Category Archives: Technology

Emergent propaganda.

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now.

–Alan Jacobs, propaganda and social media


A long-term abusive relationship.

The best I could do as moderator some days was to keep the conversation from completely turning into a flaming cesspool. Last month, I was speaking to a friend, describing my long-held hope that things might someday improve, that every time a conversation in comments went really well, maybe it signaled a turning point—that from then on, things would get better. As soon as I said that aloud, I realized that it sounded as if I had been living in a long-term abusive relationship.

–Alan Taylor, For Ten Years, I Read the Comments

Entropy, agency, and determinism.

Nothing is more characteristically American about science fiction than its explicit activism and the faith which its writers have expressed that events can and will be moved in desirable directions by a strong-minded people. Yet entropy is a law of nature standing athwart the history that such people might make—and a law not so easily finessed with a vaguely defined ‘warp drive’ as is Einstein’s universal speed limit. […]

Although he defined his own personal faith as Deist, Campbell’s own opinion of human nature added to an Old Testament view of divine justice a very Augustinian sense of human depravity, a Puritanical acceptance of Apocalypse as no more than people deserved. Similarly mixed were his views on the consequences of science and technology. They were at once the highly desirable goal of human struggle, the producers of the mechanized luxury of decadence, and the revealers of entropy with all its terrors for the rationalist.

The ultimate inevitability of entropy made Campbell a determinist about human history, despite his personal distaste for determinism and all his attempts to deny that he was a determinist. The attempts at denial, moreover, were rooted in what was most conventional about his Americanism: problem-solving activism, optimism, hope (if not necessarily faith) in the ability of the right kind of people to master their physical environment.[…]

Left to themselves [in a closed system], Campbell was saying, people cannot reform, rebuild, or revitalize their own lives, their own societies. That has to be done for them—or to them.

–Albert I. Berger, The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology (1993), pp. 27, 31-32

This hip, new slavery.

Wu argues that we need a balance between two kinds of attention in order to be healthy: the transitory kind that happens in natural shifts of focus during daily life, and the sustained kind, such as when we are reading a book. But such sustained attention is increasingly ceded to the deliberate and chronic summoning of transitory attention by digital technologists. Instead of a long, uninterrupted read, we are being trained to consume information piecemeal from a medley of screens. This fragmented attention results in fragmented minds, producing people who are unable to focus or think effectively. The outcome is exhaustion through overstimulation of our mind’s neuronal responses, thus weakening our executive faculties and our ability to make coherent and independent decisions.

When our attention is lured, herded, and commandeered in such a way, our full human potential is profoundly subverted. “Our life experience,” William James once said, “will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.” We become what we attend to — nothing more, nothing less. A steady and exclusive stream of reality TV, entertainment gossip, social media chatter, and “breaking news” about the latest celebrity scandal or Trump’s most recent tweets — all endlessly cycling into each other — turns us into the bland clickbait of the attention harvesters. Yet, though we justifiably consider the enslavement of bodies a terrible wrong, we willingly surrender our minds for the profit of others. This new, almost hip, kind of slavery is sought, not fought.

–John Bell, John Zada, The Great Attention Heist


Defeated it might be, but like victory, tron has many fathers. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one version comes from Scots, meaning “a weighing machine” or “the place where the tron was set up.” You can still visit the Tron Kirk in Edinburgh, where the salt tron once stood as a public beam for sizing up merchandise. In contemporary usage the term actually springs from ancient Greek, with the invention of the first vacuum tube or “kenotron” around 1904; its creator came up with the name by combining the Greek words for “empty” (keno) and “tool” (tron). Subsequently, the radiotron, thyratron, klystron, and rhumbatron went on to become vital components of the radio industry in the 1930s, while the resonant cavity magnetron was at the heart of every radar set in the Second World War. Don’t be deceived: These components bear scant relationship to elementary particles such as the electron, neutron, and positron, all of which really end in the suffix –on; their names are a red herring, akin to the old rumor that the Mustang car was named after the fighter aircraft and not the horse.

–David Munns, The ‘Tron’ Suffix and the Promise of Future Technology

Otherwise–who knows?

I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor. The key word of this statement is competition. It may very well be a good thing for humanity to have the machine remove from it the need of menial and disagreeable tasks, or it may not. I do not know. It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save; and it is precisely the terms of the open market, the “fifth freedom,” that have become the shibboleth of the sector of American opinion represented by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Saturday Evening Post. I say American opinion, for as an American, I know it best, but the hucksters recognize no national boundary.

Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,’ was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise—who knows? […]

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable. We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation. As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

—Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1961 [orig. 1948]), The MIT Press, pp. 27-29

Behold the butterfly

Technique, which transforms culture into luxury, puts so many cultural modalities at the reader’s disposal that none of them has any more importance than any other; the customer becomes a butterfly dipping into whatever flower he chooses. … Technique erects a screen between the author and his readers. Miniature fireworks issue from the magic bottle, but not revolt. A few printed pages out of the deluge of printed matter will never make the butterfly revolutionary.

–Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1970), trans. John Wilkinson [originally published as La Technique l’enjeu du siécle, 1954]