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Posts tagged technology and change


The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible. That is also why we must be suspicious of capitalists. Capitalists are by definition not only personal risk takers but, more to the point, cultural risk takers. The most creative and daring of them hope to exploit new technologies to the fullest, and do not much care what traditions are overthrown in the process or whether or not a culture is prepared to function without such traditions. Capitalists are, in a word, radicals. In America, our most significant radicals have always been capitalists—men like Bell, Edison, Ford, Carnegie, Sarnoff, Goldwyn. These men obliterated the 19th century, and created the 20th, which is why it is a mystery to me that capitalists are thought to be conservative. Perhaps it is because they are inclined to wear dark suits and grey ties.

I trust you understand that in saying all this, I am making no argument for socialism. I say only that capitalists need to be carefully watched and disciplined. To be sure, they talk of family, marriage, piety, and honor but if allowed to exploit new technology to its fullest economic potential, they may undo the institutions that make such ideas possible. And here I might just give two examples of this point, taken from the American encounter with technology. The first concerns education. Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests.

A second example concerns our politics. It is clear by now that the people who have had the most radical effect on American politics in our time are not political ideologues or student protesters with long hair and copies of Karl Marx under their arms. The radicals who have changed the nature of politics in America are entrepreneurs in dark suits and grey ties who manage the large television industry in America. They did not mean to turn political discourse into a form of entertainment. They did not mean to make it impossible for an overweight person to run for high political office. They did not mean to reduce political campaigning to a 30-second TV commercial. All they were trying to do is to make television into a vast and unsleeping money machine. That they destroyed substantive political discourse in the process does not concern them.

from "Graceland: The African Concert," by Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, et al., recorded live in Zimbabwe, 1987

On sites such as Amazon and iTunes, homophily is a selling point: it’s the basis for “collaborative filtering”, whereby you’re recommended books and music on the basis of what others who made the same purchase - people like you - also enjoyed.

The unspoken assumption here is that you know what you like - that satisfying your existing preferences, and maybe expanding them a little around the edges, is the path to fulfillment. But if happiness research has taught us anything, it’s that we’re terrible at predicting what will bring us pleasure. Might we end up happier by exposing ourselves more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people and things we don’t think we’d like?

You don’t need technology to do that, but then again, technology needn’t be the enemy: Facebook could easily offer a list of the People You’re Least Likely To Know; imagine what that could do for cross-cultural understanding. And I love the Unsuggester, a feature of the books site enter a book you’ve recently read, and it’ll provide a list of titles least likely to appear alongside it on other people’s bookshelves. Tell it you’re a fan of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason, and it’ll suggest you read Confessions Of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. And maybe you should.

Even the resurrection of Jesus, the most extraordinary, cataclysmic intervention of God in history, took hundreds of years to have widespread cultural effects.

Culture Making, p.59

from "Delhi to outlaw plastic bags," by Randeep Ramesh,, 16 January 2009

Carry a plastic bag in Delhi and you could be imprisoned for five years. Officials in India’s capital have decided that the only way to stem the rising tide of poly­thene is to outlaw the plastic shopping bag.

According to the official note, the “use, storage and sale” of plastic bags of any kind or thickness will be banned. The new guideline means that customers, shopkeepers, hoteliers and hospital staff face a 100,000 rupee fine (£1,370) and a possible jail sentence for using non-biodegradable bags….

Civil servants said that punitive measures were needed after a law prohibiting all but the thinnest plastic bags – no thicker than 0.04mm – was ignored.

