Tuesday, 12 June 2012

History Repeating

With 3 examples, I will illustrate a maddening tendency to skim over the complexities posed by the digital age by relying on easy comparisons to a conveniently invented era or an imagined history-free experience.  Whether we are compelled by awe of the potential to make a false parallel to a renaissance or terrified by the expansiveness and so cry, 'the sky is falling,' it's what Lewis Lapham calls, "fanciful deployments of history in the collective American consciousness," in a May article in Harper's.  He was examining the US presidential campaign, but I think the phenomenon occurs for political purposes outside of campaigns.  Those who control the present, to rephrase Orwell, sell the past.

1) Open Access is an equalizer, just like the first libraries.  Quoting David Eaves on the Ushahidi blog:
"It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate."

Can't be the first library in Alexandria.  He must be thinking of Andrew Carnegie's contributions in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The pursuit of pastimes, reading, as well as the means to chose education over subsistence work was a result of the industrial revolution... but still not open to everyone.  Quite unintentionally, there is a real parallel with the first ancient libraries because there is an elite techno-class which has the wherewithal to manipulate and make sense of open data.  Purely being open does not make data comprehensible.   There remain levels of literacy for the digital which resemble earlier times.  And the silos into which data is lost, stored, digested for commodification... there is ample evidence that more and more data is beyond our reach than is becoming accessible. 

2) Crowdsourcing allows crowds to be bought for a political show.  This was a fear shared on the recent NYT's 32 Innovations list.  While perhaps not good, also not new.  Flashmobs used to be just mobs, remember?  Collecting by word-of-mouth, massing without political motivation, but just because there was no TV or there was a promise of free food or drink.  Beyond a contrived scene at rallies, throughout early American history (up until into the early 20th century) votes could be delivered en mass.  Vote early. Vote often. 

The flashmob phenomenon has a nostalgic quality to me.  As though we've decided we need to get back to a time when our individual screens didn't demand our attention so much and we participated in communal activities (the pre-TV sort) such as standing, walking.   So we join up-- eat spinach, bike 30mins, logged off human contact.... check, check, check. 

3)The Quantified-Self Movement.  Ben Franklin anyone?  He was a major measurer.  Not surprisingly, MIT is offering a course on this trendy topic, and they provide insight into its history as frequent pursuit human pursuit.  To know oneself inside and out, this is not new... technology may provide a few bells and whistles such as home EEG, but you'll be impressed if you go back and read the crafty ways humans have conceived to measure ourselves in other centuries (no resource links here, try a library).

A recent NYT's opinion piece reviewed the addition of addictive behaviors, such as gambling, to the DSM.  The medicalizing of everything.  Fear that science will explain away responsibility.  This has been on the minds of philosophers for quite a while.  Big data surveyors are seduced by the idea that patterns will portend the future.  Seeking quantification of ourselves, we find a data driven determinism.    

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