The Big Wide Nothing

Heard about the Technorealists?

People I know are already sick to death of the term and the very idea of this new word and the dozen people from either coast who knocked their heads together and came up with it. But in the spirit of “strike while the iron is siting cold and unused in its iron cozy”, I’ve decided to postpone telling all about my trip to Austin, Texas (all of that will be much more fun than this will be, I can practically give you a money-back guaranty on that, only youse guys don’t pay nothing) to relate to you just what Technorealism means, why it’s of earth-shattering, or at the very least earth-mildly-spasmodic, importance that you stand up right now and declare your allegiance to one of the three opposing technology criticism viewpoints.

Criticism in this sense has no negative connotation. Rather than denoting the act of being critical as in “I hate all these pasta flavors! Where the hell did all these pastas come from?!? And since when did we start calling macaroni ‘pasta’?”, it means simply reviewing this world we’ve built for ourselves that depends on electricity and fossil fuels to exist. It means when you—and your opinion counts in this usually rather intellectual and jargon-filled (as opposed to cheese-filled) debate—think about your life and how you’re living it, how our children are surviving, how the increasing reliance on computers, mostly, is changing how we live, how do you feel about it? Assuming you feel any way at all.

If you’re like me, you don’t think too much about it, because you feel like your voice doesn’t even count in the vast scheme of things. You sort of accept that people now carry phones everyfuckingwhere they go. You accept that the planes flying overheard aren’t so much flown as programmed to fly. That your car’s emissions are monitored by computers that you couldn’t fix if you wanted to, at least not as easily as changing a spark plug (which I can admit to doing once or twice in my life—have you?). That phones, TVs, blenders, toys and even shoes are computerized. If they weren’t, chances are they were designed on or by one. Technology, the way it controls you, the way you control it, the way it is everywhere. How do you feel about that?

Two schools have made themselves known and have interesting and media-ready titles attached to them; The Neo Luddites and the Cyber Utopians. The Luddites, true to their forbearers, tend to believe that this is a bad path we’ve chosen. It is dehumanizing, it favors the wealthy who can afford to purchase and learn about these technologies, in short “things were better before”. The Utopians think this convergence of all things techno is a great thing, it will yield the final and ultimate product of human civilization, it will bring us together to speak and to think and break down walls that separate us, in short “the best is yet to come.”

The twelve who’ve come together to declare themselves neither Neo Luddites nor Cyber Utopians want to take the wide, uncharted middle ground. Everything in between, then, is the land of the Technorealists. In this school, you step back and examine things. You jump to no conclusions. You are neither reactionary nor predictive. Here, the point is to examine what’s happening and try to make sense of it. You don’t propose solutions, you simply define the problems. You don’t want to piss off the opposite side, because there is no opposing side.

In short, “Who cares?”

A Question Of Questions

I think it is important to wonder about where we’re going with all these choices we are supposedly making for ourselves. I guess, in this age where the media controls how we think and what we think about, and they’re continually breaking down the Big Questions into nice bytesize chunks, it’s probably prudent to come up with a new term that means “middle of the road”. Remember where “the silent majority” came from? Nixon said it in a speech. Dick made it up, claiming that the voices raised in protest against the Vietnam War did not truly represent the views of the average American who was sitting on his or her ass watching TV instead of out on the street with a big placard saying we should get the hell out of that “Police Action” in Asia. These people, the silent majority, actually thought fighting that war was a peachy thing, because if they didn’t they’d be outside throwing gasoline bombs at the riot squads, huh? Makes sense, right?

It’s ludicrous to compare any war with everyday life, which is what we’re talking about here. And I merely mention The Silent Majority because that’s where the Technorealists believe their voices are, in the place where you would ordinarily be if you cared enough. Even if you don’t understand what’s happening, you’d rather take a more lenient, level-headed, cautious stance about just about anything rather than actually propose things to be done. That’s for other people. All you want to do (you know it’s true) is bitch about things, not actually do anything about them. Because what, after all, could you do?

And what are these pressing issues that you’re so not worked up about? The TR’s spell out eight points on their non-manifesto designed to not say anything so no one gets upset. These include resolving that wiring the schools will not save them, but we don’t know what will; that information—which in the case of this group of publishers and journalists means copyrighted material—wants to be “protected”, meaning wants to stay copyrighted; that government, which we’ll assume means the United States government (highlighting a central fault in the entire proposition we can look at momentarily) should take an active role in technology issues; that understanding technology is essential to making decisions about it; and that, above all, part of being middle of the road is being vocal about it. When you want to waffle, be defiantly wishy-washy! When you can’t come up with an actual solution, at least be definite in your opposition to the problem!

I went to a sort of Technorealism Open House last Thursday at Harvard Law School. The weather was cold, windy and rainy to welcome them to my hometown, but the crowd was suitably “up” for this face-to-pundit town hall where, it was promised, the Technorealists would explain what technorealism is and how to technorealism can be put to use in everyday life. The founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor and sometime-curmudgeon, constant amusement John Perry Barlow, were both in attendance. Mr. Kapor sat slightly behind and the the left of Barlow—take from that what you will. (For those who don’t know, the EFF, reading from one of their own Press Releases, “is a non-profit organization founded in 1990 to ensure the protection of civil liberties, such as
privacy and freedom of expression, as new communications technologies emerge. Through its work with policymakers, industry organizations, communications media and the public, EFF is committed to protecting and defining civil rights and responsibilities within the realm of computing
and telecommunications.” Sort of the ACLU for the brainiac set. The chief contrast is that the EFF actually attempts to do things, while the TR’s appear to just think about them. But, y’know, really hard.)

