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Information infatuation

Are computers really as valuable as we seem to think they are?
Published onFeb 01, 2023
Information infatuation

Go easy on me, it’s been a while and I’m out of practice. But I’m trying to get back into it. Anyhow…

Just before the holidays, my wife and I visited the now-closed Analog City exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. A tribute to obsolescence, the museum had packed a cavernous room, floor to ceiling, with all of the technologies — from rotary phones to punchcard systems and architectural drafting tools — that allowed the city to function before the advent of the computer. I left with two conclusions: first, if you’ll forgive my jeunesse, I was struck by the ingenuity and relative simplicity of the mechanical tools we once invented to fulfill functions now provided by computers, like the pantograph, a tool for creating scaled copies of sketches. Second, I was shocked by the scope of so-called creative destruction the exhibit documented. I couldn’t think of a single item mentioned or displayed that hadn’t been wholly supplanted by a single device: the computer. In just a few decades, the computer made obsolete untold millions of jobs dedicated to the use of thousands of specialized devices.

Where once tens of thousands of companies produced these devices, now just a handful are responsible for the majority of the world’s computers. Walking out of that room, I told myself, it was easy to understand why seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies are dedicated to producing computer hardware, software, or both.

In the months since, I’ve begun to question that conclusion. Here’s a quote from a 1990 Neil Postman speech that made the rounds on my, yes, Mastodon feed yesterday via L.M. Sacasas1:

As things stand now, the geniuses of computer technology will give us Star Wars, and tell us that is the answer to nuclear war. They will give us artificial intelligence, and tell us that this is the way to self-knowledge. They will give us instantaneous global communication, and tell us this is the way to mutual understanding. They will give us Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer to spiritual poverty. But that is only the way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the information junkie, and the technological idiot.

I have to admit I rather willfully forgot about Postman until reading this, er, toot. In my techno-optimist days, when he was force-fed to me via an intro to mass media class, I more or less dismissed him as a pessimist and a polemic. Truth be told, I still find his habit of referring to religion as a coherent ideology a tad reductive. But read that paragraph, written 33 years ago, and tell me he wasn’t more than a little prophetic.

The core message of Postman’s speech is that the computer, like any other technology, has the potential to redistribute power in profound, and potentially destructive, ways. Postman contends that the computer’s fundamental purpose is to collect, organize, and distribute information, and that it has been profoundly successful at fulfilling this purpose. By enabling our present-day information explosion, he argues, the computer has paradoxically made information meaningless, because, as he puts it, “information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”

It’s easy to laugh and dismiss this criticism given that you can use your Apple2 iPhone to Google3 just about any problem — from how to fix a leaky toilet to how to become enlightened — and find hundreds, if not thousands, of solutions, most of which can be received in two days via an Amazon4 order. But that knee-jerk dismissal is exactly Postman’s point: we have become so enamored with computers we’ve forgotten that though they can help us find solutions to problems, they can’t actually implement those solutions. And yet, we have largely allowed our society, and especially our economy, to do exactly what Postman warned us not to: reorganize ourselves around people, companies, and technologies who pretend that information alone can do anything and everything, largely at the expense of the people who actually do things with the information computers give them.

The problem isn’t just semantic. Maybe someday the self-driving cars, multi-purpose robots, and universal general AI entities will pan out. But as it stands today, after decades of work and trillions of dollars spent, no amount of information can replace a broken valve or meditate for you. And yet, the salary of the engineer who writes the code that helps you find the video that explains how to replace the toilet valve is much higher than the salary of the plumber who comes and replaces it when you give up on fixing it yourself. Worse still, the video was probably made by the plumber, because the engineer’s employer convinced the plumber they needed a social media strategy to attract customers when the local newspaper shut down because all its major advertisers diverted their marketing budget to the engineer’s employer. All of this economic and technical complexity to accomplish…what, exactly, that a classifieds section or phone book couldn’t?

Now who’s the pessimist? Of course, I don’t want to dip too far into negativity or determinism. Computers are, of course, immensely value, in many ways. The question is: are they really as valuable as we’ve decided they are? Or are they, because of their infinitely flexible, adaptable, and embeddable nature, just really good at capturing value once ascribed to other products?

It’s nearly impossible to step outside of our society and economy and say for sure. But I suspect the fact that most of the world’s tech companies have, from their very beginning, felt an insatiable need to justify themselves with grandiose slogans and amazing promises they’ve never been able to fulfill is a pretty good tell. As I’ve written about, tech companies are in some ways better thought of as nation-states than corporations, with shared ideologies and mythologies that justify and facilitate their existence. No one at Google finds selling search ads fulfilling or meaningful. But it can feel like more than just a job because the company is designed to convince employees that they’re helping to “organize the world’s information” and fund research into “moonshots” like life-extension therapies and self-driving cars.

Whether these moonshots actually fulfill their promises (and it’s not clear any really have) is almost besides the point. “X,” and every other tech company’s pet project division, exists as much to explain the enormous market capitalization and provide highly educated employees with a justification for spending their lives optimizing auction algorithms as it does to produce anything of value. In this way, most of these companies are literal examples of Postman’s conclusion: the information they’ve so successfully monetized has almost no connection to the solutions they’ve promised to deliver.

Will some of these projects ultimately bear fruit? Probably, eventually. But if it happens, it won’t be because computers turned information into action. It will be because humans turned computers into money. That’s fine as far as it goes. Let’s just hope that by the time it finally happens, society will have managed to rebalance its understanding of what about these technologies is truly valuable.

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