Chitchat

From an interview with William Gibson in The Paris Review:

For someone who so often writes about the future of technology, you seem to have a real romance for artifacts of earlier eras.

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.

So true. When we think about technological change, we always think forward. But what was it like to have no electricity, no automobiles, no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, no telephones, no recorded music, no movies, no TV, no radio? It was just a few generations ago – no time at all, really – and yet it’s gone, “unknowable,” as Gibson says. Weird.

From an interview with George Dyson in The European:

We used to have only human intelligence, and now that has been supplemented by computational intelligence. So we would expect the potential for innovation to become supplemented as well.

Yes and no. The danger is not that machines are advancing. The danger is that we are losing our intelligence if we rely on computers instead of our own minds. On a fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves: Do we need human intelligence? And what happens if we fail to exercise it?

The question becomes: What progress is good progress?

Right. How do we maintain our diversity? It would be a great shame to lose something like human intelligence that was developed at such costs over such a long period of time. I spent a lot of my life living in the wilderness and building kayaks. I believe that we need to protect our self-reliant individual intelligence—what you would need to survive in a hostile environment. Few of us are still living self-reliant lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should be cautious not to surrender into dependency on other forms of intelligence.

But, although we think we’re in control, driving the car, it’s rare that we’re cautious about such things. As Gibson observes, looking backward, “Nobody paid any attention.” Is it any different now? If what we take for granted is invisible to us, how can we possibly know what it will mean to lose it – or, having lost it, what it was worth?

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4 Responses to Chitchat

  1. This notion that we think we are in control but we are rarely cautious about it is an idea that is worthy of further consideration. In the modern world, we have a great deal of power at our fingertips, but just because we can do something, is it the best thing to do?

    A trope that runs through the meditation community is relevant here: one purpose of meditation is to allow one to decide when, where, and how one expends cognitive resources, and to do so in a skillful manner. So rather than allowing our minds to be attracted to the latest bauble that pops up in front of us, the skillful thing to do is to distinguish between the important and the unimportant, and act accordingly.

  2. > “But what was it like to have no electricity, no automobiles, no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning” …

    Absolutely miserable. This is why I have a disdain for people who talk of “Nature”. Having no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no air conditioning, etc isn’t getting in touch with one’s essence, it’s harshness which has been cured by civilization, science, and technology. Let’s not forget clean water and common disease vaccinations too.

    Though I’m not quite sure what he means by “the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention”. The early 20th century immigrant New York is very well documented, as it was home to a lot of writers. If anything, it’s been over-attentioned, and he may actually be reflecting that.

    Anyway, this where I wish there was more support for what I call “tech-positive social criticism” – people who like technology, yet don’t buy into every manipulative political claim.

  3. I read your Gibson quote out loud to my partner, Katie – sitting here working late at night in Cambridge, UK – and she said that it’s different for her. She’s an architect and works a lot with old – back to mediaeval – buildings, and she says that she starts by imagining the lives of the people who built and first lived there, and that it is key to her ability to restore or reimagine the space.

    Perhaps those of us – like you and me – immersed in the technology have lost the faculty of imagination that Bill refers to, while those who have invested time in it – the historians, the architects – can visit the past more easily. And perhaps we should listen to them.

  4. Eric Drouillard

    This, to me, is part of the allure of the new wave of historical dramas on TV. Those that grapple with their era’s limitations (Mad Men, Deadwood, etc) show far more sophistication than, say, sci-fi that makes simple extrapolations based on current technological progress.