Monday, August 17, 2015

Even more digital caution

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, computers, computer revolution

A Canadian Indian chief was talking with a visiting geologist, who was describing his work and the chances of mining in that area. At one point the chief said, "The first time white men came to Canada, they shot all the big game and hauled away the meat. The second time white men came to Canada, they trapped all the small game and hauled away the furs. The third time white men came to Canada, they cut down all the big trees and hauled them away to make lumber. The fourth time white men came to Canada, they cut down all the small trees and hauled them away to make paper. Now they are coming for the rocks!"

Observing the sweep of human history, I get a similar feeling, or perhaps it is the kind of building dread embodied in a Vaudeville routine that began, "Slowly I turned. Step by Step…"

  1. At various times mainly between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution made possible a great increase in the human population and the size and density of settlements-towns-cities. In some ways life was better, but there also arose supervisors and nobles and kings, epidemics of cholera and TB, and harder and longer work for nearly all. Those few foraging cultures that remain seem to have an easier time of it, at the cost of not being able to accumulate more goods than they can carry on their person or drag with a travois (foragers don't build roads, so the wheel is no use to them).
  2. Beginning about 200 years ago in England, and spreading to about a third of humanity so far, the Industrial Revolution made possible a great increase in productivity of goods manufacture and travel and literature/literacy/education. There also arose sweatshops (still almost universal outside Europe and the USA) and all the associated ills detailed in Sinclair Lewis's "muckraking" books.
  3. Though Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and others made a false start at developing computing machinery in the "real steam" era that is adulated in "steampunk" fiction, true general-purpose computers truly began a bit more than 60 years ago with electronic computation, first using vacuum tubes, then transistors, then small-scale integrated circuits, and now "chips" about the size of postage stamps, that can do a few billion operations per second.
  4. The first Blackberry, the 850, appeared just 16 years ago; it was the precursor of the "smart phone", which really took off once touch screens became economical to produce. The level of computing power needed to run these devices also powers, on a larger scale, all the "big data" processes that have addicted so many of us to a pocket device that pretty much runs our lives, and informs advertisers and government staffers alike about everything happening to nearly everybody.
This environment of ubiquitous computing is what the word "digital" means in the title of Andrew V. Edwards's new book Digital is Destroying Everything: What the Tech Giants Won't Tell You about How Robots, Big Data, and Algorithms are Radically Remaking Your Future. That's not quite the longest title I've ever seen, but it is the longest this year.

Digital processes are not all that new. They date to the invention of counting numbers thousands of years ago. The world has always been divided into things you can count and stuff you can't count. You can't say "I'll have one water with lunch and two waters with dinner", except if you are talking about bottles of filtered water. But water itself is treated as a continuous substance. Apples or sheep, on the other hand, are unitary. It is quite legitimate to have one apple with lunch and two apples with dinner. Or even two "fruits" if you intend to have one apple and one pear. Though most "unitary" items are divisible, and cutting an apple in half to share with a friend is OK, half a table or half a chair or half an automobile is not so useful. So if we want to do the work involved, it is possible to count exactly how many automobiles (that run) are in the city of Houston, or how many oranges are on a particular tree in Florida. But water? or even apple juice? You can't "count" it unless you containerize it, and then you can count quarts or gallons or whatever.

That's a long way to say that the human race has actually become comfortable working with some stuff that is analog and thus can be measured but not counted, and other stuff that comes in natural packets and can thus be counted, and is digital. Though there are super-microscopes that can see atoms, we still don't worry much about how many atoms of helium are in a particular balloon, or how many molecules of water are in a particular drinking glass. On the human scale, atoms (from "a tomos" meaning "can't be divided") just don't matter. For many, many purposes, analog is king. Most of us only care about exactitude when getting change from the cashier or balancing our checkbook. Or counting that there are indeed 12 eggs in that carton of a dozen.

All that is changing. In the four points above, I didn't pay much attention the radical changes of occupation that accompanied each revolution. Midway through the Industrial Revolution, autos rapidly replaced carriages, and the proverbial "buggy whip makers" nearly all went out of business. Only one in ten thousand still remains, making the whips for funky carriages used for giving rides to tourists in historic Philadelphia or Williamsburg. My wife was once a Telex operator. That has long been superseded by at least three technologies in sequence, until they all fell to e-mail and now texting. CEO's text or e-mail almost everything except contracts that need signing, and even then, the signable PDF is taking over for paper contracts.