Although the government had originally concluded that plastic bags were too cheap and convenient to be disposed of, the authorities appear to have been swayed by environmentalists who pointed out that used bags were clogging drains and so providing breeding grounds for malaria and dengue fever. There is evidence that prohibition of plastic bags can work. Countries such as Rwanda, Bhutan and Bangladesh have all had bans enforced.

a Ideas Blog post, 6 January 2008

Music | “The success of Guitar Hero means that the onus is now on the manufacturers of ‘real’ guitars to make them easier,” a blogger says. “Why are they still making guitars with ‘real’ strings that are difficult and boring to learn how to play and really make your fingers hurt? What is the point?” Are musicians to be protected like some sort of medieval guild? [Guardian]

The Amish (a quaint static ripple whose way of life will never uncover the simplest new technological fix for the unfolding hazards of a dynamic universe) have long recognized that material culture embodies weird inspirations, challenging us, as eventual consumers, not with ‘copy what I do’, but a far, far more subversive ‘try me.’

—Timothy Taylor, "Culture," response to's 2009 Annual Question, "What will change everything?"

"Diversity of Species in the Rainforest," ad by Oro Verde: Die Tropenwaldstiftung (The Rainforest Foundation) :: via FFFFOUND!

"SX-70," directed by Charles and Ray Eames for Polaroid (and with scoring by the great Elmer Bernstein!), 1972 :: via Lens Culture

Some 30,000 pairs of his spectacles have already been distributed in 15 countries, but to Silver that is very small beer. Within the next year the now-retired professor and his team plan to launch a trial in India which will, they hope, distribute 1 million pairs of glasses. The target, within a few years, is 100 million pairs annually. With the global need for basic sight-correction, by his own detailed research, estimated at more than half the world’s population, Silver sees no reason to stop at a billion.

If the scale of his ambition is dazzling, at the heart of his plan is an invention which is engagingly simple. Silver has devised a pair of glasses which rely on the principle that the fatter a lens the more powerful it becomes. Inside the device’s tough plastic lenses are two clear circular sacs filled with fluid, each of which is connected to a small syringe attached to either arm of the spectacles.

The wearer adjusts a dial on the syringe to add or reduce amount of fluid in the membrane, thus changing the power of the lens. When the wearer is happy with the strength of each lens the membrane is sealed by twisting a small screw, and the syringes removed. The principle is so simple, the team has discovered, that with very little guidance people are perfectly capable of creating glasses to their own prescription.

excerpt Baby on board
from "Looking Under the Hood and Seeing an Incubator," by Madeline Drexler,, 15 December 2008

In truth, experts say, the developing world doesn’t need more incubators. It needs incubators that work. Over the years, thousands have been donated from rich nations, only to end up in “incubator graveyards” — most broken, some never opened. According to a 2007 study from Duke University, 96 percent of foreign-donated medical equipment fails within five years of donation — mostly because of electrical problems, like voltage surges or brownouts or broken knobs, or because of training problems, like neglecting to send user manuals along with the devices.

To compensate for this philanthropic shortsightedness, medical staffs either crank up the temperature in “incubator rooms” to 100 degrees or more, or swaddle babies in plastic to hold in body heat. Such makeshift solutions led the Boston team to ask: How can we make an incubator for the developing world that will get fixed? . . .

In his discussions with doctors who practice in impoverished settings, Dr. Rosen learned that no matter how remote the locale, there always seemed to be a Toyota 4Runner in working order. It was his “Aha!” moment, he recalled later: Why not make the incubator out of new or used car parts, and teach local auto mechanics to be medical technologists?

"Computer Beats Kerouac, Man," a Ideas blog post, 8 December 2008 :: scroll video from WBUR

Literature | How would Jack Kerouac cope with Microsoft Word? Not very well, a blogger imagines, for “the birth of the computer has led, largely, to the death of the genuine stream of consciousness novel.” It “allows us to delete, shift sections around and continually edit, in the way that Kerouac, writing on his lengthy scrolls [for “On the Road”], could not.” [Guardian]

from "At the British Museum," by Peter Campbell, London Review of Books, 18 December 2008 :: via Polymeme

Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.

Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?

