Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

9.13.2013

Behind the Curtain, Part II

More from Douglas Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.  Commands four through six, to be precise.  See an introduction and the first three commands in Behind the Curtain, Part I.

Complexity - You Are Never Completely Right

Thanks to its first three biases, digital technology encourages us to make decisions, make them in a hurry, and make them about things we've never seen for ourselves up close.  Furthermore, because these choices must all be expressed in numbers, they are only accurate to the nearest decimal place.  They are approximations by necessity.  But they are also absolute: At the end of the day, digital technologies are saying either yes or no.

This makes digital technology--and those of us using it--biased toward a reduction of complexity. . . .

In the more immediate sense, facts devoid of context are almost impossible to apply sensibly.  They become the fodder for falsely constructed arguments of one side or other of the social or political spectrum. . . .

Both sides in a debate can cherry-pick the facts that suit them--enraging their constituencies and polarizing everybody.  In a digital culture that values data points over context, everyone comes to believe they have the real answer and that the other side is crazy or evil. . . . The abundance of facts ends up reducing their value to us. . . .

By recognizing that our engagements through and with the digital world tend to reduce the complexity of our real world, we lessen the risk of equating these oversimplified impressions with real knowledge and experience.  The digital information gatherer tends to have the opposite approach to knowledge as his text-based ancestors, who saw research as an excuse to sit and read old books.  Instead, net research is more about engaging with date in order to dismiss it and move on--like a magazine one flips through not to read, but to make sure there's nothing that has to be read.  Reading becomes a process of elimination rather than deep engagement.  Life becomes about knowing how not to know what one doesn't have to know. . . .

With each upgrade in technology, our experience of the world is further reduced in complexity.  The more advanced and predictive the smart-phone interface, the less a person needs to know to use it--or how it even makes its decisions.  Instead of learning about our technology, we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us. . . .

Scale - One Size Does Not Fit All

Survival in a purely digital real--particularly in business--means being able to scale, and winning means being able to move up one level of abstraction beyond everyone else. . . .

Because the net is occurring on a single, oversimplified and generic level, success has less to do with finding a niche than establishing a "vertical" or a "horizontal."  Going vertical means establishing oneself as the place to do everything in a particular industry: the one-stop place for hardware, or cycling needs, or home electronics.  Going horizontal means to offer a service that applies to every category's transactions, like the company that made the credit card transaction software for Tom's music website.  In either case, "scaling up" means cutting through the entire cloud in one direction or another: becoming all things to some people or some things to all people.

The craftiest online businesspeople have come to realize that neither of those strategies is perfect.  Both vertical and horizontal businesses face competition from their peers in an increasingly commodified landscape.  It's almost impossible to establish a foothold that can't get undercut by a tiny shift in the price of one component.  So instead of going into business, these players become search engines, portals, or aggregators, rising one level above all those competing businesses and skimming profit off the top.  In an abstracted universe where everything is floating up in the same cloud, it is the indexer who provides context and direction.

Of course, this logic dovetails perfectly with a financial industry in which derivatives on transactions matter more than the transactions themselves.  Once the financial world came to understand that its own medium--central currency--was biased in the the interests of the lender and not the producer, every business attempted to get out of the business it was actually in, and scale up to become a holding company.  Thus, great industrial companies like General Electric shed their factories and got involved in capital leasing, banking, and commercial credit.  Meanwhile, those who were already in banking and credit moved up one level of abstraction as well, opening hedge funds and creating derivatives instruments that won or lost money based on the movements of economic activity occurring on level below.  Even craftier speculators began writing derivatives of derivatives, and so on, and so on.

The existing bias of business toward abstraction combined with the net's new emphasis on success through scale yielded a digital economy with almost no basis in actual commerce, the laws of supply and demand, or the creation of value.  It's not capitalism in the traditional sense, but and abstracted hyper-capitalism utterly divorced from getting anything done.  In fact, the closer to the creation of value you get under this scheme, the farther you are from the money. . . .

What all this abstraction does accomplish here on earth, however, is make everyone and everything more dependent on highly centralized standards.  Instead of granting power to small businesses on the periphery, the next ends up granting even more authority to the central authorities, indexers, aggregators, and currencies through which all activity must pass.  Without the search engine, we are lost.  Without centrally directed domain name servers, the search engines are lost.  Further, since the digital content itself needs to be coded and decoded, it requires tremendous standardization from the outset.  Far from liberating people and their ideas from hierarchies, the digital realm enforces central control on an entirely new level.

Identity - Be Yourself

More than simply protecting them from retribution, the anonymous status of people in an online group engenders crowd behavior.  They have nothing to fear as individuals, and get used to taking actions from a distance and from secrecy.  As a result, they exacerbate digital technology's most dehumanizing tendencies, and end up behaving angrily, destructively, and automatically.  They go from being people to being a mob.

The way to dampen the effects of this problem is not to retreat into anonymity ourselves, but to make being real and identifiable the norm.  As in the real world, the fewer people who know each other, the more dangerous the neighborhood.

Of course we should all keep our bank accounts and personal information private; but our posts, our participation and socializing?  That really should be coming from us, ourselves.  The less we take responsibility for what we say and do online, the more likely we are to behave in ways that reflect our wost natures--ore even the worst natures of others.  Because digital technology is biased toward depersonalization, we must make an effort not to operate anonymously, unless absolutely necessary.  We must be ourselves. . . .

Our experience online is less that of the unprejudiced intellectual than that of the autistic living with Asperger's syndrome.  While a lot has been argued back and forth about whether computer use or gaming might cause spectrum disorders, direct observation alone has revealed that our digital behaviors closely mirror those of Asperger's sufferers: a dependence on the verbal over the visual, low pickup on social cues and facial expressions, apparent lack of empathy, and the inability to make eye contact.  This describes any of us online, typing to one another, commonly misunderstanding each other's messages, insulting one another unintentionally, or seeking fruitlessly to interpret someone's real meaning by parsing his words repeatedly.

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Part III, with commands seven through ten

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