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amy-welborn

I am probably going to regret this, since by tomorrow something else will have popped up that I’d rather write about, or I’ll feel overwhelmed by All The Thoughts, but I’m going to go ahead and commit to this: a week’s full of posts about tech – by which I mean, not the engine on your Toyota or the microwave, but, of course, information technology. That Damn Internet.

I’m calling it Tech Week. Those of you involved in the theater (I’m not) know Tech Week as Hell. It’s the series of rehearsals in which all of the technological aspects of the production – mostly lighting and sound – are painstakingly worked out. It’s painful, but necessary, and here, more than a useful pun. The process of putting all of that into place is difficult – but that tech is at the service of something very human: real flesh and blood people telling a story to other real flesh and blood people.

The question that’s at hand is not unrelated: what does modern information technology do to our humanity? Are we enslaved – or is there any way that it can be managed so that it serves us and helps us tell our stories more powerfully to each other?

Is it hopeless?

I’m not a philosopher, so these thoughts will be my usual fly-by-night stream-of-consciousness nonsense. I’ll try to keep it all as succinct as I can – which is why I’m dividing it up into different posts:

  • Monday: Some…thoughts.
  • Tuesday: Churches, evangelization and technology
  • Wednesday: Education and tech – the basics
  • Thursday: Education and tech – specific issues
  • Friday: What all of this brings out of us: the worst and the best

A couple of years ago, I reread Fahrenheit 451 as my son tackled it for Freshman English. I was quite taken with it. It struck me not so much as book About Censorship, as it’s usually thought of, but a book about Powers absorbing the individual – about making the individual believe that nothing in her life as she is living it today in this real world of earth and sky is as interesting as what is being presented on an ever-present, all-enveloping screen or fed into her earbuds.

I’m serious – read it. Bradbury’s prescience on this score gave me chills.

Inspired by that, I decided to pull out an ancient paperback copy of Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media. I’d read it and then pull Bradbury and McLuhan together to make some brilliant commentary on The Present Day. That’s what I was going to do.

Well, honestly – I couldn’t make head nor tail of McLuhan. I couldn’t keep track of the hot-cold stuff, partly because I kept trying to translating into the present day, and it just AMY-WELBORN3didn’t work. Mostly I am just not philosophically-minded and can’t follow arguments like this, just like I could never keep track of the characters in Deadwood. It’s a similar problem: everything just melds together: men with big moustaches spouting profanities – long sentences about structuring and configuring and vantage points – I just get hopelessly lost.

To be sure, there are brilliant nuggets in Understanding Media that I’ll be quoting, but I am not sure whatever it is he is arguing still works as an argument. Circumstances have changed so quickly, and the shape of media is quite different.

For there are two things, it seems to me, that Bradbury, McLuhan, Orwell, Huxley and most other visionaries of that era missed about “The Future.”  They envisioned information technology that would be able to dominate populations and shape culture and society: manipulative images on large screens, voices in earphones, an unrelenting, controlling Presence.

What could they not see?

First, the role that non-government entities would play in creating and maintaining that pervasive presence. The assumption, naturally enough, is that only government would have the power or interest in controlling information, communication and images, but we see that’s not the case. It’s an extremely profitable enterprise, and while corporations and governments are certainly all in this together for their own motivations, feeding off each other, the Google-Apple-Amazon-Microsoft regime is also different than the authoritarian single-government Big Brother that’s the framework for so much of mid-to-late 20th century prognostications.

Secondly – and this is what intrigues me the most. What hardly anyone envisioned (although those of you more well-read than I can certainly correct me on this score!) was the shrinking of the technology to the point that what kids carry around in their pockets is exponentially more powerful than computers that filled rooms just a couple of decades ago and – even more importantly – this tech gives not only the power to see and hear, but to create.

It didn’t take much to envision a future in which every corner of our lives would feature a screen. The plot twist has been the camera, microphone, printing press and projector that everyone holds in their hands.

Image: from the 1957 film Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy . 

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