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We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the emptiness of the center hole that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man (1964)
The last few paragraphs of Understanding Media, where McLuhan peered into the last days of the postmodern and over the lip into our present day, the postnormal. He somehow avoids the wrenching disruptions involved, and the human costs of a transition to a time when 99% are unemployed artists, and 1% own the machinery and resources that makes everything necessary for life.
Kevin Kelly is another deep mind countering economist Robert Gordon’s claim that information technology has had only a small impact on productivity, along with Krugman. HIs argument is that a/ we’ve only been at this 20 years, since the emergence of the web (he discounts Gordon’s start of the era of information technology back in the ’60s) and b/ Gordon’s obsession with productivity is dumb: we should be measuring the degree to which this wave of technology frees us to waste time. Kelly refers to this as the post-productive economy, a techno-utopian view with some sensible foundations.
Kevin Kelly, The Post-Productive Economy
It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.” Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity — output per hour — is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots.Long-term growth of that type that Robert Gordon studies is really weird if you think about it. As he notes, there wasn’t much of it in the world before 1750, before technological progress. Now several centuries later we have a thousand times as much wealth as before. Where does this extra good stuff come from? It is not moved from somewhere else, or borrowed. It is self-created. There’s a system which manufactures this wealth “out of nothing.” Much like life itself. There are certainly necessary conditions and ingredients, but it seems once you have those in place, the economy (the system) will self-generate this wealth.
A number of economists have wrestled with the origins of this self-generating wealth. Paul Romerand Brian Arthur both separately point to the recombining and re-mixing of existing ideas as the way economic growth occurs. This view focuses on knowledge as the prime motor in a self-renewing circle of increasing returns. Unlike say energy or matter, the more knowledge you spend, the more knowledge you earn, and the more breeds more in a never-ending virtuous spiral.
What is important is that this self-increasing cycle makes things that are new. New goods, new services, new dreams, new ambitions, even new needs. When things are new they are often not easy to measure, not easy to detect, nor easy to optimize. The 1st Industrial Revolution that introduced steam and railways also introduced new ideas about ownership, identity, privacy, and literacy. These ideas were not “productive” at first, but over time as they seeped into law, and culture, and became embedded into other existing technologies, they helped work to become more productive. For example ideas of ownership and capital became refined and unleashed new arrangements for funding large-scale projects in more efficient ways. In some cases these indirect ideas may have more long-term affect on growth than the immediate inventions of the time.
Likewise the grand shift our society is undergoing now, moving to a highly networked world in the third phase of industrialization, is producing many innovations that 1) are hard to perceive, 2) not really about optimizing labor, and 3) therefore hard to quantify in terms of productivity.
One has the sense that if we wait a while, the new things will trickled down and find places in the machinery of commerce where they can eventually boost the efficiency of work.
But it seems to me that there is second-order tilt in this shift to a networked world that says the real wealth in the long-term, or perhaps that should be the new wealth, will not be found merely in greater productivity, but in greater degrees of playing, creating, and exploring. We don’t have good metrics for new possibilities, for things that have never been seen before, because by definition, their boundaries, distinctions, and units are unknown. How does one measure “authenticity” or “hyperreality” or “stickiness”?
Productivity is the main accomplishment, and metric, of the two previous Industrial Revolutions. Productivity won’t go away; over the long term it will take fewer hours of human work to produce more of the goods and services those economies produce. Our system will do this primarily because most of this work will be done by bots.
The main accomplishment of this 3rd Industrialization, the networking of our brains, other brains and other things, is to add something onto the substrate of productivity. Call it consumptity, or generativity. By whatever name we settle on, this frontier expands the creative aspect of the whole system, increasing innovations, expanding possibilities, encouraging the inefficiencies of experiment and exploring, absorbing more of the qualities of play. We don’t have good measurements of these yet. Cynics will regard this as new age naiveté, or unadorned utopianism, or a blindness to the “realities” of real life of greedy corporations, or bad bosses, or the inevitable suffering of real work. It’s not.
The are two senses of growth: scale, that is, more, bigger, faster; and evolution. The linear progression of steam power, railways, electrification, and now computers and the internet is a type of the former; just more of the same, but only better. Therefore the productivity growth curve should continue up in a continuous linear fashion.
I suggest the growth of this 3rd regime is more like evolutionary growth, rather than developmental growth. The apparent stagnation we see in productivity, in real wages, in debt relief, is because we don’t reckon, and don’t perceive, the new directions of growth. It is not more of the same, but different.
This all reminds me of McLuhan’s claim —
Today in the electric age we feel as free to invent nonlineal logics as we do to make non-Euclidean geometries. Even the assembly line, as the method of analytic sequence for mechanizing every kind of making and production, is nowadays yielding to new forms.
— which I interpret to mean that as information technology advances over the next 100 years, it will push people increasingly into the role of artists, and out of the factories. An evolution of society, not just a speeding up.
Of course, the trick isn’t just convincing everyone that idleness should still come with a paycheck. The big hitch is managing to survive all the messes we’ve created in the name of global productivity and growth at all costs. There might be a techno-utopia in the out years, but in the meantime we have to learn to weather the postnormal, first.
