Posts tagged “information technology”

Information Overlord

We are seduced by and dithering with some mind-boggling stuff these days – magical gadgets, apps to enable whatever the hell comes to mind, wireless (!), interleaving social networks, the delight and terror of being geo-located, etc. These objects and experiences are often lumped together and referred to as “technology.” We don’t yet get what we sacrifice or gain by this tech-driven new world order, or how it will ultimately affect us as individuals, as generations, as a culture. Of course, our underlying motivations as human beings remain pretty stable (from survival straight through to enlightenment), but the way we can go about things now is all different. Implications abound. A faceless evil foe emerges from the uncertainty: technology itself (never terribly well defined when the witch-hunt is on). The foe is also the enabler. Agnostic pipes blissfully propagate these ideas, unaware they are being demonized, allowing us to consume them on whatever miraculous screen we happen to be peering at.

Here are a couple recent examples of technology – in particular the volume of information it allows us to access – being discussed in the popular press.

The Visionary: A digital pioneer questions what technology has wrought [newyorker.com] – Jaron Lanier has spent his incredible career envisioning ways for technology to delight and empower us, but is disappointed by the dominance of information in the system. We’re not thinking creatively enough. Technology is a harsh schoolmarm. It limits us with its relentless focus on information.

Such objections have made Lanier an unusual figure: he is a technology expert who dislikes what technology has become. “I’m disappointed with the way the Internet has gone in the past ten years,” he told me at one point. He added, “I’ve always felt that the human-centered approach to computer science leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal.” … Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine. “The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant,” Lanier told me. “And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.”

The Elusive Big Idea [nytimes.com] – According to the more academic Neal Gabler, information is overwhelming ideas in our culture. Technology is a sandstorm. It blinds us, prevents rational thought. The compelling notion that our culture is drifting towards a post-Enlightenment and post-idea state is undermined by his facile assumptions about how people use technology and in particular in this quote, social networking tools (and why, and for what).

For one thing, social networking sites are the primary form of communication among young people, and they are supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated. For another, social networking sites engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas. Instead of theories, hypotheses and grand arguments, we get instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. While social networking may enlarge one’s circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same thing as enlarging one’s intellectual universe. Indeed, the gab of social networking tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends, while thoughts organized in words, whether online or on the page, enlarge one’s focus. To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.

Can we please get beyond Twitter-is-for-talking-about-sandwiches? Interaction and ideas on Twitter and other technology-enabled platforms for human communication are as rich and prosaic as humanity itself. It’s quite easy to find “thoughts organized into words” and “grand arguments” on any social networking site on any given day. These are not trivial forums for discourse at any level. To reduce the effects of technology on social interaction in this manner is simplistic. It does not live up to the quality of intellectual thought that the author himself calls for as the central idea of the article. I guess we might interpret this as just more evidence of the ill-effects of Twitter on our culture. The aforementioned Jaron Lanier, himself a player in and product of the world of technology, seems to be, incidentally, the kind of big thinker that Gabler pines for.

We sacrifice agency when we cast technology as an outside force acting upon us. Technology is still, as of this writing, made by and for human beings. There is no technology. If technology prevents us from having ideas and represses our humanity, then we do that to ourselves.

Memories of technology days gone past

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Ticketmaster Canada confirmed Friday it is shutting its only unionized call centre in Toronto, along with centres in Vancouver, Calgary and Red Deer, Alta.

I worked at Ticketmaster’s Toronto office (not sure if it’s the same actual office – probably not) as a Night Run Operator back as an undergrad, I think it was 1987 or so.

I would go in on Friday nights and sit there with the computers in an empty office doing homework or listening to the radio. I would wait until all the box offices had closed – around midnight, and then run a bunch of “scripts” and get printouts and move these enormous cake-box sized disc packs from one VAX drive (about the size of a small dishwasher) to another. I had no idea how any of it worked so when something broke in the scripts I had to start paging the regular IT staff who were always drunk and wouldn’t call back forever.

I don’t know why I took this job; it seemed cool. I knew other people that worked there, both doing what I did, or even answering the phones. I got second-dibs on tickets, before they went on sale, and I think that’s how I got 4th row Rush and 12th row Yes or something like that – at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The drives looked something like this
disk
and the discs themselves were
wang5

You had to rotate that handle a number of times and then pull it straight up. Sealed inside were many platters of magnetic media that gave the whole assembly it’s capacity. They had two systems running that recorded each purchase transaction, and I would run a backup from A->B and something else, every night.

One guy I worked with had figured out how to purchase General Admission tickets – for free – in between one of the backup stages and then would overwrite any record of it during the backup stages. Since there were no seat assignments, it wouldn’t be very detectable – yeah the overall ticket count sold versus number of arriving guests would be off, but it was GA, so who’d notice? I was horrified at the dishonesty, actually.

And I think we had, in the computer room, these DECwriter terminals.
dec
They weren’t for regular operations but if something went wrong, that was what you had to use to interact with them – but mostly they spat out many pages of transactions – you could see, on paper, every ticket purchased that day. If you worked on a day when a big show sold out (i.e., Floyd) then you would be there a long time while it generated output for each purchase. Name, address, credit card info, etc. And it could take a long time for the credit transaction to be verified – it didn’t happen in real time, so the transaction could go through but you wouldn’t get your tickets sent out in the mail because it would turn out that your credit was no good. I think they had someone who would call you up and talk to you in that case.

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