Baby’s First Pessimist: The Whale and the Reactor

9 03 2011

As is my Cornell birthright, I used to read a lot of Science and Technology Studies stuff, but lately I’ve been slacking on that in order to read science fiction and work on games journalism. While reading some games studies and zombie theory, though, I found a reference to Langdon Winner, which led to looking him up, which led to aforementioned reading of The Whale and the Reactor.

I’d never heard of Winner before, but was, I found out, familiar with his anecdotes–he (along with biographer Robert Caro) is the one who popularized the story of Robert Moses’ Long Island bridges, which were, he alleges, intentionally built too low to accommodate public buses, and therefore kept the poor and black off beaches intended for the middle class and wealthy, who traveled by car.

This story’s been disputed, but the general thesis of the first part of his book–that artifacts, or technology, has politics, whether intentional or unintentional–holds up, despite the potential shakiness of this anecdote. Perhaps a more general way of putting Winner’s thesis for this first part is not so much that technology has politics (which implies a kind of intentionality that I don’t think is completely correct), but that it has political implications–the way we shape our environment shapes us, for better or worse. STS was, I understand, a fairly nascent field at that time, but he’s been vindicated by time: By the time I went to school it was fairly well-acknowledged that this happened–mechanization changed the power dynamic between blue-collar workers and their bosses, The Pill changed the power dynamic between women and men.

The more interesting parts of his book, however, are where he explores what, exactly, he thinks that technology is leading us. And, contrary to most of the stuff I read, it’s not a good place, he says. It’s a world of centralized power and growing inequality, of poorly-thought-through technophilia and declining liberty. Given that this was the Reagan/Thatcher era in which he was writing, a lot of what he’s saying feels like a reflection of the times–he’s also clearly fighting some culture wars here, and addresses some of the same concerns as my perpetual nemesis Allan Bloom, but in a way that posits technological development, and the social orders it condones, as the cause instead of feminism and Mick Jagger. Like Bloom, Winner is looking for the Good Life and a form of absolute truth, and finds it before capitalism, but is more interested in a restrained form of (possibly?) agrarian anarcho-syndicalism than the “unabashedly elitist” Athens that Bloom idealizes.

In an idea somewhat contrary to his first section on artifacts and politics, Winner is adamant about the need to actively take control of technology, rather than letting it lead us. The reason that I, a woman incredibly allergic to standard anti-tech screeds, am able to read this at all is because Winner is unfailingly thoughtful and analytical about what, precisely, he dislikes about technology, and (of course) because I agree with his end goals. He refuses to talk in the vague and fuzzy notions of “humanity” that much anti-tech stuff goes into, and he acknowledges the problems with appealing to “nature” and the “natural world.” Nor does he charge that technology makes us lazy, or seem to believe that it is bad because it disrupts the intended order of the weak being dominated by the strong.

All that aside, what’s really enlightening about Winner’s stuff is how neatly he dissects the “technology revolution” talk that was around even in the 1980s. It’s a bit of an easy target, to be sure, but it’s also a pervasive one: The “Internet will change everything” folks who believe that the Internet is inherently decentralizing and gives power to the people. Apparently, the same argument was made about electricity:

In 1924, for example, Joseph K. Hart, a professor of education, extolled the liberation electricity would bring. “Centralization,” he wrote, “has claimed everything for a century: the results are apparent on every hand. But the reign of steam approaches its end: a new stage in the industrial revolution comes on. Electric power, breaking away from its servitude to steam, is becoming independent. Electricity is a decentralizing form of power: it runs out over distributing lines and subdivides to all the minutae of life and need. Working with it, men may feel the thrill of control and freedom once again.”

This is what I love about technology studies: Finding crazy futurism that never came to pass. But stuff like this really highlights the false utopia that people have created around the Internet: The idea that it will do our job of creating a decentralized world for us, that by their very nature things like Twitter and Facebook will create a beautiful new order in which everyone has an equal participatory voice.

Well, Wikileaks showed that up for what it was, didn’t it? The net takes censorship as damage and routes around it? Then how could Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard essentially shut down online donations? Why is Wikileaks itself being dumped by provider after provider? We may not be able to shut down someone’s voice online altogether, but the Net is far less open than it seems. A few Internet service providers or hosting sites agreeing to drop or block something and suddenly it’s nearly gone.

I love technology, but I don’t think it’s inherently a good thing, and I think we should be thinking harder about what we want it to do. Tech can liberate or enslave–but it is, ultimately, up to us. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Big tech, small cats

22 07 2010

I was in a thrift store in Oregon today and found a vintage Polaroid camera, which I didn’t buy for reasons of suitcase space and general uselessness. One of the good things about Polaroids was that no equipment was needed to view their photos. The 35mm camera required developing, which is still not bad, but digital cameras require a massive apparatus that will either become hopelessly obsolete or be destroyed, leaving the last ten years as a blank spot on the face of history.

