I have a new essay up on the Comment Magazine website, a brief historical meditation on the word hello and its connections to one of the most influential cultural artifacts of the last 150 years, the telephone.
[T]echnology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.
“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages vital. Heritage languages were being killed off by increasing urbanization, the spread of formal education and the shift to cash crops, which ended the isolation of indigenous communities. Advances in technology seemed to intensify the decline. “Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”
Like earthquakes, revolutions are much better at destroying than building. There is an important asymmetry here, whose roots go all the way down to the laws of physics: It is possible to change things quickly for the worse. It only took two hours after the collision between a 767 and the South Tower of the World Trade Center to destroy it. But no one can build the World Trade Center in two hours. The only thing you can do with Rome in a day is burn it.
—Culture Making, p.58
In the early age of machines, they inspired awe by proving capable of doing what man could never do alone (such as power an entire factory), or what we once believed only man could do (play chess). Now we expect our machines to do just about everything for us, from organizing our finances to writing our grocery lists. Our machines not only ease the mundane burdens of daily life (cooking, cleaning, working), but also serve, increasingly, as both our primary source of entertainment and the means for maintaining intimate relationships with others. Henry Adams’s dynamo has been replaced by Everyman’s iPod, and awe has given way to complacence and dependence. Your computer’s e-mail program doesn’t inspire awe; it is more like a dishwasher than a dynamo. Nineteenth-century rhapsodies to the machines that tamed nature, such as the steam engine, have given way to impatience with the machines that don’t immediately indulge our whims.
Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins—lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like—are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention. Such places are hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and the wild play of human children. They enact, within the bounds of human domesticity itself, a human courtesy towards the world that is one of the best safeguards of designated tracts of true wilderness.
According to all of the roboticists and computer scientists we interviewed, the uncanny is in short supply during face-to-face contact with robots. Two of the robots that inspire the most terror—and accompanying YouTube comments—are Osaka University’s CB2, a child-like, gray-skinned robot, and KOBIAN, Waseda University’s hyper-expressive humanoid. In person, no one rejected the robots. No one screamed and threw chairs at them, or smiled politely and slipped out to report lingering feelings of abject horror. In one case, a local Japanese newspaper tried to force the issue, bringing a group of seniors to visit the full-lipped, almost impossibly creepy-looking KOBIAN. One senior nearly cried, claiming that she felt like the robot truly understood her. A previously skeptical journalist wound up smiling and cuddling with the ominous little CB2. The only exception was a princess from Thailand, who couldn’t quite bring herself to help CB2 to its robotic feet.
Royalty notwithstanding, the uncanny effect appears to be an incredibly specific and specialized phenomenon: It seems to happen, when it does, remotely. In person, the uncanny vanishes. There’s nothing in the way of peer-reviewed evidence to support this, but then, there’s almost nothing to confirm the uncanny effect’s existence in the first place. As an unsupported theory that has morphed into a nerdy breed of urban legend, anecdotes are all we have to work with.
Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul. Only by harking back to the day of the roller skate or the bicycle craze, when sports of admitted utility ran to extravagance and virtual madness, can we find a parallel to the way in which these ingenious instruments have invaded every community in the land. And if we turn from this comparison in pure mechanics to another which may fairly claim a similar proportion of music in its soul, we may observe the English sparrow, which, introduced and welcomed in all innocence, lost no time in multiplying itself to the dignity of a pest, to the destruction of numberless native song birds, and the invariable regret of those who did not stop to think in time.
On a matter upon which I feel so deeply, and which I consider so far-reaching, I am quite willing to be reckoned an alarmist, admittedly swayed in part by personal interest, as well as by the impending harm to American musical art. I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue—or rather by vice—of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.
Cable and satellite television may be having an even bigger impact on fertility in rural India. As in Brazil, popular programming there includes soaps that focus on urban life. Many women on these serials work outside the home, run businesses, and control money. In addition, soap characters are typically well-educated and have few children. And they prove to be extraordinarily powerful role models: Simply giving a village access to cable TV, research by scholars Robert Jensen and Emily Oster has found, has the same effect on fertility rates as increasing by five years the length of time girls stay in school.
