Beyond Life Inc.

Peggy Nelson did an interview with me a couple of days before Life Inc. came out, that was just posted on Reality Sandwich. She went deeper than most of the journalists I spoke with – in part because we actually sat down for a couple of hours, and in part because she’s just smart and good and crazy enough to beat me at my own game of intellectual hopscotch.

Here’s one of the places we got:

Let’s talk about technology. In terms of administering a shared goods-and-services system, the internet might be a good match. But it also seems that the internet, and machines and technology in general, can stand in place of actual relationships, and can be a stumbling block. How do you negotiate between those ideas?

The word that describes digital for me is discrete. For example, take sounds. With an actual sound, no matter how hard we zoom in, it’s still a real thing. There’s still more fidelity, more information to be found. If I scan or sample it, I’ve now translated that sound in the real world into a number. Something that was an event, in nature, in the world, is now a number. It’s a derivative of reality. That number encapsulates as many metrics and as much information about the sound as I’m capable of including, and I can then make copies of the number and manipulate them. So there’s greater choice in that way. But the only things the number can reproduce about that sound are the things I’ve told it to reproduce.

It only knows what it’s supposed to measure.

The reproduction process also involves a sampling rate, which necessarily leaves stuff out. Even if the sampling rate is so good, so super-mp3, that it’s beyond my conscious hearing, there is still space between the samples. Just like a fluorescent light; there’s space between the flashes.

Now the question is, for all intents and purposes, is it the same, or not? I would argue that for many intents and purposes, it is the same, but for ALL intents and purposes, it is NOT. It is a re-creation of a thing, and an approximation, and without even getting spiritual and talking about prana and chi and everything else, there IS a difference.

In high school when I needed to do a research project, I would go to the library to find a book. I couldn’t help but see the 20 other books on the shelf nearby, I had to read 20 spines before I found mine. And in reading those 20 spines I would see stuff I wouldn’t have found otherwise, and I might get ideas for my paper randomly — not by predetermined choice! I would see them by virtue of the fact that some librarian who was alive before me made a decision, by virtue of legacies and input and real life messiness. Whereas when I’m in the digital realm and I know the book I want, I type it into Google, and it’s there. And nothing else.

This discrete freedom of choice sounds like a very controlled environment. I wonder how much real freedom that is?

Right, what are my range of choices? And who’s giving me that range? People are utterly unaware of that. So when I look at technology I say well great, people have the ability to write online, but they don’t, most of them, have the ability to program. In other words we can enter our text into the little blog box, but we aren’t thinking about the biases built into a daily blog structure, which are towards short, daily thoughts, not introspective . . .

Or look at online communities. I’m going to become friends with another person who owns a 2004 red Mini with a sunroof, like mine, rather than with my neighbor who happens to have a different car; I’m going to look for that perfect affinity. But that’s not a real relationship, that’s my digital relationship, which is discrete! Discrete communities end up groping towards conformity of behavior really quickly.

That’s why it’s a consumer paradise, because it really does celebrate the idea of increasingly granular affinity groups, increasingly granular product choices.

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