summing up 104

summing up is a recurring series of interesting articles, talks and insights on culture & technology that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it – and much more – straight in your inbox.

People don't change, by Peter Gasston

People – I think – don't change that much. What changes over time are cultural differences and values, but people have the same goals, the same desires and the same urges.

Technology matches our desires, it doesn't make them. People haven't become more vain because now we have cameras. Cameras have been invented and they became popular because we've always been a bit vain, we've always wanted to see ourselves. It's just the technology was never in place to enable that expression of our characters before.

The more I study history the more I understand that people from different cultures, people from different historical periods... we're not exceptional, there's nothing exceptional about us, there's nothing exceptional about them. The technology might be new, but the way we react to it, the way we use it, is the same it always has been.

Whatever we think about ourselves, we aren't more intelligent than our ancestors. Neither were they more intelligent than we are. But technology and knowledge plays it's role in augmenting us – and that is what makes us better.

Education That Takes Us To The 22nd Century, by Alan Kay

When we get fluent in powerful ideas, they are like adding new brain tissue that nature didn't give us. It's worthwhile thinking about what it means to get fluent in something like calculus and to realize that a normal person fluent in calculus can outthink Archimedes. If you're fluent at reading you can cover more ground than anybody in the antiquity could in an oral culture.

So a good question for people who are dealing with computing is what if what's important about computing is deeply hidden? I can tell you as far as this one, most of the computing that is done in most of industry completely misses most of what's interesting about computing. They are basically at a first level of exposure to it and they're trying to optimize that. Think about that because that was okay fifty years ago.

Probably the most important thing I can urge on you today is to try and understand that computing is not exactly what you think it is. You have to understand this. What happened when the internet got done and a few other things back in the 70s or so was a big paradigm shift in computing and it hasn't spilled out yet. But if you're looking ahead to the 22nd century this is what you have to understand otherwise you're always going to be steering by looking in the rearview mirror.

If someone today could outthink Archimedes and anyone who is literate can cover more ground than any oral culture... What can someone do with a computer today? The most interesting point is that it isn't as much as we think. We keep mouthing platitudes about innovation and pretend we're much more advanced than our ancestors. But the more you look at what computing can really be about, the more pathetic everything we're doing right now sounds.

Why History Matters, by Audrey Watters

“Technology is changing faster than ever” – this is a related, repeated claim. It’s a claim that seems to be based on history, one that suggests that, in the past, technological changes were slow; now, they’re happening so fast and we’re adopting new technologies so quickly – or so the story goes – that we can no longer make any sense of what is happening around us, and we’re just all being swept along in a wave of techno-inevitability.

Needless to say, I don’t think the claim is true – or at the very least, it is a highly debatable one. Some of this, I’d argue, is simply a matter of confusing technology consumption for technology innovation. Some of this is a matter of confusing upgrades for breakthroughs – Apple releasing a new iPhone every year might not be the best rationale for insisting we are experiencing rapid technological change. Moreover, much of the pace of change can be accounted for by the fact that many new technologies are built atop – quite literally – pre-existing systems: railroads followed the canals; telegraphs followed the railroads; telephones followed the telegraphs; cable television followed the phone lines...

So why then does the history of tech matter? It matters because it helps us think about beliefs and practices and systems and institutions and ideology. It helps make visible, I’d hope, some of the things that time and familiarity has made invisible. It helps us think about context. It helps us think about continuity as much as change. And I think it helps us be more attuned to the storytelling and the myth-making that happens so frequently in technology and reform circles.

We're confusing technology consumption for technology innovation. Innovation augments ourselves to do things that were previously impossible, consumption just allows us to do more of the same. Maybe better, faster of whatever, but still the same.


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