The soaps in Brazil and India provided images of women who were empowered to make decisions affecting not only childbirth, but a range of household activities. The introduction of cable or satellite services in a village, Jensen and Oster found, goes along with higher girls’ school enrollment rates and increased female autonomy. Within two years of getting cable or satellite, between 45 and 70 percent of the difference between urban and rural areas on these measures disappears. In Brazil, it wasn’t just birthrates that changed as Globo’s signal spread—divorce rates went up, too.
It seems to me that the best way to instantly raise your standard of living is to live in the past. If you subsist entirely on two-year-old entertainment, and the corresponding two-year-old technology used to power it, you’re cutting your fun budget in half, freeing up that money for more exciting expenditures like parking meters and postage.
The problem is that it’s hard living out of sync with the world around you. Just ask the Amish or Bill Cosby.
My parents’ handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today’s standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It’s obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written as they should be. My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters. The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks, notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to clean.
????? My daughter is 23 and has been using augmentative communication devices since she was a little girl. We have used devices from several different companies, so we are pretty experienced. This is, by far, the easiest to program. There are lots of preprogrammed categories, so it is possible to start communicating right away, without doing anything other than downloading it. ... After years of dragging around a 4–7 pound communication device that looks sort of ‘clinical’, it’s really cool to have a small iPod touch and a speaker (all of 15 ounces!) to bring with us. ... My daughter has enough things to separate her from her peers. It’s nice to have something for a change that’s the same as other people are using. Can’t say enough good about it!!!
The conductor Will Crutchfield, who specializes in bel-canto opera and doubles as a musicological detective, recently sat down to compare all extant recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” the plaintive tenor aria from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Crutchfield wanted to know what singers of various eras have done with the cadenza—the passage at the end of the aria where the orchestra halts and the tenor engages in graceful acrobatics. Donizetti included a cadenza in his score, and later supplied two alternative versions. Early recordings show singers trying out a range of possibilities, some contemplative, some florid, none the same. Then came Enrico Caruso. He first recorded “Una furtiva lagrima” in 1902, and returned to it three more times in the course of his epochal studio career. After that, tenors began replicating the stylish little display that Caruso devised: a quick up-and-down run followed by two slow, sighing phrases. Out of more than two hundred singers who have recorded the aria since Caruso’s death, how many try something different? Crutchfield counts four.
Twitter has been described as perhaps one of the greatest technological innovations since the telegraph. It will better connect us. Perhaps. But what will it undo?
Benedictine monks invented the mechanical clock in the 12th century to remind workers to take periodic Sabbath breaks. They never imagined someone like Frederick Taylor, known as the Father of Scientific Management, would use clocks to time workers in order to increase productivity.
William Farish (a Cambridge University tutor) never imagined his idea of numerical grading—unheard of before his time—would eventually marginalize mentoring. Before 1792, students were evaluated through dialogue, not digits. This conversation required a tutor. Numerical grading has wiped out mentoring.
Now consider Twitter—a wonderful new technology promising us the world. It can do a lot. What might it undo? How about paying attention?
We live in an age that tends to depersonalize even people and is, in principle, averse to anthropomorphism. Indeed, such a tendency is often criticized, erroneously and foolishly in my view, since that ‘rapprochement’ between the human and the non-human is quite natural and spontaneous, and far from being an attempt to deprive animals, plants and objects of their respective selves, it places them in the category of the ‘humanizable’, which is, for us, the highest and most respectable of categories.
I know people who talk to, question, spoil, threaten or even quarrel with their computers, saying things like: ‘Right now, you behave yourself,’ or thanking them for their help. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly understandable. In fact, given how often we travel in planes, the odd thing about our relationship with them – those complex machines endowed with movement to which we surrender ourselves and that transport us through the air – is that it isn’t more ‘personal’, or more ‘animal’, or more ‘sailor-like’, if you prefer. Perhaps those who crew them haven’t known how to communicate this to us. I’ve never seen them pat a plane, as you might pat a horse to calm or reward it; I’ve never seen planes being groomed and cleaned and tidied, except very hurriedly and impatiently; I’ve never seen them loved as Conrad’s captain loved his sunken brig; I’ve never seen air hostesses – who spend a lot of time on-board – treat them with the respect and care, at once fatherly and comradely, enjoyed by ships.