"Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."

Two Philosophies


Hopefully this will be a quick post, because I have errands to run and stuff to do...

The other day Jason Kottke tweeted a link to this post at Stratechery called, "Tech's Two Philosophies." Read the post, it's not very long, though it can provoke a great deal of thought and discussion.

Assuming you didn't read the post, briefly, author Ben Thompson points out the difference between Apple and Microsoft, and Google and Facebook. Apple and Microsoft are platform makers, whose products are intended to empower individuals to do things for themselves. Google and Facebook are aggregators whose products are intended to do things for you. I think that's interesting.

A bit of backstory is necessary, going back to the early visions of what computing would mean for humanity. Steve Jobs' "bicycles for the mind," is an apt and lovely metaphor, and one that I think still has some value, although we have mostly failed to live up to that vision. Douglas Englebart foresaw the information explosion, and saw computers as one way humans could learn to cope with it. Englebart was also somewhat more sophisticated in his anticipation of what it might mean, as he foresaw a co-evolution of man and machine. This is a smart take on the idea that we make our tools, and, in turn, our tools make us. We can go back to using stones to grind grains, and the story goes on from there. Exercise for the reader.

What is sad, and depressing, and frustrating, and infuriating is that we have completely failed to realize either Jobs' or Englebarts' vision. Bill Gates' vision was largely realized, a computer on every desk, running Microsoft software. Yay. Go Bill. A lot to be said for having modest goals.

What I immediately thought about Thompson's assertion that Google and Facebook want to do things for you, to give you back more of your time, was that of course they do. So you can spend that time on Facebook or Google!

And Google, and to a greater extent, Facebook, are the source of much of the information overload we are experiencing. Now, I'm reluctant to rely on the idea of information overload, because it's not so much that we're overloaded with information, it's that there is so much information that is utterly irrelevant to us, and, more troubling, so much that is just misinformation. Ideally, the information processing ability of computers should have helped us make tools to manage this surfeit of data, and to an extent they have, but corporations have taken computers' information processing capability and used it to attract attention.

Google and Facebook are not information or data aggregators, they are attention aggregators. They use information of all kinds, good, bad, titillating, prurient, provocative, entertaining, amusing, demagogic, idealistic, whatever message you're receptive to, they have it and they surface it to you, place it before your eyeballs, so they can show you an ad and charge a corporation for renting your eyeballs!

And one of the bitter ironies of all this is that it's done through the screens made by the platform makers, Apple and Microsoft. It's like Apple built a bicycle for the mind, but it only travels to one destination - social media!

Now, there's a solution to this, but it's largely unattainable. We can learn a form of discipline and eschew the attention-whoring aggregators. That would require discipline and the insight to realize that social media is a trap, an insight that is deliberately kept obscured by the aggregators, and one in which we have been trained since birth to be blind to. Since childhood, we've been taught (educated) that the world is perceived as images through screens, first by television then by the internet. We are not predisposed to regard this skeptically. We'll deny global warming, but we won't deny our tweeps!

All of which is why I'm pessimistic about this civilization's future. I suspect (didn't say "hope") that humanity will survive the coming calamity; but in much reduced circumstances. Whether that's good or bad, perhaps history will judge, whenever we get around to recording and examining history after the collapse.

But we have large, powerful entities today, chiefly corporations, that have very short time horizons and cannot act in any form of "selfless" way; and who cannot perceive a threat to their self-interest beyond the next quarterly report. Perhaps some do, but it's not clear that Facebook or Google can, locked as they are in a hyper-competitive struggle to monetize your attention. And there are numerous other corporate entities leveraging this captive audience for their own purposes, which likely have little to do with our best interests.

And because they're so good at what they do, because ceaseless, relentless competition compels them to get better and better, the likelihood that there will be large social movement away from the aggregators is vanishingly small. The odds are all against us.

We're trapped.

So there's your cheery thought for the day. It's nothing new. I've been ranting into the void about it now for a very long time, to no discernible effect. I'm just getting my dibs in on "I told you so!" early.

Okay, this may take a while...


Book arrived yesterday...

Photograph of Bantam paperback copy of Adam Smiths The Wealth of Nations

1130 pages! Ooof! Does anybody really read this thing anymore? Well, how do you eat an elephant? One page at a time, I guess.