Saturday, April 12, 2014

Half a century of computers

The BBC recently pointed out that the computer age turned 50 this week. That’s right – the first mainframe went into action on April 7, 1964.

So this date, to me, is significant. We can use this as the beginning of the “computer revolution” although most people did not yet interact with computers directly back then except maybe at a bank or the phone company. That year also happens to be season 4 of Mad Men.

Five things you need to know about 1964, the year of ‘Mad Men’ Season (PBS)

Watching that show, I’m struck by two things. One is how much more “middle class” America seemed back then.

The other is the fact is that no one at this ad agency is using a computer! People seemed so much freer and less encumbered by all their electronic devices than today. No one is miserable because they cannot place a phone call from a bar, take a selfie, Google information, watch cats on the internet, work on vacation with a laptop, or post their drunken reveries on Facebook. There are three channels on the television that everyone watches and people still read newspapers. Was that really so awful?

The economic breakdown that led to the rise of Neoliberalism began about 10 years later in the mid-1970’s. From those bulky mainframes sprang the computer revolution that is now so ubiquitous that most of our work today consists of sitting in front of a computer all day (unless you work in construction or drive a truck).

So – and this is a point I return to often – the entire elimination of the middle class and political breakdown and corruption of the country has taken place during this time period! Who would think that most of us would be so much more financially precarious and buried in debt forty years on? Who would have though that manufacturing would be shipped overseas and that most jobs would be minimum wage jobs? This leads to a follow-up question – if 40 years of computers have brought this result, what makes people think the next forty is going to make things better?

Now I’m obviously not blaming computers themselves for all the problems since the 1960’s, I’m just pointing out that this entire revolution unfolded against that backdrop. I merely want to make the point that technology alone does not necessarily make our lives better. It’s a direct riposte to the “technology will save us” argument, or the "we need more innovation" argument that is always deployed in the media.

Today’s advocates of this view are now pointing to 3-D printing and solar panels as the savior from the spiral of worker impoverishment, precariousness, drudgery, centralized power surveillance and indebtedness. But that technology is probably in the same stage as the mainframe was in 1964. I’m sure there were people back then who thought the computer would have the same effect. Did it? Are we so much better off than in 1964? Do the Internet and cell phones justify the joblessness, hopelessness, indebtedness, crumbling infrastructure, political dysfunction and  rise of the 1 percent? And why will future technology have such a vastly different result than past technology?

Another point to make about technology concerns this article about Stuart Parkin.

Ever heard of him? Me neither. But his technology apparently makes the fortunes of the owners of Google, Facebook, Apple, and countless others possible, due to his breakthroughs in storing massive amounts of data. We lionize the owners of these companies, the Brins and Pages and Ellisons and Zuckerbergs, even though their fortunes would be impossible without the work of people like Mr. Parkin. And yet he lives in relative obscurity, probably quite well off but certainly not a celebrity billionaire.

It's all a part of the American tendency to promote the rabid businessman who exploit existing technology and get rich rather than the people who actually invent the technologies that improve our lives. We are hypnotized via libertarian/objectivist propaganda to believe that these ideas spring ex nihilo from the greatness of such men rather than the hard work and creativity of Stuart Parkin and thousands of other unknown inventors like him, not to mention the workers slaving away in East Asian sweatshops. Rather than greatness, the people at the top are merely allowed by our system to monopolize the gains and live like kings without giving anything back to the wider society that made their fortunes possible. We've designated Steve Jobs' boyhood home a national landmark, for crying out loud!

And finally, please read this insightful piece in full: Our Comrade the Electron. Here's the description: "Radio in the 1920’s played a role analogous to the Internet in our day.  Everyone could see that a suite of new technologies was about to change the world, but this advance knowledge somehow made the future more uncertain.  Meanwhile, a group of technically-minded Utopians had convinced themselves that technology could radically transform human nature, and were determined to demonstrate it to a skeptical world.  A meditation on the surveillance state, interface design, tech culture, and the dangers of thinking you know what will happen next, told through the astonishing life of Lev Termen."
But let's imagine the theremin had lived up to its billing. I'm fascinated by this vision of a country of latent musicians, frustrated by outdated and expensive musical instruments, waiting for their creativity to be unlocked.

