I, Robot

I love gadgets. As a filmmaker and technology user I am always trying out new tools, or learning to do new things with old ones. The tech-review site, Engadget, is a source source of information and entertainment for me (and also a place to read book reviews). Yet, while I live a gadget-filled life, I have always been able to define where the gadget stopped and the person began. That is, until, Jaron Lanier blurred it.

In his manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, of which I have only read the first chapter (but will most definitely read the rest of them) he argues the importance of end-user/developer interaction throughout the entire evolution of a technology. He says this is key to preventing “lock-in”, or permanence, in a design. This dependency on locked-in systems mechanizes us (humans) and stifles innovation. It breeds obsolescence, fabricates creativity en-masse and has pre-destined future generations to an existence as button-pushing cogs in the machine.

Lanier issues a warning. He gives us advice in convenient bullet points for our Twitter-brains to ingest 140 characters at a time. And while I like to think that if we heed his warning it might not be too late for us, the fact that he needed to come up with a set of guidelines to preserve our human nature is disconcerting.

If our ancestors were to look upon us, how would we appear to them? As I sit here, forming strings of code with minimal physical effort, aided by a machine that can provide me no nutrient, comfort, safety, shelter or other bare necessity, I wonder if I am now more gadget than human. When I talk to myself in public, I put a piece of plastic to my ear to prove my sanity. When a giant, wheeled monster consumes me, it spits me out in a new location so that our relationship is mutual. Our eating, sleeping, and procreating have all been invaded by gadgetry to the point where it feels unnatural to be without it.

I am reminded of a story, called The Bicentennial Man (or just Bicentennial Man for those who prefer the movie to the book), where a machine becomes a person because it has obtained all the necessary physical human qualities. However, Lanier says there is no formula for making a human. The machine needed something more than just the physical pieces. It needed life. Not blood or oxygen or other life-giving substance, but a real life. A life story, with learned memories and experiences and emotions, things that gadgets can induce but never feel themselves.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe what separates the human from the inanimate, the living from the non, is our story. The story that we have been writing and telling since birth, since the dawn of man, since the beginning of time. Since intelligence, in whatever for it has existed, first became conscious, this story has been told with the purpose of continuing it. What better outlet, or creation, to perpetuate this story than man?

I say use gadgets. Use them to document our story, to create new things to remind us that we have not forgotten our original purpose. As long as the story of life continues to hold meaning humanity will prevail over gadgetry as the dominant creative expression of the universe, and there’s no App for that.

Dang, spoke to soon.

Artificial Intelligence is on the iPhone: http://www.future-apps.net/Amy_A.I./Amy_A.I..html

A good review of Lanier’s book: http://www.engadget.com/2010/07/13/book-review-you-are-not-a-gadget/

The movie, Bicentennial Man: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0182789/

Floating Down the River

If you compare the perpetually changing entity that is communications to a river, you can find some interesting (pseudo-intellectual) and useful (pointless) metaphors. Many communications scholars and theorists (at least from my perpective) seem to be concerned with where the river came from, and where it might be going. They want to know if it will take them somewhere. If that place is good or bad, right or wrong. Yet, while everyone is studying and predicting and speculating about the past, present and future of the river, they are all missing the most amazing part. That is: there is a river right here in front of us; a wondrous force of nature. Communications, like the river, is on a similarly natural and forceful course. As communicators, we respond to stimuli and obstacle. At times we ebb and flow and divert, but we are constantly in motion. Wherever we came from, and wherever we are going, we should appreciate that in some form or another “we” are still an entity and there is still something out there for us to be a part of. That’s all I have to say about that.

McLuhan: Lost in the Storm?

Marshall McLuhan, despite being viewed by many as a prophet and a saint in regard to modern media and communication, is dead. He is dead in the biological sense. Long since buried and decomposing. And yet, by his own prophecies, he is very much alive. Alive when you turn on your television, when you check your email, when you update your Facebook status. Or is he? Do his words still resonate as clear today as during his critique of the famous Kennedy/Nixon debates? Do we still ask ourselves whether or not the “medium is the message”? Or, has McLuhan finally become obscured by the constant drone of the new media storm?

I may be too young to tell, having grown up accustomed to this bombardment of media noise. As I perceive it, McLuhan both predicted his own demise and his eternal life. Whether we take the time to understand the evolution of technology or not, it continues to evolve. Anachronism will not halt this process, and old ways will eventually be cannibalized or discarded. McLuhan saw this with his own work. Preferring spoken word over written, McLuhan resisted publishing books, much like those who opposed the printing press. Now, the epic poet has been obsolesced, and even the printed book is headed that route.

Even McLuhan’s own body worked against him. After suffering a stroke in 1979 he lost the ability to speak. McLuhan’s medium for making messages was muted. Just one year later, unable to express his frustration over seeing his life’s work taken out with the trash, he died.

Like the penguin who cannot produce a unique mating call to be heard among the chaos of the rook, McLuhan was silenced forever. And yet, his silencing speaks volumes. It conveys his message more powerfully than the largest billboard or the loudest orchestra. Not that the medium is the message, but that messages themselves are fleeting. They only hold meaning as long as they exist, and they only exist as long as there are those who are able to make meaning from them. The tools, or media, used to make that meaning should be whatever is most relevant at the time. So go and speak, or write, or Tweet… while you still can.