Barlow proposed the “information wants to be free” model of content distribution followed unwittingly by the very pages you’re looking at, meaning I give all this stuff away and don’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to where it goes. There’s a copyright at the bottom, but who has time to keep track of all this shit? Barlow takes it one step further by saying that giving content away will build an audience who will then become unwitting slaves to the author’s world domination agenda and… I should probably stop there. In fact, ignore that whole last sentence.

On another front, you’ve also got Esther Dyson, who had nothing to do with that one Star Trek episode about the Dyson’s Sphere as far as I know and mainly writes books about you ‘n’ me out here in VirtualRealityLand and then goes around the country getting $20k per speech to talk about what she wrote (a great job if you can get it!) and I bet you can’t guess what her money-making model is. She proposes that authors should give away their work, and make money by speaking about it. Gee, where’d she dredge that gem up from? Imagine how much fun that would make the world. Dyson used to chair the EFF but now she’s just on the board, apparently too busy running around and talking at people. Barry Steinhardt is the newest President & CEO who came from, not coincidentally, the ACLU. If you needed to label these people, as was apparently the whole reason for the meeting, they’d be the Utopians, although about now with the EFF suffering a cash drought, probably the pessimistic Utopians.

Meating

So, the first 90 minutes consisted of a panel of six of the TR’s explaining TR while Barlow snorted derisively, which he does quite well, I must say. You could start to see where the eight points of the TR non-manifesto (neomanifesto? cybermanifesto?) came from. What you had were these twelve people all emailing each other back and forth as members of some pundit mailing list, whining because all the media ever wants from them are sensationalistic sound bytes, attempting to position them either for or against the topic of the day (Cyberporn! The CDA! Microsoft! PDAs!) when all they want to do is say “well, I’m neither for nor against it, because there are several interesting…” but about that time the microrecorder gets clicked off because the deadline is approaching and all the reporter wants is a pithy sentence from a handy technology pundit. Quite the dilemma, especially considering that the jobs of several of these originating TR’s are to get pithy statements from each other about the topic of the day.

Kapor volunteered that he thought the whole TR thing was a jolly good show! He admired these people for having the guts to sit down for what they believe and say out loud, “I don’t know! That may be true, but we’ll have to wait and see! We might want to do this one thing, but the other thing has some valid points, too! And I have no idea how, but I think we should!”

The second hour-and-a-half was dedicated to “Putting Technorealism In Action”. Ooh, doesn’t that just get you hard? The other half of the TR Jurists were seated and the moderator brought up (shudder) Matt Drudge. He was trying to go somewhere, but those smart TR’s would have none of it. Because, as I think I’ve drilled home to you by now time and time again, there was nowhere to go. They aren’t interested in coming to conclusions, they only want to start the conversations. They’re the “so anyway” of political movements, the “as I was saying” of journalistic ethics, the “pass the Vivarin” of the technology elite.

Jealousy Is Such An Easy Word

You have no doubt by now figured out that the reason I’m so, um, not excited about this whole thing is because I didn’t think of it first. I mean, when you stop and think about it, isn’t this the perfectly modulated nonsense that the Glassdog Lab boys might cook up? Or the idiot middle management clones looking for the safest bet? The trouble is, they mean it. They’re so earnest about being dull. And they aren’t ashamed of not knowing what the hell they want. I wonder if they truly believed they could introduce a term that means nothing and launch that as the introduction of some amazingly insightful movement dedicated to indepth (but cautious) technological debate. Didn’t any of them, at some point, send out a little email that said, in essence, “but they’ll all see we’re full of shit!”

On the other hand, and to take the ultimate pessimistic journey, let’s say they know exactly what they’re doing and all these people want is another chance to grasp that straw of being somebody, and TR allows the journalists in the group to be positioned as both reporter and reported, and the publishers can perhaps gain a wider audience of those, like me, who enjoy a good conversation about technology but really have nothing very interesting to say about it because, I’m the first to admit, I haven’t the slightest idea what the hell is happening.

So, this ends this debate for me, I hope. All worked up over nothing, again. But rather than have wasted your time diving through this rambling escapade, why don’t I propose my own manifesto and invent my own movement? You wanna join? I mean, hell, that middle ground is huge! If all you need is a tag word that’s a combination of a suffix with a slightly modern tang to it married to another word which spells out in a nut shell what it is you’re attempting to foist on the media, why the hell not?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you—straight from the fertile minds of Glassdog Labs, processed through Jargo™ and guaranteed to elicit a modicum of media interest because they’re all on a feeding frenzy anyway—”Compuconfusionism”. What do we believe? Everything. Spoon feed us your tired rumors of Web horror and beltway candyspeak, your sparkling visions of a world of jacked-in minds communicating hot fibered sex, your schools awash with cell-toting Barbies and technotune Kens shaving each other behind the bungalows, your gossamer ghettos of low-income Lottery losers buying overstocked G3’s from store.apple.com. Our motto? “It’s All True.”

How can it miss? Buy the lies, kiddies. Numb yourselves before it’s too late. It’s all true.

March 23, 1998

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