Essays on Technology and Culture

Enemies and Nemeses

Could it be that you need me
To keep you out, to run you faster
Promise me you’ll let me be
The one, the worst of all your enemies
Pretending you’re a friend to me
Say that we’ll be nemeses

Jonathan Coulton w/ John Roderick – “Nemeses”

In business, it helps to have competition. Having someone to challenge you, who will do things you don’t, gives you incentive to step up your game and improve what you do. However, it’s easy to fall into a trap of viewing your competition as unworthy of inspiring you to do your best work, only as something that must be destroyed. Your competition can become your enemy, and that is when things will turn. You focus, instead on what you can do to stop your competitor instead of making your thing better.

Which is why I’ve been thinking of the song I quoted above. The idea of the nemesis as someone who pushes you to new heights just to keep up, like Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes, or Batman and The Joker. Sure, the actual meaning of “nemesis” is a little different, but the principle of the nemesis as foil has merit enough to be common in the folklore. Without your nemesis, what do you have to drive you? What happens to the all-consuming desire to be the best at something, when you have no more competition?

You need someone to keep you out and run you faster. Find them, and keep them close. Closer than your enemies.

Technology Is Not Democratic

Many people, author included, consider democracy to be one of the, if not the greatest goods in human history. Granting everyone the chance to cast their vote and have some level of control in deciding the way their society is run is often a good thing. It’s not a leap to see how anyone’s pet cause can be hitched to the idea and ideal of democracy as a means of promotion. Those who advocate lassiéz-faire capitalism claim it will bring democracy to countries under dictatorships, while those who advocate an increased Western presence in the Middle East will claim that they are bringing democracy to the oppressed. Technologists, or at least a certain subset of technologists, like to proclaim the idea that mass-adoption of technology will increase democracy by the very nature of technology, which is itself democratic.

The problem is that technology is not a democracy. Even open source. Especially open source. This is not a polemic against open source as either philosophy or technology. [1] Open source has brought us many, awesome things, including the fundamental technologies this website is built upon. Open source proponents just tend to be the most vocal among the group that insists that things like Internet access, ubiquitous computing, and learning to code will make the world more free and democratic. Any time someone promotes anything as a cure-all, even if it’s something you’re generally in favor of, it should set off several red flags.

Bill Gates said of Google’s Loon project to bring the Internet to third-world countries using baloons: “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” He’s right. Access to information is way up at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There’s more important things we can do—using technology, too—to improve the lives of people around the world. Just hooking them up to a network is solving the wrong problem. It’s hard to write a web app on your $100 laptop with a crank charger, when you can’t get food or are being forced out of your home by people with guns. Let’s use the tools we have to solve these problems first. Of course, doing that is much, much harder than building Internet connected balloons, which is why most technological “solutions” to the real problems consist of merely “raising awareness”. Turning all Twitter avatars green really helped in Iran, huh?

Furthermore, we’ve seen in the last month or two just how much of a double-edged sword technology really is. The exact same tools we use to connect us, share knowledge, and watch cat videos can be easily used to create a contemporary version of Orwell’s Telescreen, only more dangerous. [2] We can’t see them, but they can see us, and everything we do. This isn’t freedom—it’s borderline fascism. But it’s also the nature of the beast we’ve created, tying connectivity to corporations who are motivated not by the public good, but by benefiting stockholders, and by allowing a government security apparatus to work unchecked because we’re afraid of what the alternative might be. The open source wonks will claim that it’s our own fault for trusting closed software and hardware, but trusting a group of well-intentioned programmers is just as dangerous. No matter what happens, the majority of people will not be writing code. They’ll be using technology as an appliance and won’t care who wrote the software or who audited the code for security backdoors.

