I’ve had the pressure of a thought building up for a while. It has to do with what is so misdirected about the entire virtual-world-based enterprise.
You can see that this might give some pause. Still, this day of Steve Jobs’ passing might be the time to flesh it out.
I sit here writing on an Apple Keyboard plugged into a Macbook Pro and I’m reading as I type on an Apple LCD screen. If I hadn’t come into contact with the Mac soon after being introduced to computers in the mid-eighties – I was not an early pioneer, my first experience of computing was in Algebra class in high school. A “computer scientist” came in to give us a demonstration. The first thing he did was pass out stacks of cards and a series of hole-punches….
If it hadn’t been for my first “pizza-box” Mac, I’d have abandoned my efforts, already in my late thirties, to enter this world in a substantive way. I put decades of effort into learning how to use a computer both to design boats and to simulate flight. If it hadn’t been for the Mac’s intuitive interface, I’d never have stuck with it. I’d also never have gotten the opportunity to apply so much of what Jobs had taught me to avionics when serendipity caught up with my obsession for flight simulation and I got the chance to design an avionics interface.
PC’s have always appeared to me to be intractable. They sit there demanding that we accede to their willful and arbitrary rules. The Mac always seemed to me to be there ready to help with an attitude of “What can we do together today?” They always seemed to be asking me, “How can I help you?”
Over the years, I’ve spent considerable money on computers and software, as we all have. I’ve always rationalized it by comparing computers to fresh fruit. While we tended to think of traditional tools as timeless investments, computers gave us time while they were fresh, then spoiled. We’re all familiar with the effect. A new computer racing ahead of us. A few months later, and we’ve caught up. After a year and a half, it was as slow as the old one in attempting to keep up with what we wanted it to do. If it hadn’t been for Moore’s Law….
Of course, Moore’s Law, as with any of these made-up imperatives, only described conditions as they appeared, and was not some underlying “Law of Nature.” We all stopped talking about it a few years ago, and now it’s all about the “Cloud” and gadgets, not computers. Technology’s apologists have shifted attention from a promise that could no longer be met towards a whole new set of wish-fulfillments just “over the horizon.”
And so we come back to the point. The entire project has been a misdirection.
Krishnamurti’s comparison of our mental conditioning to a computer is the key. He said this back around when I was just getting into computers. His warning might have had an impact if I’d heard it, but then, I didn’t until just recently. So many warnings that fell between the cracks in those years. Even my own instincts mistrusted during that inflation of the final bubbles of our Era over the last twenty or thirty years.
Tools, real tools, aren’t “like fruit.” They never have been and they never can be. Real tools open themselves to doing more and more with less and less as we gain mastery with them. They are simple and robust. They get better as they get worn in. There is a real relationship that builds over time between us and them, not a virtual simulacra of one.
Computers, the entire virtual world, is limited and limiting. It’s advancements and freedoms are illusory. No matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise these limitations are built into their fundamental core. They are programed. They achieve what they achieve through memory. Nothing comes out that wasn’t intentionally put in – besides bugs.
Computers are limited by memory and by the illusion of control. The notion that with enough work something complex can be planned for so that we can meet any eventuality, the insistence that control works. They are the ultimate artifacts of this will to control.
Without computers, these tirelessly and accurate accountants that can keep track of googles of bits of information, the ambitions of the will to control would have run out of steam a long time ago. Without their seemingly “superhuman” abilities to zoom in and cut-out enormous amounts of data lifted from a reductivist tally of our complex reality, no one would have thought it possible to “model” our world to any level of detail that would allow us to maintain confidence in an ability to control it. In an act of complicity just like the one between the Wizard and most visitors and inhabitants of Oz, we chose to accept the dazzling smoke and mirrors as proof of great power, even as the returns diminished and the limits became unavoidably clear.
Let’s not forget that unlike “wet-ware” a computer cannot be made or used without the highest level of integrated industrial capacity and a world-wide electrical and now electronic grid behind it. A grain of sand, a drop of water in the wrong place and all that gleaming aluminum and glass is worthless. A stray magnetic field and all those whirling disks become an orderly, but useless series of aligned 00000… or 1111111…, with all their binary specificity wiped clean. Not only is the internal system of computing limited by memory and control, it is dependent and incredibly vulnerable to the slightest shocks on any part of its support network. As with any “Old-tech” it eventually becomes obvious that it was always a “paper tiger,” as useless in countering our actual predicaments as castles, or Dreadnaughts, or hydrogen bombs.
We don’t want to hear this! Even those of us chronicling the collapse of our world are tied into its ways in so many ways that we are tangled in a web only the inexorable confrontation with changing conditions can cut through, not as we’d wish it, but as it will be. There have been, and will continue to be, an accelerating series of realizations of how this or that aspect of our old-lives and its assumptions have let us down. With time and frequency comes a new habituation to this. About now fewer and fewer of us can admit any fresh shock or surprise at any of these events anymore.
But I do think that for many of you – especially among the self-selected very few who not only attend to their computer screens doggedly enough to find these words, and return because you find something of interest here – to find on this day not an epitaph for Jobs, but one for the whole virtual endeavor will be somewhat surprising, if not unbelievable.
Even as I write this on this machine and send it out with all my most fervent hopes that it find readers amongst you, I must say that this is a dead end. Not just because web 2.0 has become a way to mine us all for free content so that marketers can continue to make their cut in a dwindling market. Not just because the infrastructure around computers and the web are so vulnerable to shocks that are inevitable, no matter how unsure we may be of their timing. Not because the impetus for computing to be a tool of great power has been shifted over into a self-reflective narcissistic obsession with shiny little mirrors that we can stare into and fondle throughout our days instead of interacting with each other. But because the entire metaphor of the computer as a tool was faulty from the start.
We’ve been led by our willingness to believe in control, in ease, that a tool’s function is identical to the imperatives of technology. That a tool IS technology. That the measure of a tool is its efficiency at turning effort into output.
That’s never been the case. These are illusions.
What stands in our way if we were compelled or chose to follow the life of a caveman? To begin, it’s impossible because we don’t have their world anymore. We don’t have the abundance. We don’t have the space. Beyond that, and perhaps most significantly, since scarcity was always a factor even for them, we don’t have their understanding of what a tool is, and what it isn’t. With our insistence that we be able to carry a tremendous overhead just to support our illusions and keep them safe, we would be unable to perceive our world with the necessary immediacy and accuracy of judgement and action to be able to survive. This is the legacy handed down to us through tools that we have almost completely lost sight of. The legacy that Jobs’ legacy has almost stripped us of. The legacy we will need to rekindle as collapse overtakes us. The legacy that can reunite us with the world we were once part of, the world we’ve almost destroyed.