Well, not exactly, but the range and character of what is written down give some idea of the texture of everyday life in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The majority of tablets may be the equivalent of office files – letters, legal documents, contracts, mortgages, lists of goods – but there are also messages addressed to the gods, some of them expressing indignance that good behaviour has not been rewarded. Astronomical observations are detailed and medical texts full of diagnostic descriptions. There are records of refurbishments: the kings, who had responsibility not just for religious ceremonies but for the maintenance of temple structures, celebrated their building works.

from "Becoming Screen Literate," by Kevin Kelly,, 23 November 2008

The overthrow of the book would have happened long ago but for the great user asymmetry inherent in all media. It is easier to read a book than to write one; easier to listen to a song than to compose one; easier to attend a play than to produce one. But movies in particular suffer from this user asymmetry. The intensely collaborative work needed to coddle chemically treated film and paste together its strips into movies meant that it was vastly easier to watch a movie than to make one. A Hollywood blockbuster can take a million person-hours to produce and only two hours to consume. But now, cheap and universal tools of creation (megapixel phone cameras, Photoshop, iMovie) are quickly reducing the effort needed to create moving images. To the utter bafflement of the experts who confidently claimed that viewers would never rise from their reclining passivity, tens of millions of people have in recent years spent uncountable hours making movies of their own design. Having a ready and reachable audience of potential millions helps, as does the choice of multiple modes in which to create. Because of new consumer gadgets, community training, peer encouragement and fiendishly clever software, the ease of making video now approaches the ease of writing.

This is not how Hollywood makes films, of course. A blockbuster film is a gigantic creature custom-built by hand. Like a Siberian tiger, it demands our attention — but it is also very rare. In 2007, 600 feature films were released in the United States, or about 1,200 hours of moving images. As a percentage of the hundreds of millions of hours of moving images produced annually today, 1,200 hours is tiny. It is a rounding error.

We tend to think the tiger represents the animal kingdom, but in truth, a grasshopper is a truer statistical example of an animal. The handcrafted Hollywood film won’t go away, but if we want to see the future of motion pictures, we need to study the swarming food chain below — YouTube, indie films, TV serials and insect-scale lip-sync mashups — and not just the tiny apex of tigers. The bottom is where the action is, and where screen literacy originates.

from "People of the Screen," by Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis, Fall 2008

When you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”

In this sense it is a metaphor for the experience of reading in the twenty-first century. Like so many things we idolize today, it is extraordinarily convenient, technologically sophisticated, consumption-oriented, sterile, and distracting. The Kindle also encourages a kind of utopianism about instant gratification, and a confusion of needs and wants. Do we really need Dickens on demand? Part of the gratification for first readers of Dickens was rooted in the very anticipation they felt waiting for the next installment of his serialized novels—as illustrated by the story of Americans lining up at the docks in New York to learn the fate of Little Nell. The wait served a purpose: in the interval between finishing one installment and getting the next, readers had time to think about the characters and ponder their motives and actions. They had time to connect to the story.


I’m interested in how reading on the page differs from reading on screens; in how different kinds of screens enable different kinds of knowledge; in the strategies and tools we employ for information gathering, for information ordering, and for information evaluating. I think a lot about linear and non-linear forms of organizing mental experience, and the technologies that make such organization easier or harder. I wonder about whether we’re really losing serendipity, as so many people say. I’m fascinated by the various speeds at which technologies move and by our ability (or, sometimes, inability) to match those speeds. I wonder what libraries are for and what they will be for.

from "Ghosts of Christmas Past," by Laura Vanderkam, Culture11, 3 December 2008 :: via more than 95 theses

Why would the housewives of 2008 — many of whom read Good Housekeeping — choose to spend so much less time cooking and cleaning than their grandmothers did? You can’t blame the lack of technology for grandma’s intensity; ads for Norge dishwashers and Spam show that labor-saving devices and prepared foods existed in 1958.

Instead, the answer might be found in another striking difference between the 1958 Good Housekeeping and its 2008 counterpart. There is almost nothing in the older magazine about parenting. There are instructions on making clothes for your kids, but little about nurturing their souls or brains. In 2008, on the other hand, one of the longest articles is about “Staying Close to Your Teen” by doing crafts together, jamming to her music, or learning about his hobbies. An essay by Anna Wulick talks about teaching Hanukkah traditions to her daughter; a “Book Bonus” excerpt from Amy Dickinson’s new memoir recounts introducing her daughter to God and teaching her that “when prayers go unanswered, you learn to change your prayers.”

