Saturday, October 31, 2009

Truth system trumps reading comprehension in Wired

Wired magazine is currently running a good, informative article on the battle over vaccination. In it, they provide a wonderful quote by the late, great Carl Sagan, in which he presents reasons why the persistent belief in wacky pseudo-science (like the totally unproven link between vaccines and autism) may not be driven simply by ignorance and stupidity:

“A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”

In other words, people don't believe pseudo-science because they are weak minded, but because capitalism sucks, and does a lousy job of providing support for human beings, which it tends to treat as machine tools. (Yes, I am aware Sagan does not single out "capitalism" for critique here. I am attempting to extend the useful Mormon tradition of posthumous conversion for use by us socialists.)

However, rather than build on Sagan's words, Wired seems to ignore them, as the very next sentence in the article suggests that proper middle-class rationality is self-evidently superior to all other forms of thought, and is only ever ignored because it is just too hard for the dumb, lazy masses.

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves — beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace — the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

Let me be clear here, I think the vaccine deniers are wrong, and that preventing children from getting vaccinations is a terrible mistake that could have deadly consequences. However, treating people as children who just need to be properly "disciplined" will only ever make them act as children. If we want to earn the public's trust, we have to build a system of knowledge production (and of production in general) worthy of that trust. One they can be confident is working for them, not to enrich some CEO. Until we do this, their fears will continue to manifest themselves in these dangerous and harmful ways.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pop Music, Memory and Digital Media

A few weeks ago, Bruce Sterling posted a reflection on "plots [that] can’t exist in a world of ubiquitous computing," to his blog. He discussed the challenges horror-movie writers face working in an always-connected world (how do you isolate a helpless victim when everyone has the ability to call the authorities always in their pocket). Before moving on to point out the consequences of our pervasive communications networks to another genre, "lovelorn, romantic torch songs." This song by Everything But the Girl for example:

Sterling quips:
Tears your heart out, right? Well, why doesn’t she go on freakin’ Facebook? Why doesn’t she just Google him? It’s not that alligators ate him: he just blew town. Big deal. Get video Skype. Your vanished lover is probably married now and has two kids in Omaha, but hey, that’s another problem.

The introduction of always on digital communications and information storage into the everyday lives of ordinary people (at least among the relatively privileged classes of the developed world) does indeed alter the shape of memory, loss, and longing. The experience of discovering a "vanished lover... married now [with] two kids in Omaha," or any of the other encounters we have with those digital ghosts, those patterns of data connected to people we no longer really know but who persist in the linkages of our social networking software, reminds me of another pop song. Namely, "She's got you," in which Patsy Cline mourns that:
I've got your picture that you gave to me
And it's signed "with love," just like it used to be
The only thing different, the only thing new
I've got your picture, she's got you

She goes on to list other artifacts she once shared with her beloved - records, a class ring - before concluding "The only thing different, the only thing new/I've got these little things, she's got you." The objects of love, stripped of the aura of the beloved, a dilemma probably older than human language - since even bower birds court using gifts - but in this song already betraying the effects of the regime of mechanical reproduction. Snapshots and records easily and efficiently commit memory to mechanism, capture shared experiences now stripped of their original context. The regime of the digital multiplies these "little things," creates the data ghosts that can so easily haunt us. But it does more than that. Because digital artifacts are non-rival, we can easily share "little things," broadcast them not only across our social networks but even to the world at large. Take for example the website My Parents Were Awesome (one of many websites using the "tumblr" service to share photographs, and one of the few not committed to schadenfreude), which invites participants to share scanned in old photographs of their parents. The only context is the site title, but that title suffices to make these little things a powerful meditation on history and mortality, as the user scrolls by picture after picture of youthful people, knowing everyone depicted has since grown old enough to have a child capable of uploading photos to a tumblr site. It is the sort of meditation one might have had with a box of family photos in the age of mechanical reproduction, in the age of the ubiquitous digital network, you can always find someone's family photos.

Thus our digital ghosts invite us to both narcissism and communion. The boundaries of memory are what has changed.