The Digital Ache
a Cyber Trilogy
first published in NEW Quest, No.147 (Jan-Mar) 2002
a quarterly journal of participatory inquiry
devoted to politics, culture, literature & society
The Wired Society
a dubious paradigm?
by Jayant Deshpande
Ours is not just a 'wired' society but a numbered one. Indeed we're wired because things can be numbered: most phenomena can be abstracted, reduced to quantities in the form of numbers—i.e. the binary code of ones and zeroes—ready for manipulation. Analyse, reduce, quantify, engineer and control—that is the modern mantra, the technological aspect of science. We live in a largely numerical-analytical world that engages our abstract faculties, our Left-logical brains. There's less room for our Right-intuitive faculties, which engage the qualitative nature of things, however ephemeral.
To be wired is to be reduced to numbers, and hence to be ripe for surveillance and control. Being 'wired up' means we are identified by numbers. The question then becomes, "What else does that identity entail?" An individual happens to be a unique, synthetic form that's now reduced to a heap of numbers, to DATA sequenced in both space and time in order to 'specify' something.
Do laws inferred from reducing things to quantities really mirror nature? Tough question.
Stored data, in 'memory', has the ring of permanence, its properties constant. But that stored identity starts to vanish when those bytes are in transit over the wires. A phantom soon to become another phantom.
This linear, reductionist nature of the computer limits its power. As it is, the computer exercises only selected human faculties, primarily visual in nature. Furthermore, power politics and big business interests decide what the technological paradigm is to be, whether the consumer cares to jump on board or not. The real test ought to be whether the adoption of a particular technology, with all its implications, is detrimental to other things in our culture that we may value more: e.g. crafts or trades, which require tactile control. In the information or digital age that reigning paradigm is the ubiquitous PC, and all the technologies that support it. But there's no getting away from human values and concerns—they rise above mere technology, which follows its own mechanical logic; once we follow its dictates, there may be no turning back. Think of conventional tools like hammers, pliers, screwdrivers: they're kept in their place till we pick them up and put them to their limited use. A computer is a far more sophisticated tool that relies for its development on a lot of abstract scientific theory, especially when it gets networked and leads to ever wider possibilities that we may not be able to predict. Our values, concerns and choices become even more important. The idea is to get this monster to follow us, not let it spin out of control so that we're forced to keep asking, "What's next?" and "How do we make room for it?", as though we had no say whatsoever in what to invent and what for. It would be a fatal mistake to treat a particular technology as a given that we simply adapt to, that drags us along in its uncertain path. Technology is after all a creature of our own making.
One could argue that the 'information' bromide is an idea gone awry, altering human behavior, even values. Our daily techno-cyber-fix is a symptom of the addiction to hi-tech gadgets. To be drawn into this vortex is to be guaranteed employment, which in turn generates cash to buy more cyber-tech products. A process that feeds itself as R & D becomes flush with money to spend. The aim of the owners: consumer dependence and thus the propagation of a paradigm which we tacitly accept; it doesn't necessarily reflect our ideals.
The issue is not whether information technology is overrated, but that a lot of other choices get underrated, even denied. Paradigms have that effect.
What redeems the computer is its utility, not our obsession with it. Through the world wide web it offers a relatively impoverished, but creative, individual who wishes to express himself the immense freedom to quickly share his work and gain a huge following. He may well remain in penury, but no one can take that freedom away from him. A democratic medium like the Web allows an honest exchange of ideas and views between concerned and interested parties, with virtually no loss in the pecuniary sense, and only gain—if any. To copy, possibly alter, and distribute such material is to flatter its originator, even as it violates the norms of copyright.
Hence also the open source movement, initiated in a major way by Linus Torvald’s LINUX operating system (as an antidote or alternative to Windows), and championed by the cyber-gadfly, Richard Stallman, who believes in a kind of digital commons to offer and exchange software at no cost, which the user is free to modify at will. This would ensure full participation by the user, in the service of constantly improving a product offered to the public. He insists that one should not have to pay for intellectual property when it comes to computer code—its true power lies in its sharing.
The PC is a window on the world. But it's only a tool, not an end in itself. And though quite user-friendly, it could be more so. Yet the more we worship it the more it wears us down.
Man is unwittingly being shaped in the image of the computer, though it is just a highly flexible machine that does repetitive calculations at lightning speed. Are we allowing ourselves to be supplanted by our own inventions? The concerns may be clichéd—but they're genuine: Will it be machine over man, and mind over heart and soul? The reasoning faculty serves the cyber dispensation well. We could be irreversibly locked into the biases of a wired society, soon to become only physically 'wireless'.