Indeed, reading through the two Good Housekeping issues back to back, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that, on the whole, American culture is far more child-centered now, in these days of two-income families, than when most women stayed home. If the 1958 Good Housekeeping is any indication, many moms in the June Cleaver era were too busy brushing the nap of their electric blankets to ponder how best to bond with their teens. As women’s time has become more valuable, though, because so many are working, working moms have chosen to spend their limited time not sewing tops for their kids, but playing, talking, and praying with them instead.

a post by Jonathan Hoefler, 20 November 2008

The struggle to adequately render letterforms on a pixel grid is a familiar one, and an ancient one as well: this bitmap alphabet is from La Vera Perfettione del Disegno di varie sorte di ricami, an embroidery guide by Giovanni Ostaus published in 1567.

Renaissance ‘lace books’ have much to offer the modern digital designer, who also faces the challenge of portraying clear and replicable images in a constrained environment. Ostaus’s alphabet follows the cardinal rule of bitmaps, which is to always reckon the height of a capital letter on an odd number of pixels. (Try drawing a capital E on both a 5×5 grid and a 6×6, and you’ll see.) Ostaus ignored the second rule, however, which is “leave space for descenders.”

I’d planned to introduce this item with a snappy headline that juxtaposed the old and the new — for your sixteenth-century Nintendo! — before reflecting on the pixel’s moribund existence. Pixels were the stuff of my first computer, which strained to show 137 of them in a square inch; my latest cellphone manages 32,562 in this same space, and has 65,000 colors to choose from, not eight. Its smooth anti-aliased type helps conceal the underlying matrix of pixels, which are nearly as invisible as the grains of silver halide on a piece of film. And its user interface reinforces this illusion using a trick borrowed from Hollywood: it keeps the type moving as much as possible.

Crisp cellphone screens aren’t the end of the story. There are already sharper displays on handheld remote controls and consumer-grade cameras, and monitors supporting the tremendous WQUXGA resolution of 3840×2400 are making their way from medical labs to living rooms. The pixel will never go away entirely, but its finite universe of digital watches and winking highway signs is contracting fast. It’s likely that the pixel’s final and most enduring role will be a shabby one, serving as an out-of-touch visual cliché to connote “the digital age.”

from "For Sale: 200,000-Square-Foot Box," photo and text by Julia Christensen, Slate, 19 November 2008 :: via GOOD/blog

The challenges of repurposing big-box stores are not limited to dealing with their unwieldy size. Often, the real estate can be tied up in complicated arrangements. The potential buyer of a big-box store might encounter any number of stipulations on what the building, parking lot, and land can be used for in the future. These stipulations can make it difficult for other businesses to move into an abandoned big-box—but they also open up such spaces for more creative use. The Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park, Fla., purchased an abandoned Wal-Mart building across the street from its previous home. The deed specified that the structure could not be used by one of Wal-Mart’s various competitors for several decades. But for the moment, at least, churches aren’t on that list. Many former big-box stores have been reclaimed by civic institutions—a library, a courthouse—and by churches. Before moving into this old Wal-Mart, the Calvary Chapel had made its home in an abandoned Winn-Dixie grocery store across the highway.

The teardown may represent a kind of progress: the new house is superior in nearly every technological way to the building it replaced. But it also represents a kind of cultural failure—the failure to make something of the world that was given to the owners of that piece of property. Such failure is sometimes inevitable—the world we must make something of includes, for better or worse, the economic realities of the real estate markets and the construction business, the unwise and slipshod architectural choices of previous generations, and laws governing land use that impose relatively stiff taxes on small buildings. But while the responsibility for the cultural failure that is a teardown may be shared by many parties, it is a failure still.

Culture Making, p.55