The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The New Normal

Today I'm sharing a few articles I've collected around the Internet.

Goodbye, Yellow Pages. The phonebook is finally going the way of the carrier pigeon (link). We’ve all seen it coming. The Internet has simply made it obsolete, the argument goes. The article I read points out the great environmental advantages of this transition. I love the first sentence.

“This can only be great news for the environment. We all know the arguments against annually printing tens of millions of tons worth of paper—the nasty stuff inside the ink, a fatuous use of paper recycled or not, the waste of energy creating, packaging and delivering them.”

Measuring the environmental impact of printing phonebooks would certainly be possible if we had just a few pertinent numbers. What’s more difficult to calculate, however, is the electrical expense of using whatever Internet-capable device will be used instead of a phonebook—be it a computer, a mobile phone, or the car we drive in to the library to use the Internet. Will there be a net reduction of environmental resources? Probably, but those are harder numbers to nail down.

Additionally, it’s important to consider that this obsolescence has social implications, however remote. Those without home Internet access are at a disadvantage. They become information poor in addition to being economically poor. To overcome it, they will need to be more resourceful in other ways. But the Yellow Pages will no longer be one of those resources.

Automated Arguments. An Australian programmer, Nigel Leck, has found a new way to argue: Use a computer program (link). He’s created a program to scan Twitter for anti–Global Warming rhetoric and compose an automatic retort, complete with a link to a relevant article. My favorite line: “Whether you agree or disagree with Leck’s (bot’s) point of view is almost beside the point.”

Will we soon have autobots spamming each other with context-relevant arguments? This reminds me of two coworkers who went on vacation at the same time. Both used auto-reply out-of-office email messages. The one sent a quick final message to the other, then shut his computer down. The two emails went back and forth until they flooded each other's inbox, shutting both down.

Such an idea might be efficient, but we’ve removed ourselves another step from genuine dialogue.

Automated Automobiles. You’ve no doubt heard about Google’s research into self-driven cars (link). The report I read listed a few benefits. Among them, “automated cars could ultimately cut the number of lives lost in road accidents each year by half.” If used in military ops, “vehicles that drive themselves could be used to reduce potential casualties in convoys that transport fuel and other supplies in war zones.”

I can’t argue with those kinds of results. In the U.S., that’s more that 15,000 people a year, more than 40 each day.

The article tried to appear balanced: “Although these vehicles will almost certainly be safer than those driven by human beings, concerns about the potential impact of hackers, software bugs and other nasty stuff will hinder their adoption.”

Framing it this way though, the article seems a bit biased. Rather than acknowledging that these may be true dangers, they are characterized merely as obstacles to be overcome. (How? With more technology.) What’s more, the vague “other nasty stuff” seems like a brush-off, and a playful one at that. It shrugs and laughs and avoids the difficult work of thinking about what those real trade-offs might be. This is the blind spot that media ecology seeks remove.

Technology and Time. Lastly, I appreciated this article on how the train pushed us to create time zones (link): "As new technology let railroad trains go even faster, the need for a better system [for timekeeping] was increasingly evident." Who would have foreseen such a necessity, except maybe Einstein?

The train hastened the disregard for space as a relevant detail. Conductors experienced the disorientation of “train lag.” Time had to become more standardized in order to reduce the disorientation created by technology.

This standardization spread to the whole social order, synchronizing everyone's lives. "Businesses followed the lead of the railroads, and people showed up for work when employers said they needed to, and customers visited stores when shopkeepers said they were open."

Why the needs of a few train-lagged conductors trumped the needs of broader society, I don’t know. The fact is, it wasn't the train conductors so much as much as the train itself that required the change. It was man adapting to the machine.

The article offers some additional clues to why this change took place: “So convenient was the system of time zones that it thrived entirely on the say-so of the railroads for 35 years. Congress did not enact Standard Time until March 19, 1918, when it also initiated Daylight Saving Time as an efficiency measure during World War I.” (emphasis added)

Two words jumped out at me: “convenient” and “efficiency.” These are essentially a single value at work—what Ellul calls “technique.” The railroad and its counterpart, the telegraph, heralded a new value system. It was the value of a well-oiled machine: efficiency.

And ever faster we go.

A few other notables

“[T]he city in which you live rewires your brain so that you walk and talk at a rate that’s considered normal in your neck of the woods.” (link)

Teenage “girls go online looking for information and don’t see it as a ‘virtual’ activity as a opposed to a real activity, as their moms do. The daughters said they use the Internet to get information that complements their ‘real-world’ activities. . . .” (link)

A venn diagram explaining the relationship between the Internet and privacy. (link)

Note: I wish I could blog about all the articles I find that pertain the matters of media ecology. If you read my blog “naturally” (without RSS), you can look on my blog under “Elsewhere” for articles I’ve read and thought worth sharing. There’s more than just media ecology stuff—you’ll see some of my other interests—but there’s plenty of articles in there.

Your mom taught you well