I also went briefly to a church singing group and met a very personable kitten with a broken leg.

Retro tech: First-generation iPod Shuffle

10 07 2010

I was walking to a Midtown sushi place today when my coblogger and I stopped into a weekend church flea market. Between the “videophone-enabled” modems and Precious Moments figurines, I spotted a misshapen manila envelope and pulled it out. On the front was a printed return address label and the scrawled epigram “MAC iPOD SHUFFLE.”

It was a first-generation Shuffle, complete with charger and earbuds and with enough power that we could still listen to the renditions of “Jupiter, Bringer of Joy” and “Sing Sing Sing” that were loaded on it. The woman at the counter wasn’t entirely certain what it was, and gave it to me for two dollars. So wherever you are, Mr. Philip I. Rafield, thank you.

I’ve never had one of these before, and I’m inordinately excited. There’s something really fascinating about the idea of technology that’s deliberately limited, since I’m used to getting the most functional thing that I can. Being at the mercy of your device for songs is an odd feeling.

Further notes: The manual is quite thick–at least sixteen or twenty pages. It’s a tribute to how much more revolutionary these things were than even the iPhone: People were so unfamiliar with the idea of a device that played music from your computer that they included an entire booklet on how to do it. I miss that, especially in video games (the Deus Ex manual took me longer to read than the training section of the actual game.)

But on the other hand, I’m pleased that these devices have become commonplace, because my smartphone really does improve my quality of life. It lets me find restaurants, or talk to friends, or read anything in the public domain, including Bruce Sterling, Machiavelli, G.K. Chesterton, and John Stuart Mill to name just a few. Not all devices are created equal, ethically, and there are a lot of problems with the negative effect that electronics manufacturing has on the rest of the world (factories in China; mines in Africa), but that’s a problem with the process, not the theory. I disagree with plenty of electronics, but not the idea of electronics in general. My phone is not a device designed for sucking my time into some nebulous idea of “screen time;” it’s a facilitator–a book, and a telephone, a drafting board, and a map. That’s what computers are, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What is the future of ownership?

20 05 2010

Ownership and property rights as we know them are a mere blip on the radar of history. Their theoretical creation was a product of a lot of things–the rise of capitalism and fall of feudalism/aristocracy, the need to have a basis to claim colonies, the need to do this by kicking the original inhabitants off their land–and I don’t know as much as I should for the theoretical justification of it. What is curious, though, is the way that mechanical and digital reproduction have changed our conception of ownership.

Before the printing press (and for a while after), the very idea of copyright did not exist. Books-as-text could not be separated from books-as-thing: When you read a Bible, it had been reproduced by hand and was an artifact in itself. Stories, meanwhile, were largely told by one person, then appropriated, changed, and retold by another–the Brothers Grimm became famous for collecting versions of these folktales and putting them into a codified form.

When it was established, copyright wasn’t meant to create the book-as-consumer good; it was a method of limiting author liability by getting everything approved beforehand rather than waiting for something to get denounced as treasonous by the Crown. Writers, at that point, didn’t tend to make much money off their books–publishers got paid through the books, but writers relied on their patrons or the sale of newspapers they edited.

Over time, this changed, and by the twentieth century, books and other cultural properties were seen as sacrosanct possessions of the author or creator–they always kept the final rights to an imagined “original,” and only sold (or lent) copies to the people who actually read it. Until the 1970s, it wasn’t even clear that someone was allowed to sell or rent a tape they bought to another person: In the early 1980s, a bill was brought that would require permission from the copyright holder in order to rent that tape to other people. When this failed, what got codified was called the First Sale Doctrine–if you’re an author, director, or musician, when you sell a copy of your book, DVD, or record to someone, they get to do whatever they want with it (short of making more copies to sell to people). They can rent it, sell it to someone, or (in my interpretation) make backup copies for their own use.

First Sale Doctrine was what basically allowed me to read, watch, or listen to anything at all for the first eighteen years of my life. All the CDs I bought were used, the movies I watched were rented, and the books I got were either from the library or the libertarian-hippie-owned used bookstore two towns over (when I bought my friend a copy of The Fountainhead so she could enter the Ayn Rand essay contest, the proprietor, sitting behind boxes of “When Clinton lied, no one died” buttons, told me approvingly that “That’s the book that convinced me to drop out of college.”)

But what is the First Sale Doctrine going to look like in an age where the concept of selling “a copy” of something ends up seeming absurd? Read the rest of this entry »

“No other medium has this strong relationship between anonymity and criminal or otherwise destructive behavior.”