One of Kelly’s paragraphs jumps out as perhaps the most challenging for those with the deepest identification with modern business ideology:
Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about “wasting” labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to “waste” time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.” Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity — output per hour — is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy don’t include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.
I never warmed to Friendfeed, primarily because it seemed dominated by outsized personalities and their acolytes. As I wrote in Jan 2009 in Bottom Feeding Off Friendfeed:It may also be that the benefits of Friendfeed only accrue to very popular people — like Gray and Scoble — who have dozens or hundreds of acolytes who respond to their every post with a barrage of commentary. I will also suggest that those who are very active followers of those two and their ilk may also get a secondary, real and significant benefit as well. But the average schmoe, wandering around in Friendfeedland, having not perfected either massive social popularity or the followership model will try the service out and quickly leave never to return because there is no ‘it’ to get for them. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland.
The difference with Quora seems to be the thematic approach. Instead of personalities dominating, in Quora issues dominate. This has the direct effect of drawing deeply knowledgeable people to jump into Quora discussions — like having the founder of a startup answer questions about the company — which reminds me of the Woody Allen bit from Annie Hall, when he’s drawn into a discussion with a bombastic idiot at a cocktail party about Marshall McLuhan, and Allen pulls McLuhan out of thin air to refute the blowhard.
The dominant motif in Quora is the spirit of inquiry, a direct rejection of being a fan boy of highly popular media personalities. Quora is less like talk radio, where Howard Stern holds court on a dozen topics each show, and much more like reading — and participating with — the New Yorker or the Atlantic, where a diverse set of leading thinkers address the issues of the day.
I have to agree with David Brooks, at least with regard to some of the observations he offers this morning in the NY Times, when he says that participating on the Internet is different from simply reading books. However, I disagree with nearly every specific point he makes, and the conclusions he draws.
He starts with Nick Carr’s polemic, ‘The Shallows’, which makes a case for the Internet ruining our minds and by extension, our culture. And then he heaps on some dime-store philosophy, and wraps it with an elitist bow:
David Brooks, The Medium Is The Medium
Carr argues that the Internet is leading to a short-attention-span culture. He cites a pile of research showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people’s abilities to engage in deep thought or serious contemplation.
Carr’s argument has been challenged. His critics point to evidence that suggests that playing computer games and performing Internet searches actually improves a person’s ability to process information and focus attention. The Internet, they say, is a boon to schooling, not a threat.
In particular, Brooks does not touch on research that shows that reading on the Internet engages more parts of the brain that reading a book, which has led some to suggest it is a more intellectual activity than leaning back with the newest Harry Potter.
But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It’s not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It’s the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.
The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.
This last paragraph is a puzzler: a series of sentences that don’t add up.
First, McLuhan’s point is that exposure to a new medium — say, reading books, or participating on the Internet — changes those who are exposed. That change in the individual’s mind is the real ‘message’ of the medium, not the stories in the books, or the sports on TV. And isn’t that what he is trying to say? That kids exposed to books are changed? Then why does he say that sometimes a ‘medium is just a medium’?
He isolates the one dimension of the many changes that media induce in us — self-identity — but leaves out others, like the shift in values that generally comes along with being exposed to new media.
A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.
Brooks focuses on the supposed ‘hierarchical’ nature of literature — a construct of his personal, or cultural feelings about literature — and seems to make that a law of the universe. I guess I buy that things like books are culturally situated, but they aren’t all in a single culture. There isn’t a single hit parade for all books ever.
Also, this allusion to the world of reading as if it is a Zen monastery is pure hyperbole.
A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.
Brooks offer up an image of an academic quadrangle where learned authors stroll, in gowns, chatting with eager young accolytes, and then contrasts it with the anti-authoritarian Internet which is — shudder — egalitarian.
These different cultures foster different types of learning. The great essayist Joseph Epstein once distinguished between being well informed, being hip and being cultivated. The Internet helps you become well informed — knowledgeable about current events, the latest controversies and important trends. The Internet also helps you become hip — to learn about what’s going on, as Epstein writes, “in those lively waters outside the boring mainstream.”
But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.
Then, in a neat bit of legerdemain, Brooks uses a quote about being cultivated — and explicitly making the case that becoming cultivated — basically taking on the values and manners of the elite — is more important than being well informed or hip. He also insinuates that learning how to respect your elders (‘betters’?) and those who have been accepted by the elite as authoritative is one mark of becoming cultivated. And of course, he states that the Internet does not do any of that, which is why the Internet is a playground and not the haunt of the learned.
Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.
It’s better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant, and making the important more prestigious.
So, it’s a culture war, and Brooks joins Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, and a long list of others who say that what we are doing on the web is immoral, illegitimate, and immature. They are threatened by the change in values that seems to accompany deep involvement in web culture, a change that diminishes much of what Brooks holds up for our regard in his piece. I don’t mean the specific authors he may have been alluding to — although he names none but Carr — but rather a supposed hierarchical structure of western culture, which is reflected in the literary niche is supports.
Brooks is actually making a more sinister case: to the young that would like to get ahead, avoid the rabble on the web with their egalitarian and multitasking ways. Read books instead, because it is the mark of aspiring members of the elite, the ruling class.