I went to a store. I can’t remember the name of the store or what I was buying there, but what I remembered was that there was music. There shouldn’t have been music in this store, there should have been Muzak. But today’s Muzak is all the same kind of confused soft rock & roll. Stuff like Goyte.
Technology allows Stuff Like Goyte, something catchy, simple, overexposed and annoying to be called entertainment because of what? A lack of discrimination. When you allow technology to ‘empower’ the ordinary Joe, then you have to understand that the ordinary Joe will exploit the opportunity at every turn. That’s how we know technology has value, because people use it to their advantage. And because they do it will be all in your face until you force it away or turn away yourself. If you want to immerse yourself in the creativity of the common man, this is your era. You have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Vines and dozens of other social media services. You will have a diverse experience. You will see everybody's point of view, and you'll never have to decide. You'll never have to sacrifice. You'll never have to discriminate. Social media presents perfect empathy for everyone. All you do is open your ears and eyes and every possible point of view is represented. It is a cornucopia of the common.
If you want quality, then work is required. More work than ever before.
It's hard to imagine that Beethoven's deafness was a horrible defect. He could certainly hear the music in his head with no distractions whatsoever. The distractions of common knowledge and conventional wisdom are pervasive today. Even colleges are pervasive. You can get a lot of intelligent opinion through computer mediated communications. But once you step above the common, it becomes awfully difficult to determine if what you are finding is actual. Once again, there is technology which aids and abets the intelligent, chatting class. If you choose to find out the series of events surrounding the burning of the Amerian Embassy in Libya and the murders of its officers, you will hear every theory possible. What actually happened would be a state secret, but you'll have all the smart theories, plus there will be some counterintelligence planted in that swirl of narrative as well.
We are entering a post-industrial twilight in which the ability to see clearly, while everyone's goal, becomes increasingly difficult as we peer through kaliedescopes of computed media. But this shouldn't come as a surprise. When everyone has a cell phone, making long distance calls is no longer an elite activity. When everyone gets to learn to read and write at public school for free, it's harder to write the Great American Novel. When everybody tries to run like Jesse Owens, it's harder to actually win gold at the Olympic Games. Technology has raised the bar for everyone. Citius. Altius. Fortius.
Our freedoms are all relative. What we can do is limited by the context in which we do it.
When I was younger, there was an expression of contempt in the phrase 'cotton-picking' as in "get your cotton-picking hands off me". It's something you don't hear much these days. A machine picks cotton and so that which was menial labor at great cost to the suppleness of the human hand, is now obviated. Nobody has cotton-picking hands any longer. Those people are out of work. So they had to do something more sophisticated that a machine can't do. We didn't think a computer could beat a grand master in chess, but we were wrong, and today, technology can't come close to performing ballet. What elevates us as humans becomes more and more important as technology replaces human work, but also as it empowers the least of us. We have to discriminate more about what is worth knowing when anybody with a Google device can ask questions and get reasonable answers in seconds. We have to discriminate more about what is worth doing when labor can be mechanized and automated. These are the new lines of class.
In 1964 if you had a car with 200 horsepower and a two-way radio smaller than a shoe, you could have been James Bond. Today if you have that, you're more like Maxwell Smart. There is nothing quite so marking of class these days as the man who walks around in public with a bluetooth earpiece affixed. Ten years ago it was awesome, now it's only awesome in Bulgaria. I have been on the cutting edge of information technology for my entire career; it is my career. I am acutely aware of how to discriminate when it comes to accepting the answers given to any question by a computer. Decision support is my job. And I know when money is aptly spent to support decisions by making the best use of compute power and when it is a waste of time and expense. I know when a computer aided decision augments human intelligence and when it replaces it. I can tell the difference between collaboration with compute resources and slavish dependence. Sometimes the cotton-picker goes free to study ballet, sometimes he gets demoted in pay to someone who merely tends to the machine that replaced him. Sometimes the common man uses his iPad to make the music in his head, sometimes he becomes a prisoner of the iTunes store and can only use the technology to feed a consuming habit.
