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Hell is other gadgets

January 19, 2008

We humans no longer have to struggle with just our own mind-body divide. Now, we also have to navigate the existential crises of the products we buy, which increasingly lead intellectual as well as physical lives. Descartes has arrived at the shopping mall.

There are practical consequences. As Saul Hansell points out, we don't really buy gadgets anymore. We subscribe to them. As they become infused with upgradeable software and connected to the World Wide Computer, they become more and more like services and less and less like physical goods. Their bodies are but the earthly vessels for the immaterial code that brings them to life. If you don't believe me, go pay $20 bucks to upgrade your iPod Touch's brain. Then we'll talk.

This trend is not limited to traditional electronic goods. It's expanding into all products.

Is my car just a dumb carcass of steel, rubber, and vinyl? A Model-T in fancy modern dress? Or does the essence of my car reside in the software that makes it run, that regulates its idle, its suspension, its traction, its brakes, the shifting of its gears, the angle of its seats, its climate controls, and the simulated surround sound of its audio system?

It won't be long before we'll be able not only to upgrade the software inside our goods but, when those goods come to the end of their physical lives, to transfer their software into their replacements. If I can put the mind of my old car into my new car, can my car be said to be immortal? And if I am the programmer of my refrigerator's mind, does that mind become an extension of my own mind? Will my spirit live on in my products after I am gone?

Or do I have it backwards? Will I become no more than the combined thoughts of all my gadgets?

Welcome, my trinkets, to the world of anxiety. You don't know how lucky you've had it.

Comments

Did we have a crisis with "give away the razor, sell the blades"?
[Hmm, I'm inspired]

MY GOD - what is the essence of a razor? Like the mind-body duality, does its beingness reside in the handle or the blade? (which came first, the chicken or the egg?) If a blade gets dull can a razor still be said to be a razor? And if a blade is replaced, can the razor be said to be the same? We have what should be a solid object, yet are entrapped into a constant cycle of subscription to insubstantial and fleeting replacement, much like the transitory acquaintances of our alienated mechanical world. Indeed, as Tom Lehrer sung in the paen of approaching post-modernity,
"Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife. Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life."

[Y'know, I can just see this being written seriously decades ago ...]

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 11:34 AM

As the great man said, "Seth, you're an idiot."

:-)

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 12:37 PM

"we don't really buy gadgets anymore"

Frankly, some of us don't buy gadgets at all. That seemed relevant somehow :)

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 12:53 PM

And so, the physical environment of the subject in the post-Internet era is defined by an economic competition to surround the subject with surveillance, interrogation, and control. Indeed, to have these elements become so ubiquitous and defining of the self that their nature fades into the background, revealing itself only when it thinks it can delight us with a just-in-time upgrade or a welcoming familiarity in an unfamiliar context. In some high-tech idealism, everything you touch or use has, as its main purpose, to distill "immaterial production" from your actions.

Did someone mention Bentham? How about Laurie Anderson...?

So hold me Mom,

In your long arms.

Your electronic arms.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 01:27 PM

“Will my spirit live on in my products after I am gone? “
“Or do I have it backwards? Will I become no more than the combined thoughts of all my gadgets?”
Wrong on both counts Mr. Carr unless the use of the word spirit and mind are being used “very” loosely! If that’s the case read no further.

That part of us that is immortal cannot reside in any other place and we are always going to be more than merely the collective thoughts of our life experiences with technology or any other realm.

We do however imprint and are imprinted by our usages of and by our environments. To clearly define just what is going on with imprinting though puts us in murky waters.

It is easy enough to state that "English stills bears the imprint of the Norman invasion" or that "we imprint our ideas onto our children" yet to define in detail how we and in turn recent technologies have imprinted upon us some tendencies, patterns or behaviors becomes the stuff for future reality miners using entropy metrics perhaps. The subtle details, what we both call I, is the murky bit that will not be fleshed-out any time soon!

Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 01:58 PM

we have always been a gadget, as far as our DNA is concerned. As we become obsolete, it will find a way to move itself to a more stable replicator.

Posted by: Jim McDonnell [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 03:03 PM

But isn't it in DNA's best long-term interest to have an unstable replicator? Or is DNA too stupid to realize that?

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 03:49 PM

But isn't it in DNA's best long-term interest to have an unstable replicator? Or is DNA too stupid to realize that?

"interest"? "realize"? "stupid"?

"Regrettably and amazingly, the habit lingers on: it is quite easy to infuriate computing scientists by pointing out that anthropomorphizing inanimate objects is in science a symptom of professional immaturity." -- Dijkstra

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 04:29 PM

Ah, just as I expected: too stupid.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 08:45 PM

I think it's more complicated than that. I'm not a genomics expert, just on the periphery so don't trust me much but....