It's a dream we seem to have every time there's a big new technology shift. Blogging will make us a nation of writers! Digital video and YouTube will make everyone a filmmaker!

In their enthusiasm, RCA and Victor seemed to overlook that we all already have a touchless, intuitive, analog musical instrument that lives in our face, and yet few of us use it outside the shower.

And each time we have this dream, there is the inevitable disappointment when it turns out most people don't want to write 6,000 word investigative journalism, or make art cinema, or buy a really expensive theremin. In the lovely words of our age, most people prefer to consume content, not create it.
Whenever we try to predict what it's actually going to be like to live in that future, what the future is going to taste like, we invariably fail, and in the most ridiculous ways.

It's like a weird law of nature. We can see the technologies coming, but that knowledge somehow makes the future less predictable.

Perhaps we predict the Roomba a hundred years in advance, but set it in a world where women are still wearing crinoline and whalebone corsets.

Or else we correctly predict that the Encyclopedia Britannica will one day fit on the head of a pin, never imagining that the Britannica itself will have become a relic, replaced by the free, collaborative, sprawling something called Wikipedia.

Such predictions aren't wrong, they're "not even wrong", they miss the basic point. The future makes fools of us all.

Technology concentrates power.

In the 90's, it looked like the Internet might be an exception, that it could be a decentralizing, democratizing force. No one controlled it, no one designed it, it was just kind of assembling itself in an appealing, anarchic way. The companies that first tried to centralize the Internet, like AOL and Microsoft, failed risibly. And open source looked ready to slay any dragon.

But those days are gone. We've centralized the bejesus out of the Internet now. There's one search engine (plus the one no one uses), one social network (plus the one no one uses), one Twitter. We use one ad network, one analytics suite. Anywhere you look online, one or two giant American companies utterly dominate the field.

And there's the cloud. What a brilliant name! The cloud is the future of online computing, a friendly, fluffy abstraction that we will all ascend into, swaddled in light. But really the cloud is just a large mess of servers somewhere, the property of one American company (plus the clouds no one uses).

Orwell imagined a world with a telescreen in every room, always on, always connected, always monitored. An Xbox One vision of dystopia.

But we've done him one better. Nearly everyone here carries in their pocket a tracking device that knows where you are, who you talk to, what you look at, all these intimate details of your life, and sedulously reports them to private servers where the data is stored in perpetuity.

When I was in grade school, they used to scare us with something called the permanent record. If you threw a spitball at your friend, it would go in your permanent record, and prevent you getting a good job, or marrying well, until eventually you'd die young and friendless and be buried outside the churchyard wall.

What a relief when we found out that the permanent record was a fiction. Except now we've gone and implemented the damned thing. Each of us leaves an indelible, comet-like trail across the Internet that cannot be erased and that we're not even allowed to see.

The things we really care about seem to disappear from the Internet immediately, but post a stupid YouTube comment (now linked to your real identity) and it will live forever.

And we have to track all this stuff, because the economic basis of today's web is advertising, or the promise of future advertising. The only way we can convince investors to keep the money flowing is by keeping the most detailed records possible, tied to people's real identities. Apart from a few corners of anonymity, which not by accident are the most culturally vibrant parts of the Internet, everything is tracked and has to be tracked or the edifice collapses.
What upsets me isn't that we created this centralized version of the Internet based on permanent surveillance. What upsets me, what really gets my goat, is that we did it because it was the easiest thing to do....

1 comment:

  1. As a 60 year old who was, like in Mad Men, a young new worker and college student around that era - late sixties - I am one of those baby boomers (who everyone likes to hate now) who is a bridge human between two totally different worlds and I am so grateful for your depiction of the differences between the two.

    With the exception of the needed social changes and movements so strident in those times..... MLK and RK and other assassinations related to class and race wars; social unrest and youth demonstrations (the Kent State murders by National Guards!) related to the war and to racism and, of course, the start of the feminist movement - this was a time of bursting exploration into what life really SHOULD MEAN!!!!

    Most of my generation, however, changed into the very establishment we hated then and now we are reaping the consumption, vapid, celebrity, "pilled out" and exhausted fallen and falling middle class aspirants we created for ourselves and our children. Sad state of affairs.

    I have tremendous compassion for my own children and for the rest of the incoming world and, frankly, I miss the genuine true innocence of that time in my life.


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