Democracy is about an equal voice, and while technology can give more people a voice, it doesn’t make those voices equal in any sense. The users of technology are going to remain subservient to the people who actually make it, whether they’re using Linux or MacOS. Technology literacy only goes so far, because as we’ve seen and I’ve said, the majority of people don’t care that much about how things work—only that they do. No matter what, someone’s going to be on the outside of the sphere of technological elites because they have either chosen to opt out, or never chose to opt in. Democracy doesn’t work when a majority of people don’t even get involved. We see it in the current political environment of the United States, and we see it in the current technological environment. One of these is more likely to change than the other.

  1. Least of all is that I don’t want to open the floodgates of e-mails calling me a closed-source using fascist.  ↩

  2. Which makes the idea that a Samsung Smart TV with built-in camera can be hacked into a spying device both frightening and frustrating. You can’t tell me that nobody at Samsung didn’t think that could happen. You can tell me that nobody listened.  ↩

Conversational Startups

I’ve been checking out a couple of new-ish services that focus around connecting people and fostering conversation online. Of these services, my favorite is Climbing Fish which focuses on connecting “social actualizers” [1] face-to-face in meatspace. Through them, I had a nice conversation with Christopher Smothers, the creator of a similar service Positive Space. Positive Space lacks the offline component, but aims to foster conversation. Of the services I’ve tried, not all of them are great, but they do have me thinking about the role technology can play in fostering conversation.

What unites services like Positive Space and Branch is that they seek to overcome the limits of services like Twitter for sustained one-on-one conversation. Branch piggybacks on Twitter, and seems to only work well if you have a large number of active Twitter followers. I posted a Branch months ago, and got no response, despite asking my follower base. Meanwhile Positive Space relies a little more on serendipity it seems. It was over a month before I got a reply to my first post, but finding posts to reply to is easy(-ish). Climbing Fish, on the other hand, is an email intermediary, connecting its users and putting the onus of the offline step on them.

I suppose the advantage of the online-based services is that they offer sustained one-on-one conversation that goes beyond the limitations of Twitter. Your comments aren’t going to get lost in a popular user’s stream of @-replies, and you don’t have to worry about jump-ons from people you don’t know. The problem for me is that I get my engaged conversation fix on App.Net using @-replies. The 256 character limit on ADN makes conversation easier [2] and I don’t find conversational jump-ons to be a problem. In fact, jump-ons are a feature of ADN, as the community is both small and active enough that jump-ons are a great way to discover new people to follow, and jumping on to a conversation is a great way to get involved.

One shouldn’t just dismiss a service or app as useless. There’s a use case for almost anything out there. I’m just struggling to see the value of online conversation services with the obvious competition of ADN. Positive Space has a decent discovery mechanism, but after poking through a few “Spaces” I found precious little worth talking about. Climbing Fish attempts to play algorithmic matchmaker, and I already mentioned the problem with Branch. For someone who doesn’t want to take the plunge of joining another social stream, or wants to leverage an existing follower base, Branch and Positive Space may work. For me? They’re just services I signed up for and forget about. Which is disappointing, as there’s clearly potential to be tapped.

  1. I don’t exactly know what that means, but it’s a very douchebaggy term.  ↩

  2. Positive Space limits posts to 250 characters. Branch allows up to 750. Both are way more than Twitter’s 140 characters, though Twitter and ADN count the @name of every person you’re replying to towards that limit.  ↩

The Human Metronome Rests

Early Wednesday morning, I could not sleep. As I am wont to do during bouts of insomnia, I found myself checking my various social networks. That was when I came across a status update on Facebook, linking a post from drummer Josh Freese. He reported that Alan Myers, former drummer for DEVO, who played on their best records in their prime, had died of brain cancer. I was devastated. DEVO was, and continues to be my favorite band, and now the first member of the group has passed.

Though Alan hadn’t played with the band since I was a toddler, his drum beats formed the sonic glue to the greatest albums of DEVO’s career. Video of DEVO performing with Alan shows him typically barely moving behind his kit, all action in his forearms, a machine: The Human Metronome. I long hoped that some day, DEVO might reunite with Alan, perhaps for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction—wishful thinking on both counts. More realistic was the idea that I could find him and have him sign my copy of In The Beginning Was the End, the pseudoscience book that inspired the band in the late 70s. I already had the other four members sign my copy, but now both dreams have been dashed.