10 05 2010

A side note: I appear to have caught the kind of cold that turns one into some sort of half-coherent Delphic Oracle. The fact that I’ve ended most of my conversations this week with “Yeah, and sorry I’m sick and not really so–I mean like I can’t really…never mind” has been deleterious to my writing efforts, although I did manage to film and edit a commercial I’ll probably bring up later. My brain feels like a hive of spiders.

So there’s apparently news out on the Chinese Internet. I can read news in Chinese, but I don’t often do so for fun, so it’s great that sometimes people do it for me. I assume this is common (but probably ignored–people I met in China often didn’t particularly care about this kind of thing, much like in the US) knowledge across the Pacific, and the Telegraph has a piece on it, so I’ll go ahead and share it.

Apparently, the State Council Information Office (SCIO) has announced that Chinese Internet and mobile phone users will soon need to register using their real names before going online (or presumably sending text messages.) It’s actually somewhat unclear how this is going to be implemented: In one paragraph, they say that people will be required to sign in with their real name before commenting on news stories or major web portals (I’m guessing things like Netease or Xinhua), but then they say that they’re going to use the system to crack down on illegal gambling and pornography, which suggests that it’s more of a comprehensive tracking system. No matter how it works, the authentication system is apparently being developed by SCIO.

First of all, I can’t possibly imagine all the repercussions of what an effective comprehensive system would mean for any corner of the Internet. Entire swathes of the net are based, if not on anonymity, on pseudonymity. When information is so readily available in one place, it’s the way we observe separate spheres and separation between what we do at work, at home, and utterly by ourselves. I’m guessing that commenters won’t actually have their names revealed on web portals, but it makes our private and public spheres that much harder to keep apart.

I’m not sure how I feel about spheres in general. On the one hand, I think it’s ridiculous when we assume that people we know in a professional capacity have no private life–being shocked to find out that our coworker makes terrible Etsy jewelry is fine, feeling uncomfortable working with them after that or thinking that it merits disciplinary action (well, probably not for the Etsy) is not. We should all be reasonable enough adults to know that the people we interact with don’t only have one facet to their personality.

But, that aside, these things do happen, and it’s reasonable for someone not to want their boss to read about their marital difficulties on Ask Metafilter. The Chinese authorities are trying to get rid of those spheres because they believe someone might be using that anonymity to send dirty pictures or text messages.

Oh, goodness, text messages. China’s latest thing has been mobile phone pornography crackdowns–I think I remember reading that they claim to have arrested something like 1500 people in 2009 over it. This is absurd for a couple of reasons–the idea of illegalizing pornography (or at least enforcing that illegalization) is quixotic enough, but what’s really crazy is the expectation that you’re going to be able to reasonably regulate identities in a massive industry where almost everyone pays cash for prepaid phone cards. Good luck with that, China.

The Republic of Gamers

10 04 2010

…And its northern counterpart, the Democratic People’s Republic of Gamers.

Well, here it is: My first unboxing in several years. I’ve had the same PC since graduating high school, and while it’s still usable, for the last two or three years I’ve been wanting something with a graphics card, a built-in camera, a bigger hard drive, and less tape holding it together. So this is my graduation present: An ASUS G-series gaming laptop.

I guess I get a free copy of World of Warcraft with it, not that I need anything else to take up my time. I’m used to not being able to play anything newer than about 2004 on my old machine: With integrated graphics, I could coax Half-Life 2 out of it, and could play some of the newer low-graphics games, like Braid or World of Goo, but anything more taxing than that was off-limits. Now I’m going to find myself looking through game sales for $10 copies of new games. This could be dangerous.

Everything about this laptop is a little ridiculous. My room looks like the most stereotypical nerd cave right now: The box for this is stacked next to my friend’s Airsoft submachine gun and a copy of a Y2K book called Time Bomb 2000. The box is weirdly heavy; I’d known this was going to be a big laptop, but it shouldn’t be much heavier than what I have now.

Okay, that’s why. The power brick is literally brick-sized. I could build a house with some mortar and enough of these. No hope of a two-pronged AC adapter plug here.

Aaaaand here’s the cover. Not seen here: The lights that shine through the two sides and the icon in the middle, which reads “Republic of Gamers.” This is clearly not something you take to a business meeting. The BIOS screen at startup is also the Republic of Gamers logo, which coalesces out of flames with a little explosion noise. Tasteful is not exactly in this machine’s vocabulary.

ASUS is taking a page from Apple’s book, with the chiclet keyboard; unfortunately, they don’t seem to have osmosed any of Apple’s design philosophy. Their version of a “understated yet striking design” is “inspired by the iconic F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter.”  My coblogger and I affectionately call it the Batbook. That said, this actually looks pretty good, and I find the ostentatious design kind of endearing. And I’m not really buying this for the aesthetics anyways.

