Massively Networked

As you may have surmised, I’ve been hanging out in the bestseller science section of the Kindle store. Today I read Massively Networked: How the convergence of social media and technology is changing your life (Pamela Lund). It’s not bad, but isn’t great either, and it’s trying to convince the reader of things that aren’t altogether convincing. Well, technologically, who knows? If some scientist somewhere says that we can “print” tasty noodle dinners from nutritional goo and plastic chairs from layered plastic — well, we probably can. You make a design on your computer, and the “printer” makes the thing in reality. People designing custom… deigned things… are no doubt very excited. They can apparently start a home business manufacturing computer designed things for under $6000. If they say that GPS enabled smart phones can keep continuos track of our location and send us current information on a number of cafes and entertainment options in our immediate vicinity, along with their current specials and how crowded they are, then I suppose they can. People with smart phones who like going to new cafes and whatnot no doubt find that very helpful. If he says that they’re working on little labels that can be printed onto underwear that can sense anaphylactic shock and administer drugs to counteract it, or contacts that can sense blood sugar and connect to an insulin supply. That’s good; perhaps lives will be saved with this stuff. There are apparently greenhouses tended by robots, so that people can have local produce without having to work for it. It’s apparently more efficient, because instead of having to transport a bunch of food, you could simply transport a bunch of plastic and “printers” to the location, where they would be assembled and then produce food.

And yet I’m ambivalent about all this, for all the reasons for people who don’t adhere to the cult of The Singularity usually are. Ms Lund seems to know a bunch of overachieving designer/architect/engineer sorts of people, who use this stuff to start home businesses where they can make $16,000 a month designing and producing things like iPad covers or custom furniture. She apparently doesn’t know the people who would lock themselves in their bedroom with WoW and their new replicator, with which they would produce pizzas and nachos while refusing to leave for months on end. This is already a problem — in Japan, probably the most technically advanced place in the world, they have a problem (and a new psychological disorder) wherein otherwise healthy young men refuse to leave their rooms for years.

Driven, creative people will find productive uses for all this networking, but I don’t think that Ms Lund adequately deals with the frustration of people who aren’t designers, and don’t know how to live in a world where the only really wanted jobs are design jobs. Where the best, most desirable and environmentally conscious way to make a chair is to design it on a computer, sell the file, and send it digitally to someone’s personal plastic printer thing. Where the best way to embroider a quilt is to design a file for a digital embroidery machine. Where the best way to make scalloped potatoes is to design a program for making potato taste and potato flavor out of nutritional paste. She doesn’t seem to realize that that’s a world where it’s not important, and therefore not appealing, for the majority of people to create anything at all. She makes remarks, for instance, about how things like actual food preparation from ingredients like wheat, wine, and oil might become “artisan” enterprises. This is already in some degree true, of course — almost nobody bakes bread from scratch because that’s really the best way to do it. We bake bread because we like the smell, the feel, the sense of accomplishment, or whatever. At which point the bread isn’t so much a food as an activity; we made the bread as a way of making something ourselves. because human beings like to make things.

I majored in art education in college, and now I don’t make art; I’m not even sure if I like it. I studied art because there’s something satisfying about making attractive objects, especially if they’re attractive and there’s a place or purpose for them. I stopped because I had learned that all postmodern art, and even craft, tends to be essentially conceptual, and there isn’t necessarily a place or purpose for most of it. It’s very easy to get kind of waterlogged with words and images, because there are more great books than can possibly be personally meaningful, and more art, even more great art, than can possibly be properly appreciated, so I, at least, tend to fail to care about most of it.

This book is not very helpful, because emphasizes how technical advances might make life more convent, safe, healthy, and provide greater opportunities for the sort of people in least need of cultural support — for the authors’ successful friends who’ve had a bit of a tough stretch because they can’t sell their condo at the price they want or who’s business is not thriving in the current economy, and who therefore start a different business, start an eco-friendly organic farm, travel through South-East Asia for five years with only a laptop and a backpack, or whatever. They’re organized, extroverted, emotionally stable, creative, driven sorts of people. I’m not actually concerned about those people. If you have to sell your condo at a loss… whatever. I’m sure it’s personally distressing, but some of Ms Lund’s stories are just kind of spoiled. I am kind of concerned about some of the kids in Tuluksak. They have new computers hooked up to the internet, but they don’t have running water. They get all the stuff that can be easily shipped in by planes, ready-made, so perhaps in ten years they will have plastic printing contraptions where they can download a plan for a dish or a lampshade from the internet, and immediately construct it at the local store. While there’s nothing actually wrong with that, that and the computers are just a distraction from a much deeper cultural crisis. Just because most of the meaningful work of a society is in design, service, or information technology, that doesn’t mean that every person will suddenly find fulfillment in those things, or that all cultures are equally able and willing to adapt to that.

I don’t usually like to use the language of privilege, but it’s too obvious that Massively Networked is oriented toward “privileged” people, and away from everyone else — toward the people using the network to put traffic sensors on bridges, and away from the people who are using the network to watch porn in their parents’ basement. As is natural, but I don’t know that Ms Lund notices she’s doing this. How a young architect will deal with the current status of technology is not nearly as interesting to me as how a middle aged manufacturer will deal with it, because the architect already had skills that are oriented toward the “new paradigm,” while the manufacturer is essentially being replaced by a fancy printer. I don’t really care that some young professional enjoys using their smartphone app to find a hopping bar in a strange city. I mean, it’s handy, but I don’t really care all that much, because the socially active young person probably wasn’t facing an actual difficulty to begin with. I do care about the slightly shy introvert who feels pressured to spend a lot of time with strangers, but really just wants to meet at the same place and time every other week with a small group of friends she’s known for years. What about the people who use the network to coordinate a civil war? To form a mob? To destroy rather than create? This isn’t even mentioned as a possibility.

I don’t care nearly so much about the difference between making something and making something else more efficiently, as about the difference between making something and making nothing. The difference being a public travel agent and a private consultant is no doubt personally meaningful, but for non-professions, what about the difference between preparing food and making nothing at all; between sewing quilts and making nothing at all; between constructing chairs, and making nothing at all; between repairing cars and doing nothing at all?

The real challenge of a technologically advanced and “massively networked” society may be more cultural than anything. There are certain segments of society — the only ones mentioned in this book — that are poised to take advantage of the new technologies to improve their lives. They are no doubt excited about the prospect of using their smart phones to measure and enhance their diet, exercise, and sleep routines, or whatever they’re doing on the network. They’re probably happy about using the network to find the best prices for a hostel in Yeravan, too. Then there are other segments of society who are already struggling with addictions and social ills, and I would be much more interested to know how these new technologies might help or hurt these people and cultures.


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