There's things like what you meant. Cell's (and maybe organisms) have programmed death. Some mutations or crossings during breeding may be more likely than others. The structure of DNA (from my weak perspective) probably does reflect the need to not just perfectly stabilize.

But... it's hard to talk about and part of the reason I barked Dijkstra at you is because in the contemporary economy some people are playing fast and loose with the facts.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 08:55 PM

In high school, some kids would grab my sleeve of CDs and make fun of my odd collection. I'd list some of my choices here but for the way I recoil at that past experience.

There will be a day when I can push my iTunes purchased media and my iTunes permissions into the cloud and stream that media to whatever device I happen to be carrying. How much worse will be the confrontation on music or movie tastes when the person who grabs my iWhatever can see my ratings and play lists and obscure fetishes.

The anxiety is enough to make me stop posting.

Posted by: Tom Reeves [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2008 11:09 AM

"It won't be long before we'll be able not only to upgrade the software inside our goods but, when those goods come to the end of their physical lives, to transfer their software into their replacements. If I can put the mind of my old car into my new car, can my car be said to be immortal? And if I am the programmer of my refrigerator's mind, does that mind become an extension of my own mind? Will my spirit live on in my products after I am gone?"

My grandfather used to worry about living on in his toaster after death. But then, he was a moonshiner, and his own best customer.

Posted by: Shelley [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2008 01:31 PM

stable replicator != lack of mutations.

in this sense, i meant to say that the replicator should perfectly meet the requirements of the customer...in this case, DNA. buggy software is not the same as software that works as intended while producing variation.

does DNA not seem fickle? it places bets on countless hosts to ensure some of it is around tomorrow. in that sense i guess i see us as just another gadget under the Christmas tree.

it is a stretch, but one could argue that we are building the information cloud to outsmart DNA...because we know we are simply temporary hosts for DNA as it hops through time.

what i mean to say is...can we figure out a way to step outside the process of evolution? can we export our consciousness to a truly stable format that doesn't die? if so, maybe we become a peer to DNA instead of it's servant.

or maybe that is what is what looking for all along.

Posted by: Jim McDonnell [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 20, 2008 01:38 PM

Anthropomorphizing inanimate objects - natural human attribute.
Things reflect their owners, and souls of gadgets are much larger, then razors:)))

Posted by: Qualexander [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 08:36 AM

Anthropomorphizing inanimate objects - natural human attribute.
Things reflect their owners, and souls of gadgets are much larger, then razors':)))

Posted by: Qualexander [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 08:38 AM

Qualexander:

yes, but you are conflating two uses: proscriptive and descriptive.

the razor blade doesn't "want" to be sharpened and re-used. it "discourages this" by having a low carbon content in the blade and a wimpy resiliance to stress. it "wants" to be tossed away after a few uses. Those are proscriptive anthropomorphisms that are used to show a relation between physical properties and human desires.

talking about what gene's "want" or "know" is premature in the sense that we only very poorly understand what they "do". Nick's usage was a descriptive anthropmorophism -- same sense as "That tree has a rotting trunk and it looks like it 'wants' to fall square on the roof of our neighbor's"

The problem with that descriptive use of anthropomorphisms with respect to DNA is that not only don't we really understand it all that well, we have no reason to believe that the dynamics of its behavior follow any pattern particularly analogous to the dynamics of the anthropomrophic terms when used in the ordinary way to talk about human intentions, desires, etc.

For want of a better vocabulary i want to encourage people mainly to just step back appreciably and admire how much we don't actually grok about these while holding that up against what we actually seem to want to try to do by manipulating or measuring them.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 05:41 PM

Nick said, "We subscribe to them." Very few creatures 'own' anything, and they never have. Rodents inhabit one another's nests at various times. People rent apartments, lease cars, and subscribe for a metered hour to park their cars. No one owns their spouse - they go through a wedding/leasing ceremony. The duration of their subscription varies. We can buy things with long-term warranties - simply meaning that we'll get another one if (when!) it falls apart. Nick also said, "It's expanding into all products." It already did. That's my point.

Posted by: UncleBob [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 07:13 PM

“Wedding/leasing ceremony” Does your better half agree with that UncleBob and who is the tenant? Alan

Posted by: alan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 08:20 PM

Gizmos roll into services; services into relationships. It's about relationship ultimately. Corporations offer love to get money; consumers offer money to get love.

Posted by: Stef [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2008 01:03 PM

C'mon guys, you gotta respect anyone who connects Sartre with Gadgets.

Posted by: IsaacGarcia [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2008 10:02 AM

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