[Humanist] 25.578 techno-utopias, dystopias and analyses

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 30 10:11:34 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 578.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    amsler at cs.utexas.edu                                      (85)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.577 techno-utopias, dystopias and analyses

  [2]   From:    Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>                      (32)
        Subject: Fear of the Computer[s]

        Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2011 09:40:18 -0600
        From: amsler at cs.utexas.edu
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.577 techno-utopias, dystopias and analyses
        In-Reply-To: <20111229120649.C97DC261EB1 at woodward.joyent.us>

I wonder whether the Internet or more particularly, the World Wide  
Web, by which I mean the knowledge stored and accessed using the  
Internet, is the fulfillment of some basic instinct comparable to  
those that led to the creation of language and the recording of  
knowledge in text itself. Once words and then language had been  
invented, the idea of written language must have been a major  
breakthrough, allowing ideas to be preserved and read back as if from  
the voices of their originators. Then the invention of forms of  
written text evolved into the numerous varieties we see today.

The Web appears to be the latest evolutionary step in that  
progression, with a mechanism for recording content in 'web pages'  
collected into 'web sites'; and with an overall indexing strategy yet  
evolving--somewhat comparable to the creation of the mechanisms of  
titles, tables of contents, indexes, etc. created to handle access to  
the growth of written text.

What presumably is most frightening about the World Wide Web is that  
it shows signs of automation that printed text did not. The Web is  
harvested by 'web crawlers' that automatically collect and index web  
sites for other people to then retrieve. A development that seems  
almost like there is a robotic army that sneaks about reading  
everything and keeping a record of it while we're sleeping. The very  
idea that text and the content that it contains now flows without our  
intervention, without the eleborate methods of print distribution that  
were created to handle the movement of paper-based text, is startling  
if not outright frightening.

It also is intimidating to the professionals who made their living  
operating the paper-based system. Everyone from the manufacturers of  
the implements for recording language through those whose professions  
involved assembling and proofing it, manufacturing its print products  
en masse, marketing those products, distributing them, receiving them  
and storing them in places such as bookstores and libraries, recycling  
those products through used bookstores. All these professions are  
threatened by the web.

Even those who made their living reading and reviewing print text are  
threatened, since distribution of web pages and web sites doesn't  
require human intervention--everyone can read the web without  
reviewers. That does seem odd, i.e., that we haven't taken up the  
challenge to 'review' web sites as actively as we reviewed print  

Perhaps it is because the text itself is no longer fixed into units  
with permanence that can be bounded. Whereas publications involved  
'editions', the web doesn't have 'editions' of web pages or web sites.  
They can and do change their content continuously. This is threatening  
as well. For if we cannot depend upon the text to be permanent, how  
can we add value to its statements, produce the important  
summarization and analyses of its significance. It's like trying to  
review the beauty of cloud-filled skies or sunsets. They are not only  
each seen from a different perspectve, but are ever changing such that  
the subsequent potential viewers cannot precisely see the same thing  
the reviewer described. That's potentially dangerous as well. The web  
has responded with an effort at 'permanent' links; but how much  
permanance can there be when the method of preserving permanent  
references is itself dependent upon the same technology that creates  
total impermanence.

So, apart from the threat from computers and software, the agents of  
these changes, whose capacity to reorganize and rewrite the knowledge  
itself we're still discovering; we're now threatened by the changes to  
all of stored world knowledge that could come about. How will we  
authenticate it in the future such that we know it's the same text our  
colleagues and ancestors read? You say this eBook is the text of a  
20th century work that is no longer available in print and all of  
whose copies are now stored in the 'cloud'.

Oh, there can be new glorious new work done by scholars everywhere at  
anytime. Never have so many been able to access so much with so little  
effort. But it just seems to depend on such a lot of intangible and  
ephemeral resources. We seem to be discarding the proven survivability  
of mass produced and widely dispersed recorded knowledge for the  
admitted impermanence of electronic and optical recordings requiring  
special hardware to access. Take away the electricity and the  
knowledge becomes inaccessible. Surge the electricity and the stored  
knowledge itself and the hardware to access it could be destroyed.

What's threatening about that?

So, there you have it... The need to change every job that has to do  
with creating, distributng, retrieving and reviewing knowledge and the  
threat of the complete loss of world knowledge due to technical  
glitches or its selective revision at the hands of powerful groups.

What I find somewhat amusing here is that the perceived threat from  
'computers' themselves doesn't seem as potentially dangerous, apart  
from them being the agents of change. I.e., hardware and software may  
well be our best allies in the effort to combat the threats. It  
reminds me of something I heard about the insects of the world as a  
threat to humans. If it wasn't for insects acting as predators on  
other insects, we'd never survive. So, computers are just the agents  
of change---whether change is safe of not is up to how we use  
computers to combat the changes brought about by computers.

        Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2011 10:56:08 -0800
        From: Jascha Kessler <urim.urim at gmail.com>
        Subject: Fear of the Computer[s]
        In-Reply-To: <20111229120649.C97DC261EB1 at woodward.joyent.us>

Of course, after 60.6mos years with the same telephone number at the same
residence address, VERIZON, declared me an unknown, number and all, for
billing and repair services.  Two months ago. Last week, the 2 landlines
were dead, and incoming calls went to Voice Mail on the cellular phone, and
that last 4 days until a live technician visited the other day, rebooted
the box, just for the hell of it [fiber optic line], and surmised the
problem was on the central Servers somewhere beyond the Moon.  Just getting
beyond the recorded voice Menu of options, which always avoids contact with
a living person, requires the patience of a Ph.D graduate student with a
sleeping Dissertation chairperson.  Did I write sleeping?

Seriously, however, an amusing anecdote about the "anxiety problem."  At
the residence of the Israeli Consul in Los Angeles 40 years ago, we
listened at a party to an old guy who told us that he had been a partner in
Ontario, across the border from Detroit, with Henry Ford, in a
carriage-building business.  A young Russian immigrant Jew he was then [NO
pace to the virulent later Henry Ford regarding his attitude and acts
against Jewry].  At a certain point, Ford proposed they move the business
across to the US and build carriages with motors.  For whatever reason,
that partner demurred.  Ford moved.  The young Russian went west to
Saskatchewan to homestead his 150 or so acres, provided with some income
and materials to grow wheat [which would have made him rich]; and a
telephone party line so as to be able to call out to distant neighbors and
govt HQ somewhere, Calgary? during the black cold frozen snowbound winters.
 After a few years, he sold out, and came to the US.  Never really got into
the middle class from then on.  He had been anxious about the newfangled,
deadly machines that he might have been building in Detroit.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: 310.393.4648

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