saw an interesting post about a study that ties back to the idea of the lack of separation between us and the technology we use. I mentioned this in my post on the separation between humanity and technology—that we’re virtually cyborgs already—but it’s been “confirmed” by a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall College named Anthony Chemero who attempted an empirical test of ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger—that everyday tools become part of ourselves. Interesting, eh?

    I’ll check out the American Heritage article, too.

  • http://Website Uncle Tio

    Hello Chris,

    Thank you for the link to wired science. The article was interesting, though the expanation seemed to me rather more vague than I would have liked. I understand that the anomalous cursor movements injected into the experiment disrupt a feedback relationship between hand/mouse movement and cursor positioning, which disrupts performance of a larger task of which it is an element, but I am not sure that I am ready to see that the WIMP interface and through it the PC is part of the user. That having been said, the major purpose of developing graphical user interfaces was to try to make using computers easier and more intuitive than had been the case using the keyboard and command line approach; so I suppose that I can see it more easily in the historical perspective of the decades-long evolution of the computing equipment than in the present instant of computing.

    Other links on that site led me to some great videos of animal tool making and use. Here is one of octopuses carrying around coconut shell halves to use as temporary shelters: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/12/octopus-tools/.

    I have been impressed with octopuses ever since seeing a Nova episode thirty or so years ago in which an octopus opened a jar and removed a crab from it. How did it learn to do so? From a single observation of the same behavior by another octopus in the next aquarium.

    Here is one of crows using motor vehicle traffic, cross walks and crossing signals to crack nuts more or less safely: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLK4kh39Jwg.

    Animals are capable of so much more complex behaviors than we commonly credit them with. Corvids are particularly interesting in how much they can do with perhaps ten grams of CNS as opposed to the 1.5 kg we human adults are equipped with. Bernd Heinrich has written several intersting books on ravens, their behavior and cognition, which are well worth a look.

    Enjoyed your article on hyperity, and hope to put together some useful thoughts sooner or later. To my experience, the Jason Fried dictum was spot on. I like my new cell phone; but oh how annoying I am finding it to receive a string of half a dozen text messages over half an hour, rather than a single, reasonably well thought out email.


  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_butler_blog Chris Butler

    Tio: I’m not sure how I forgot to reply to your last comment, but yes, these videos are great! I have a friend who loves all things cephalopodian, so I shall make sure he sees the octopus one. I’m with you on the texting, too, though I find myself texting more than I ever thought I would…

  • http://www.steveortwerth.com Steve Ortwerth

    My novel ‘Under House Arrest’ poses a likely scenario of enslavement against societies wishes. The book is as much a wake-up call as it is a science fiction thriller. The human love affair with technology leaves open the opportunity for private exploitation…..if we’re not careful to look ahead.

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By Christopher Butler

Chris Butler is the COO of Newfangled. He writes and speaks often on design and the web. You can follow him @chrbutler. More by Christopher Butler