Friday, October 23, 2009

"Mathematically Uncontrolled, but Humanly Contained:" Why Limitations are the Future of the Internet

Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Earth" photograph taken from the Voyager 1 in 1990

Cybercultural theorist and philosopher Barry Vacker visited my Technology and Civilization class the other day and posed one of the simplest and yet most profound questions, in my opinion, of the entire 21st century. A question that, in an age where technology is moving more information faster than we can possibly rap our minds around, may very well define the turn-of-the-century. That is,
“Is the internet working for your or are you working for the internet?”

While computing is proliferating based on Moore’s law, Vacker elaborated, where the power of the computer is doubling every two years at a fraction of the cost, how can we double our capacity as human beings in the same amount of time?

Vacker’s book series cuts through the contemporary mediascape with a powerful, philosophical scalpel that forces us to reconsider our place in the virtual cosmos. (How, for example, do we reconcile the fact that we are communicating through a system of information storage designed for the sole purpose of surviving a nuclear holocaust developed shortly after James Bond smashed his futuristic Aston Martin into its own reflection in Goldfinger and Ronal Reagan, prospective simulacrum of American-ness, hosted the national opening of Disney’s Tomorrowland on TV??). Vacker posits that new technology is moving so fast we are losing our ability to understand it. Media reveals concepts so profound that we have a hard time dealing with it, and this pushes some individuals and groups to revert their intellect to pre-modern myths and ideals in the face of technology’s discoveries. As we face a war over progress in the Middle East, the Voyager spacecraft, a piece of technology designed by humans to take pictures of our galaxy and send them back to earth, has floated so far out into the solar system that it cannot even see earth anymore.

So where do we begin to understand what this means for humans back here on earth? How do we adapt ourselves to make technology work for us? With such a heavy quantity of information in so many different forms and contexts on the Internet, I propose that the first step, ironically, should be to proliferate not access, but limitations.

This may sound counterintuitive at first, but think about this: the size and speed of cyberspace transcends space and time in a world-flattening, self-empowering way, but at what cost? The ability to stretch our knowledge out into this vast information-scape has a flip-side, and that is the thinning out of that very knowledge. Sure, we can find more stuff with the Internet, but we have a harder time reflecting on it and synthesizing it. It’s as if you have a rubber swim cap that has a finite mass which can stretch past its homeostatic size- the rubber stretches out farther and farther as you pull harder and harder until it could cover a whole basketball but the rubber of the cap thins out to a point of near transparency before it snaps and breaks apart. Similarly, our intellects are getting thinner and thinner as our RSS readers fill up with more stuff that we simply do not have time to read with any depth or interpretation.

A surprisingly relevant theme lies at the heart of the late David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest: the futility of the search for perfection. The characters all seem to be in search for the perfect something- the perfect high, the perfect entertainment, the perfect film production- which all end in destruction- overdose, vegetative states, death. It’s like when you spend an hour flipping through 600 television channels to find just the right show to watch before you realize you haven’t actually watched anything. In search of the perfect news story, the perfect blog post, the perfect YouTube video, we are potentially destroying our intellect in the same way. Without limitations, only verstiegenheit.

In this way, we need to find ways to organically limit our consumption of information before we realize we haven’t been digesting any of it. Blogging, for example, is a good way to pause and think about what we are reading, seeing and experiencing by writing it in a coherent way for a potential audience. As information moves faster and faster around us we can easily forget how to ground ourselves in it and a forum for synthesis and reflection is a way to filter information that is relevant to you. Rather than consuming without thinking, blogs allow us to think about our consumption and export it back into the networked cybersphere.

There’s a reason why Twitter, a service whose entire functionality is based upon a character limitation, is so popular right now. By limiting our thoughts to 140 characters or less, we are faced with the challenge of thinking about what we will write while also making it easier and quicker to read others’ thoughts. Sure, we can’t write dissertations through Twitter, but we can produce the kernels of our thesis and ask for feedback from people who care.

I predict more limit-creating applications as the future of creative Web products. Tech news website Slashdot uses an innovative method for limiting comments through a complex peer review system using “karma,” “moderation” and “metamoderation.” Perhaps other websites such as Digg and Current- places that most people end up talking “at” each other, rather than “with” each other as a byproduct of the size of the networks- can start geotagging comments so the users can filter the comments and limit their conversations to local peers. Only through such limitations will we make Moore’s law apply to our cognition, too, and have the Web work for us rather than the other way around.

View Vacker's film "Space Times Square" in it's entirety on YouTube

EDIT: This weekend's New York Times Magazine featured a great piece by Peggy Orenstein called "Stop Your Search Engines" about limiting our knowledge intake:
"...the promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information, and the two are hardly the same."

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