He said he was going through some papers in his mother’s house and found it, a postcard I had sent him years before when I still lived in New York. It was the Empire State Building and a brief greeting scribbled on the back- how I was working (or not) and sending good thoughts to a friend in Italy. He scanned it and sent the image to me saying- “Remember when people used to actually sent messages with pen and paper?” As I looked at the image, the sepia-toned memory was quickly replaced by the buzz of my phone announcing another post on Instagram and it made me wonder, what really has changed. While we used to send letters we now send emails and postcards have become Facebook or Instagram posts. We seem to be exchanging one devil for another constantly shedding the shell of the old for the perceived new. As Virginia Heffernan writes in her brilliant “Magic and Loss” we seem to be heralding back to a Victorian age where children are to be seen and not heard. indeed, she suggests that now we produce children only to produce images to spawn more likes and shares, their images frozen in electronic amber. People now scale construction sites and buildings to post images from these heights, now known as rooftopping possibly giving up their lives for a like. Yet if we lose our life in this pursuit our digital legacy will live on. Our digital artifacts will outlive us and one day might be museum pieces, like stereoscope or view-master slides holding us all captive in an electronic eternity.
For those of us who still remember “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, from our typing class days, (Its a sentence that has all the letters of the alphabet which one would type endlessly for touch typing practice) the idea that we may no longer need to type to input information into our computers sounds like a good thing. It would mean an end to all those hours of finger drills on the keyboard or typewriter, helping us learn the skill of typing. New technology is moving forward the next level is access, making sure that everyone has the ability to meet the real or imagined need for Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest. The move toward a visual and voice based manner of interacting with the computers and the electronic world would open the next billion to the 21st century as we see it. This poses questions that we will be looking at over the coming weeks, one of these being the continued lowering of the bar to access. While there are no doubts that voice command or push button input would make life easier, I wonder, how easy do we need things to be? At what point will we not need to make any efforts at all and have everything being automated and done for us. The only glimmer of hope that we are beginning to see that too much automation makes a good case for our own extinction. Self-driving cars may eliminate five million jobs or more and the question quickly becomes, what do these people and what do we need them for? We are even looking at a universal basic income so that we can give those people whos jobs have been eliminated money to buy the products they used to make. Perhaps it’s not the jobs being eliminated that we have to worry about, what if we eliminate the need for ourselves?
I never liked the whole idea of the Ralph Lauren polo shirts or anything with someone else’s logo on it. I guess if there was going to be something there- it should be my initials or an image of my choice though in the latter case probably better not. That idea of not being a walking billboard for someone else’s identity has never appealed to me but it seems that we are willing to trade that precious real estate with no tangible compensation. That discrediting of our value of personal value seems to approached hagiographic heights with the new service from Blippar. By installing their app. – the selfies you take will have installed around them a “halo” (Their word, not mine) that can be branded either to sites that you have an interest in or to advertisers that they prescribe for you. It seems that we have no idea of the value of our own image or digital assets and are willing to do anything for our 15 minutes of internet fame even giving our image and our data exhaust for the privilege. It seems that as Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, “men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about themselves”. It seems that we will sacrifice anything on the altar of social media for our fifteen minutes of binary notoriety, for a like or perhaps a connection.
While it still blows my mind that light has weight, it also still causes me to stop and think that information has value and that our information can demand a high cost. Companies regularly mine our internet browsing history to see where we have been to predict where we might go in our internet searches. But have we lost the difference between cost and value? It has been often remarked upon here and elsewhere how we give away our personal data or data exhaust as it is called, making us believe that there is no value to our information. It is something like the exhaust from our cars that needs to be taken away and dealt with like a crying child throwing a tantrum in a museum. And yet, this very stone which we have rejected becomes the cornerstone of so many company’s existences. If Google couldn’t track our data, how would they know how to market to us, to tell us what we needed, what we should value, what we should want and how to get it? In short, we give them things which we are told have no value and then they to use these things, our opinions and our interests to determine what we should pay for what we are told we should want.
It seems that what we value we are no longer willing to pay for and what we pay for what we no longer value. We pay money for products that we know we will have to replace in a year or less as they will have no value left and pay money to get people to look, click or follow a website. We pursue a vapor we value but at what cost?
Readers of this blog will know the high esteem that we hold Ridley Scotts “Blade Runner” and then will not be surprised that we stopped to read the article about dolls being given a formal funeral service at a funeral parlor in Japan. It seems that in Japan, many still hold to longstanding Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that all things have a soul, and so in “death” they are given the respect of a passed living being, with an acknowledged soul and spirit. While Blade Runner deals with the human looking robots possibility of having a soul, what about the items that we use every day? Many of us spend more time with our phone than we do with other people, either one person or many. My laptop has been with me for a number of years and is considered a trusted friend. When it is no longer usable, what obligation do I have to it? How often do we say, my phone or laptop died when the battery runs out? When will we learn that we have a responsibility to ourselves but also to what we create and what we create relationships with? If we didn’t, why would Britain be debating if kill switches were necessary or worth discussion? We seem to go to great pains to respect human birth (seemingly disregarding them afterward in many respects) and when and if other people do and deserve respect because of it, but what of the things we create that are not exactly like us yet. How will we react to the human robot that begs for a merciful death, will we toss it away or respect the role that it has had in our lives and inherent dignity. Perhaps we will finally be compassionate beings in the digital space when we treat a computers demise with the respect and awe that we treat the launch of the newest tablet or phone.
A few years ago I came across a book, “The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier poses the question, what if our pain were the most beautiful thing about us. What if that which we seem to give little value were the source of our greatest beauty. This devaluation of a resource seems to be the story that many companies want to tell us about the data that we freely give them access our internet searches. Every search, shopping cart, web page we look at is regularly recorded, tracked and collated to give the meta-data that companies use to so that they can make data-based predictions about our behavior, our buying habits and sell us things before we know that we need them. All of this data comes from us and we give it freely but what if we didn’t? What if, as consumers, we realized the value of what we leave behind us in our data exhaust. As technology companies continue to try to find a way to monetize content what would happen if the sources of the data began to ask for their fair share of the pie. How would companies react when site users realize that our data exhaust is the most valuable thing about us and ask to be compensated for the diamonds we currently leave in the dust.
While thinking about Moore’s Law, you may remember, it states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, with the second law being that cost would fall with each new development, I was reminded of a passage from “Big Data” by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier about the growth of information and the ability to share it. From the advent of Arabic numerals, writing, print and so forth it seems that the pace of our ability to share and manipulate data has been getting faster not unlike Moore’s Law. The world that most of us grew up in is very different from the world that we are living in now and will, no doubt, look much different in the future. How are we to understand and relate to the world that may be changing faster than our ability to understand it. Motion picture film moves at 24 frames per second that transform single images into a fluid moving image. Will our technology begin to move so fast that the single now is transformed into a rapidly disappearing past, beyond our understanding or realization?