Here at Cobb, I have made use of the terms gearhead, hacker and maker. This is the hierarchy in the post-industrial world. Because more of what our contemporary economies produce can be accomplished by smaller groups of people aided by compute power, the goods and services of our economies can be appreciated, modified and created more by individuals. No small group of men could build a railroad, but a small group of programmers could build a Facebook. But even the gearhead is advanced beyond the mere consumer or someone outside of the market altogether. Those who consume or aim to consume cannot afford to discriminate, figuratively or literally. They are as captive as ever before and cannot escape the attractions of Stuff Like Goyte. They are in the mass market, a growing global middle class in the billions. We have uplifted many more than ever before in human history. This *is* a global proletariate being born. But they will be united only by their discriminations because the very diversity of their undisciplined consumption will leave them behind. Why learn English, the language of computer programming and air traffic control, if Wikipedia comes automatically translated into your native idiom? Why learn Math if Siri will add numbers for you? Why learn Piano when Goyte is played wherever you walk? What is the point of being an extraordinarily talented human when you can be an ordinary Joe with extraordinary gifts provided to you by technology? Why pick cotton?
I keep in mind, ever since 9/11/2001, that all systems fail, that is all except pain receptors in the human body. All technology, all systems are designed to operate within certain environmental tolerances for a specified period of time. Stress those tolerances and snap, crackle, pop: system down. Makers are stressing those tolerances every day because they want what they build to exceed one or more of them. Hackers are stressing them to find the limits and gearheads make it their business to know the factors. Consumers and those wishing to consume are just trying to get a ride in the boat, trusting souls. For a maker and hacker and gearhead, (I am all three depending on the target), I want to experience the balance. I create for my consumers to the level of their expertise to enable them to do what I do with my 20 year headstart. That's a product; that's the enablement, the empowerment, the new economy. I could make them slavishly dependent but I choose not to. I want the product to educate as well. I want its guts to be transparent, so that when it fails, all can see how to fix it. This is a principle of integrity that can easily be ignored. It is disrespectful at best, and coercively entrapping and enslaving at bottom. It is the Muzak that cannot be switched off. It is ultimately the company town, the slave plantation whose master rejects the liberating cotton gin. And yet in human skill and nurtured talent is the ability to remain free of such all encompassing systems. When they fail, it is what humans must fall back on anyway. So we should always be mindful of what skills and talents and abilities we give up for the convenience and empowerment of technology.
Closing, I present once again, the irony inherent in our drive to empower through machines. I think it is driven primarily from our fundamental unwillingness to discriminate against people. We are able to empower through devices because of a basic failure to empower through human character. We punt responsibility to machines because we are unwilling to give the appropriate training and responsibility to human labor. In some cases, for picking cotton, that is the proper way to go. In many more cases than we care to examine in these days of social media, we are forgoing human judgment for the sake of empowerment of the indiscriminate masses. We create mass media with mass entertainment and generate Stuff Like Goyte. We pollute investigations with counterintelligence and cults of personality in order to sheild failures of judgment of the elites. We build obfuscating products and interminable co-dependent service contracts. We make things that function against standards.
I think the solution to this problem is found in the drive to embue ourselves with organic skills, to face life off the grid and make ourselves antifragile to the failures of systems. I think socially we should aim for Victorian relationships - to understand with clarity the necessities of life and to judge and discriminate people based upon their ability and willingness to provide them for themselves in all ways. I think we will find that as we reach for the gold medal achievements in life, we will find ourself more dependent on securing products and services from people who live at the silver level. That in order to avoid the catastrophe of humans dependent on systems whose failure is opaque to them in scope and time, that humans must depend on other humans whose capabilities are quite simply transparent to humans. Where only gearheads, hackers and makers can identify the stresses on systems, all of us know what tears mean.
I should like to go to a store where a woman plays a piano. Wouldn't you?