For an idea of Alan’s sheer rhythmic excellence, and beat-precision, just listen to DEVO’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from their debut album, though really any song from DEVO’s first four albums shows Alan’s skills at their peak. They called him the Human Metronome for a reason. Now, the metronome rests. Duty Now for Eternity, Alan.

Read DEVO’s own tribute to Alan Myers at Rolling Stone

Genetic Engineering is a Tool Not to Fear

I recently posed a question on App.Net, asking about why Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) were so “bad”. The impetus to ask came from a post on Facebook where a friend expressed dismay at the number of GMO ingredients used by Chipotle. I’ve long said, in other corners of the web, that GMOs, and genetic engineering of food, is little more than an advanced form of the same cross-breeding techniques we’ve used in agriculture and animal husbandry for centuries—even predating Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiments. Considering that everything we grow and eat has been, in some form, bred and cross-bred in ways that nature never intended, and has been since before we were born, the panic over GMOs seems a bit… unnecessary. [1]

It seems genetic engineering is the new nuke—a strange, exciting and dangerous technology that, applied one way, could change the lives of billions for the better, and applied another could kill us all. This idea has pervaded popular culture enough that it has its own listing on TV Tropes. In the case of nuclear energy, the fear came from how we first saw it applied. Gigantic mushroom clouds that wiped two cities off the map, a Cold War and an arms race based around the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, loose fissile material, and dirty bombs are not a great résumé for something that could also bring light to dark corners of the world. As it stands, nobody’s provided as horrifying a résumé for simple genetic engineering.

Though the potential is there for some unethical, scientifically advanced nation to put researchers to work on engineering new diseases, or create poisoned cereal grains to grow in our farms, nobody’s really tried it. Nature, by the way, seems to be doing a good enough job trying to find new ways to kill us on that front. The difference is that the minds aware of how this stuff works know the dangers, and have enough ethical sense to apply their knowledge towards more constructive goals. Their fears are grounded in the potential consequences of misapplication of genetic engineering as a tool. If you ask the average person, they might say the same thing, though the scientist might disagree. There are risks, but they can be mitigated by ethics and strict testing guidelines.

What do average people know about genetic engineering? I remember watching a news report on a protest against genetically modified food from several years ago. An image that stuck with me was a woman wearing a costume of a tomato with a fish head and tail. She’d heard that agricultural companies had created tomatoes with a gene derived from fish, and the costume was meant to illustrate how horrified she was of eating tomatoes that were “part fish”. Let’s step back just a moment. The genes used in those tomatoes may have come from a fish, but to say that an individual gene from a fish in a tomato makes the tomato part fish is like saying humans are part banana, because we share 50% of our genes with the fruit. The set of genes is what makes an organism, just like a LEGO spaceship is made from individual bricks. An individual gene, like an individual LEGO brick, can become anything; it is no more part of an organism than the brick is part of the spaceship.

This requires a way of thinking about what life is in a way that’s different from what we’re used to. We didn’t even understand what DNA looked like until 1953. The Human Genome Project, started in 1990, took thirteen years to complete. People are still catching up. Sixty years sounds like a long time, and so does ten years, but not everyone gets the same level of scientific education. [2] When you don’t understand something, fear is as natural a reaction to it, as it is to seeing a single bomb sink an entire atoll. Learning how these tools that are changing our lives actually work is the first step to understanding. It’s important to know that a tool is never good, or bad. It is all in the application, and unless we know how a tool works and how to apply it, we’ll always be afraid those who do understand.

  1. This is not to say that I’m a fan of Monsanto, whose abuses of power and lackadaisical attitude towards ethics and the law is something worth complaining about.  ↩

  2. There’s a whole essay about the state of science education in the United States, including popular scientific television programming, but that will have to come another time.  ↩