Thursday, March 1, 2012

Thoughts on Triple Canopy's Open Letter to Kevin Kelly

Episode IV: A New Heap - Robert Smithson, Heap of Language (1966): Star Wars, Opening Crawl (1977)
"You remember, right? “Star Wars: A New Heap,” by John Powers, that elaborate Smithson-inspired disquisition on the relationship between Star Wars and Minimalist sculpture. Apparently sci-fi is the internet’s main artery, because we’ve never gotten more unique hits for any article." An Open Letter to Kevin Kelly - Triple Canopy
While no one has asked my opinion, but because it opens with a reference to the essay I wrote for them about Star Wars (and the very favorable review Kelly posted about it on his blog), and since I at least correspond with all the players (pretty sure the open letter was written by Colby Chamberlain) I felt I have the right to chime in. I take issue with the idea that What Technology Wants is war, but also with countering Kelly' observations on technology with a 40 year old quote. Triple Canopy's position feels dogmatic to me. Bending a knee to canon while ignoring what is happening all around us. Cassandra vs Pollyanna is a false choice. Things are bad - our problems are very real. But as Kevin Kelly points out to those who say we can't go on as we are: We never do.

Triple Canopy's Open Letter is a much delayed response to Kelly’s latest book – What Technology Wants. It is a book that sparked a series of posts on this blog, but it is also one of several books I recommended to a despondent friend recently. He told me that he was discouraged by the things he had been reading, and wondered if I could suggest any books that might offer him some sense of hope. Kelly’s was the first book I listed – not because he is a Polyanna - he isn't - but because Kelly makes rock solid observations that make me feel, that as terrible and overwhelming as our problems might be, we do have the tools to solve them.

So it is curious to find Triple Canopy using an observation on technology and war published in 1973 - a particularly grim year following on the heals of a great number of grim years – to counter Kelly’s more recent observations:
It means this War was never political at all, the politics was all theater, all just to keep the people distracted . . . secretly it was being dictated instead by the needs of technology . . . by a conspiracy between human beings and techniques, by something that needed the energy-burst of war, crying, “Money be damned, the very life of [insert name of Nation] is at stake,” but meaning, most likely, dawn is nearly here, I need my night’s blood, my funding, funding, ahh more, more. . . . The real crises were crises of allocation and priority, not among firms—it was only staged to look that way—but among the different Technologies. Plastics, Electronics, Aircraft, and their needs which are understood only by the ruling elite . . .
No disrespect to the visionary genius of Thomas Pynchon; although I am not a literary type, I have no doubt that Gravity’s Rainbow belongs in the modern canon. And in 1973 Pynchon had every right to be cynical about politics and feel despair about the direction technological progress was taking the world. At that moment in time most available evidence indicated that polotics were going from really bad (Nixon was inaugurated for his 2nd term) to fucking worse (Watergate), and technological progress amounted to little more than manipulation (planned obsolescence) and ever greater means of destruction  (Cold War).

More recently (say... since we emerged from the naggingly-doomsy existential threat of the Cold War) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett publish another book I suggest my friend red, the Spirit Level. In it, Wilkinson and Pickett make the curious observation that during the both the WWI and WWII, that in the UK, while material living standards fell, income disparities narrowed, crime rates fell and health improved: “Increases in life expectancy for civilians during the war decades were twice those seen throughout the rest of the twentieth century.” Rather than joining Paul Krugman in hoping for a war with aliens to save our economies, we have the ability to look back and see what lessons that "Weoponized Keynesians" might teach.

Perhaps what technology wants is for us to be more equal, so we all (rich and poor) live longer, healthier lives? The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker does not believe war is what we, or our technology wants. Pinker has written a compelling book called Better Angels (also on my list) that charts the counter intuitive fact that as our technologies have become more complex and powerful we have grown less, not more, inclined to kill one other.

I have no idea what technology wants, but it’s not hard to see that the overwhelming majority of what we know about the "conspiracy between human beings and techniques," we have learned in the years since Pynchon wrote Gravity’s Rainbow. For instance: outside of a small clique of engineers I very much doubt anyone was talking much about Moore’s law in 1973. But like Kelly; Wilkinson, Pickett, and Pinker seem to be taking a page directly from Gordon Moore’s play book, They all are looking back on all the evidence we have – most crucially the most recent (and not entirely coincidently most robust)—and thereby identifying trajectories that were invisible before now and projecting those trajectories forward.

I understand that it is fun to play Cassandra, but I don't think we have the luxury of dispair. Our problems are too big, too complex, and the obstacle we have to overcome are too daunting. Dispair has too long been the marker of intellectual sophistication, but it isn't that. Dispair it is decadence. It is choosing to fiddle rather than fire fight.

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