The following is an attempt to articulate a hunch that I have — it is far from being mature, let alone coherent. These may seem like many different contradictions or even complaints that I have, but it is simply just one yet-to-be-named (or might never be) thought. This is an effort to highlight a possibility (not a prediction) by condensing feelings into words. It embodies the frustrations, despair, optimism, curiosity, and excitement that I possess for the time to come in our lives. At this moment, I am still far away from being able to defend this aspiration. Every word that is being typed out leads to many potential misunderstandings and it may bring you more confusions than clarity.
In the spirit of Christopher Alexander and experimentation, this piece of writing can be read by reading the headlines that are in italics. If you would like to go into details, you will be able to, but with the context of the whole.
To this day, we have been manufacturing desire into what we build, we see this as the foundation of building, and we never questioned it.
When building digital products, companies have leveraged behavioral psychology to keep us hooked. They took advantage of the fact that we as the end users can be impulsive and keep us “engaged” with apps on a constant basis (Harris, 2016). Digital products are now more “usable”, at the cost of “reducing the amount of meaningful interaction we have with each other” (Bryne, 2017).
As citizens of the digital landscape, we have been told to treat technology devices as wearables — they tell others whether or. not we have an eye for quality crafts. Companies that were meant to guard the healthiness of the digital landscape, have become the advocators of fast fashion.
All of the addictions that were engineered into the products have distracted us from the qualities that lie within us. As humans, we possess the ability to infuse breath into what we build, and enabling them to transcend the limited life time we have.
This is a quality that can be described, but cannot be named. Such quality is not as simple as the word “alive”, not as enclosed as the word “whole”, not as misleading as the word “comfortable”, not as theatrical as the word “free”, not as exact as the word “egoless”, not as confusing as the word “eternal” (Alexander, 1979).
If we were to examine the digital products that have been built. There is not only the manufacturing of desire that helps to stamp an expiration date onto those products, the lack of modularity of internet-connected products which almost guarantees you to have to make a new purchase once part of the product breaks. Owners of a computer monitor have probably all experienced the frustration of having to purchase a new monitor, because monitor manufacturers don’t fix broken LCD screens. Computers and mobile devices become slower and slower as we are notified and “gently” reminded to “upgrade”.
We do not think of digital objects as alive and thus they do not embody the ideas of upcycling and recycling.
So little of what we build consist of backward compatibility and are rarely ever future proof. In The Coming Software Apocalypse, James Somers explained how the 911 outage in April 2014 was not caused by electricity outage, or software breakdown, but instead caused by programmers “setting a threshold for how high the counter (in the call rerouting center) could go. They picked a number in the millions”. On a similar note, there was “nearly a decade-long investigation into claims of so-called uninteded acceleration in Toyota cars”. When there is 100 million lines of code written for cars, it is simply impossible to conduct rigorous security checks. (Somers, 2017)
We think of digital objects as tools, we make them enslaved to us.
We assume that these “digital tools” take commands, we consider ourselves owners of the slaves, when we are “two dissimilar species, two dissimilar processes, and two intelligent systems” (Negroponte, 1972).
We have dedicated time to exploiting digital objects, instead of preserving them. What if, instead of wrangling with the idea of “to conquer, or to be conquered by machines”, we build a humble relationship with the digital?
The idea of “to conquer, or to be conquered” by stems out of fear. We fear that the artificial intelligence will out-beat our own intelligence, and every since such idea “blossomed”, we have stunned machine “into silence and passivity, into defeatism” (Gins & Arakawa, 2002).
And yet, even the ex-Google Design Ethicist blames technology for “exploiting our minds’ weaknesses” (Harris, 2012) and we advocate for creating ethical rules for machines, when all machines do, is that they reinforce the abusive and nonconsensual ways humans treat each other.
The material world is composed of atoms, while the digital world is composed of bits.
Though bits were created with microchips that are composed of atoms, they don’t share the characteristics of atoms. They each inhabit their own qualities and possibilities that the other cannot replicate fully.
The digital can be as equally alive as the material world, but we currently prohibit this from happening.
Even with the digital landscape, the digital matter can have “the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and dividedness, self-maintenance and self destruction (Alexander, 1979).”
As a result, we as a dweller of two worlds “glitch” on the boundary of the material and the digital landscape.
We find ourselves looking down at a rectangle, crouching in a corner, swiping on a piece glass, laughing at the same rectangle. These are all unusual and odd gestures that we wouldn’t be making any otherway.
To move forward from this phenomenon, how might we consider the digital landscape not as a creation of humans’, but as a creation of nature’s?
Along with the perception that the digital landscape is a human creation, we also pay less attention toward ensuring that it will have a life beyond us. Even when we discuss the future of computing, we often find ourselves thinking about the present, with a transparent version of the phone, instead of something that looks and behave completely differently from what we currently have.
How might we breathe the immortal quality into the digital, and enable them to surpass the lives of ours?
The dynamics that between bits are very different from the dynamics between atoms. Bits possess the quality to be ubiquitous, to scale, and to be neutral. What 3 words as a company is a good case study of this school of thinking. The company provides a new way of cataloging location: “they have divided the world’s surface area into a grid of 3m x 3m squares and assigned each one a unique 3 word address.” The language we as humans have for location reflects the human quality of valuing memory and relying on spatial navigation. The language that what3words speak doesn’t conflict with our language for addresses, but simply reflects the quality of bits, and empower it to transcend time, culture, and mortality.
When digital matters are alive, “they release liveliness in us. But they release this quality in us, essentially because they have it in themselves.” (Alexandar, 1979)
As time goes by, I will continue to search for the quality of timelessness, and the quality of the aliveness of bits, which may provide a hint of the dynamics of bits and atoms, of humans and machines, of humankind and thingamabob; or more perhaps precisely, of mortal and immortal.
Thank you for being here with me.
Alexander, C. (1979). The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Byrne, D. (2017, September 07). Former Talking Heads frontman says consumer tech is working against what it means to be human. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608580/eliminating-the-human
Gins, M., & Arakawa, S. (2002). Architectural body. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Harris, T. (2016, May 18). How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Former Insider. Retrieved September 27, 2017, from https://journal.thriveglobal.com/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3
Negroponte, N. (1972). The Architecture Machine: Toward a more human
environment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Pr.
Somers, J. (2017, September 26). The Coming Software Apocalypse. Retrieved October 01, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/09/saving-the-world-from-code/540393/