It really isn’t much bigger than my old Pavilion. It’s a bit thicker, and the screen is 15.6″ instead of 15.1″, but the weights are similar, and they occupy a similar amount of space on my desk. I’m not sure what I’ll do with my old computer at this point. With a full reformatting, it should be pretty usable, and I’d like to keep it around as a server or backup. It’s not its fault it doesn’t have a graphics card, and that you can’t clean the fan without taking the entire thing apart. One of the things I’m particularly pleased with about the new ASUS is that you can get into everything except the processor and heat sink through a single panel on the bottom of the computer. Likewise, for the first time in my life, I actually own a computer that can load games running a contemporary engine. I’ve spent the last three years basically playing anything new and 3D on other people’s computers, and it’ll be great to be able to actually try some things out on one of my own.

I’m keeping myself from buying anything until I’m done with most of my work, but I loaded and played through the demo of Zeno Clash, a surrealist first-person brawler game that I think I’m going to have to get after this semester is out. It’s not the highest-graphics thing you can get–it came out a couple years ago–but it was still too much for my old computer to handle, and the Asus runs it beautifully. I’ll have to try something like Metro 2033–a post-apocalyptic Russian game that, for all its being set almost entirely in dark corridors, has graphics requirements that are close to my new computer’s limits–but $50 is pretty steep for anything, let alone a linear shooter that sounds suspiciously similar to the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series.

I always feel like a bit of a traitor to interactive media for liking storytelling in games, but it remains one of my favorite elements. One of the things I like about Zeno Clash so far is that it’s distilled the game into perfect segmented doses of story and fighting, and that it’s got a story I’m legitimately interested in hearing. It’s also gorgeous. I snarked about office buildings and factories in FPS games, but ZC really takes advantage of virtual reality’s predisposition for surrealist landscapes. I wish the voice acting had been better–on Gamasutra, the developers mention that this was something they had trouble with–and there’s still something weird about the characters’ movements when they’re not fighting, but overall I just hope the rest of the game lives up to my early impressions of it.

The iPad is for Gaming

8 04 2010

I have had a transformative experience. And I’ve figured out what the iPad is for.

Much like the process I went through when Google Wave came out, I’ve been mulling the true import of the iPad. Photoshop seems like a natural choice, and would probably be an improvement over the computer–touch-screen in drawing improves everything–but it still wouldn’t be as good as a Wacom tablet. Powerpoints are an option, but then you get to the onerous business of typing. Reading is okay, but it’s far from ideal: I have the perfect ebook reader in my head already, and the iPad doesn’t come close. But there is one thing the iPad does better than almost anything else.

The iPad is a big freaking de-consolized DS. And that’s kind of awesome.

The iPhone has games, and I tried a few of them–little arcade-style games and Asteroids-style shooters. But the iPhone always seemed a little too small, or my thumbs a little too big. I’d have to try some of the really serious iPhone games, like their Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto offerings, but non-arcade games seem particularly awkward on mobile platforms. Doom on the Droid works okay with a hard-keyboard interface, but using those tiny WSAD keys to move around on a space the size of a pack of cards feels both literally and figuratively cramped. Perhaps the best metaphor for my Droid gaming experience so far is, in fact, a game I played on it, a point-and-click 3D horror game in which the objective was to escape from a bathroom.

A creepy bathroom, but come on.

But the iPad is basically exactly the right size for arcade games or simple adventure games. It’s pretty light, you can hold it in two hands, and the screen feels full, even capacious. It doesn’t have some of the options of the DS–no blowing on it to douse a candle or so on–but it also eliminates the single major problem that keeps me from buying consoles: The fact that I can’t really use them for anything else.

Sure, I could watch a DVD on them, or go all Little Brother and install some kind of remixed Linux on an Xbox, but one of the big reasons I’ve never bought a console is because I hate to have a device that only has one purpose (well, and because I’m laughably bad using console controllers, but that’s another matter.) For all I complain about Apple, most consoles are even more locked-down–heck, if an Xbox gets banned from Xbox live, it’s basically done for. An iPad can do a slick but rudimentary job on a lot of things, but if it offered a really great gaming experience, that might be worth it for me.

An example: I got the chance to play Activision’s Geometry Wars on the iPad today, and it feels completely natural. The game’s simple graphics look good on the sharp screen, and the console-like two-thumb interface takes advantage of the iPad’s multitouch.

Of course, I’m still not going to drop $500 or more on a handheld device I don’t really need, and the iPad is absolutely off-limits to me as long as it doesn’t have a camera (because seriously, games are cool now, but how great would a big, high-resolution version of the augmented reality game Spads & Fokkers be, with iPad users meeting up to control digital airplanes zipping around the real world?) But if the Apple product cycle holds true, I might buy the $200 version a few years down the road, if it goes the direction I’m hoping.


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