So what does Mr. Edwards wish us to beware? I could be cute and say, "All of it!", but that would do him poor justice. Digital with a capital D provides abundant conveniences. We just have to achieve some kind of balance, because convenience is not all there is to life. Before there was Digital there were already "couch potatoes", for whom convenience really was, if not everything in their life, at least it made up as much of it as they could manage. Before there was TV, there were already over-avid spectators, going back even before Roman times, when the Emperor's formula for a contented population was "bread and circuses". In between it was "beer and football (either kind)".

The book has 17 chapters that cover everything from the music industry (rapidly dying away), screen addiction (people who text the person sitting across the table at the eatery), the job market (or lack thereof), retail (Amazon and eBay and their Mafia-esque ways to grow into monopolies), and the tension between using the Twitterverse to overcome authoritarian rule and its use by the authorities to track us all in real time (I knew there was a reason I've eschewed getting a Twitter account!).

The saddest chapter has the title, "Obsessive Compulsive: Digital is Destroying Our Will to Create Anything Not Digital." Having spent 40 years writing software, because I was better with code than I was in the lab (I majored in Chemistry, Physics and Geology), I well know the allure of, "Computer programs can do anything!". But early on I recognized that they can't. So I've given equal effort to analog pursuits: music performance (voice and several instruments), art (mobiles, the kind with wires and hanging things), and essay writing (generally speaking, half an essay is of no more use than half a chain saw). I wonder what I did right? So many people I know have no hobbies that don't fit on a 4-inch screen.

Now, some things we're better off without. Music aficionados who have a really good ear can tell the great improvement CD's are over vinyl records. Of course, if they really, really like the third harmonic emphasis created by older equipment, they use the CD player to drive a vacuum tube amplifier. So there is still a very tiny market for manufacturers of vacuum tubes! But most of us are happier without them (though I still own a ham transmitter with driver and transmitter tubes). Digital controls in aircraft and autos have steadily reduced traffic and air fatalities. Digital libraries, though they are putting pressure on brick-and-mortar libraries (still my favorite places: FYI, I don't own an e-reader), afford instant access to an increasing fraction of all human knowledge, and the only way to index all of that.

I suspect if advertisers could not track us via the click rate on their banner ads, there would still be a larger market for paper "newspapers" and magazines. But those markets continue to shrink. Digital is also destroying education "as we know it", but I favor that to some extent. Different people learn different ways: I learned FORTRAN II better in two days using a "programmed instruction" book, than if I'd sat for 12 weeks in some "Comp Sci" classroom trying to learn it from an instructor (Oh, yeah, Comp Sci didn't exist in 1968; I was among those who invented it). The Khan Academy caters to people like me…usually! But for some subjects, I do better with a talented instructor. I needed a really good one to learn Differential Equations while getting an Engineering degree. Two attempts with less talented teachers led me to drop those classes, so the "third time" really was the charm. But if Digital takes over the classroom for many subjects, I, for one, will not cry the loss. Only the most talented teachers will remain as teachers. That is a good thing. The most talented today are moving toward massive online courses, which spread their expertise to a great many more students than could be taught just a decade or two ago.

For some things, we prefer less human interaction. I'm a typical "hunter" type when buying something. Once I know what I want, it is like, "go to forest (store), find prey (the shirt I've decided to buy), kill (buy) it, and go home." My best "shopping" trips last ten minutes. The last person I want to interact with is a store clerk. Of course, that's if I really know what I want. If I don't, and online research hasn't proven helpful, I really do want a knowledgeable store clerk's help. Then I shop differently: "Go to forest, find hunting mentor to lead me to where the best game is. Then kill the prey and take it home." I'm OK if such an event takes half an hour instead of ten minutes. But if the "mentor" is a dullard with little interest in being of genuine help, he/she'd better duck! Actually, no violence, I just find the supervisor, who's more likely to be a good "mentor".

The last couple of chapters get into "What do we do about it?", and I'll avoid stealing the author's thunder, except to say, the Hippies were right, that we ought to get out and smell the flowers more often. Do you ever take a walk and turn off your phone until you return home? Try it.

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