Sunday, May 27, 2007

digital dictatorship

If you're not a one, you're a zero.

Awaiting the return train at New Haven, I positioned myself on one of the amazing wooden benches underneath the “Train Information” board, underneath the clock with the Roman numerals, underneath the marble arch, underneath which all must pass who would board a train at New Haven.

I spotted my return train on the board and began to relax and allow whatever thoughts to come as may. Presently I heard the gentle mechanical clatter of the board being updated to reflect arrivals and departures. I think there is a shot of such a board in action in the movie “Trading Places.”

That burst of soft, metalic shuffling reminded me of pinball machines, which reminded me of my boyhood. In the old days, before true digital clocks, there was a mechanical attempt at digitizing (sort of faux digital analog? by the time a guy like me starts using a term like "faux," it's probably overdone), the sort of which you would find on gas pumps, sports scoreboards, and pinball machines. Part of the experience of playing pinball was hearing, even feeling, the clatter of those scoreboards racking up your points. The relationship could become almost Pavlovian, as one couldn’t help but begin to associate the rhythmic “choohkah - choohkah - choohkah - choohk - choohk” with progress, with winning, and those sorts of feeling that normal guys like to feel.

(Maybe in another post I'll develop the idea that Bally, which dominates market for pinball machines, is also synonymous with gambling machines. I'll wonder in print if pinball machines might just be designed to be starter "slot machines." Arguing against that very point, however, is my own experience. Casinos have zero appeal for me and I don't play pinball anymore, either. "A man entertained is a man emasculated.")

There goes the soft rush of the board again, like the clatter of some silent, futuristic train whisking by. It’s a nice, warm sound. I tell you, I just don’t like digital anything. Being a gadget-guy, I understand the appeal of digitizing; I understand the promise of precision and faithful reproduction of things digitized. But as a human being, which I have gradually become, I’m against the whole thing. Why? In itself, digitization of all things digitizeable is neither good nor bad. But in the hands of man, who takes everything to extremes, it’s positively dehumanizing.

We seem to have become subjects of a Digital Dictatorship. I wrote once that “decimals have no soul.” The premise is that decimals and digitals dehumanize, and that’s not a good thing for humans. They demand of us, in our daily encounters with their ubiquitousness, either/or, all-or-nothing, black-and-white, on/off decisions. They remove the full spectrum of experience and reduce it to finite “menus” of alternatives that far too often lead us into loops (think voice-mail hell) – none of which is the sort of environment that the human soul is at home in. And, frankly, I unswervingly advocate that the true end of all science and all business is, within their just limits, the enhancement of the human environment – not its overthrow; the promotion of the liberty of humanity, not its subjugation – if it is to be legitimate. But this is, of course, one voice in the wilderness. One voice brought to you by…the digital revolution.

Well, perhaps we're still learning what those just limits are. This revolution is so “scalable,” that is, it delivers such (superficial and apparent) efficiencies in the distribution of information that business has thrown all its weight behind it (and leveraged even that) such that it’s a locomotive that is not about to be stopped. It will go to extremes. Observe how it affects people’s thinking, their values, the means by which they make decisions. Are people acting more “digital?”

This is a problem, as stated before. When business begins to dictate the behavior of humans and not the other way around, it has outgrown its britches and, in the same way she abhors a vacuum, nature can’t tolerate that forever. And she won’t.


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