In Praise of Poetic Technology
What may appear pointless can provide us with a ‘there, there’ that we have lost under the regime of hyper-connectivity.
“In skating over thin ice,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “our safety is in our speed.” But what if we can no longer cope with the speed? There are signs that technology innovation is outpacing not only our individual human capacity but also many of our social and institutional capabilities.
At the individual level, the Internet and all the things that it connects has long pervaded the most private aspects of our lives, from behemoths like Amazon and Google using giant repositories of consumer data to create highly targeted products and ads, to the Quantified Self movement enabling consumers to monitor and govern their lifestyles.GPS-equipped phones track our itineraries and locations; wearable computing devices record our moves and what we see; voice recognition software recognizes the words we utter; our credit cards archive our purchases; web sites and search engines store our interests, desires, and intentions; social media capture our social graphs, as well as our opinions, preferences, “likes,” and moods. As our own media channels, we’re always on air, always on the record. Big Brother has become “Little Sister”: we are volunteering personal data at massive scale and operate in state of permanent self-surveillance.
With it come dramatic changes to our social customs and effects on our behaviors. Our always-on culture and business—“time machoism,” as Ann Marie Slaughter calls it—has turned us into victims of attention-deficit-disorder or, more mildly, “continuous partial attention,” to use a term coined by Linda Stone. Social genomics studies suggest that not only our productivity, but also our evolutionary capacity to connect with others is diminished by digital overload. A popular recent video on YouTube, “I Forgot My Phone,” illustrates how much we miss out on living our lives as we rely on our gadgets to capture them. Or, as overheard at a dinner party lately: “I usually only go to the rest room when I have to check email.” Furthermore, in a world where everything is recorded and stored, we may deprive ourselves of the ability to form memories, and consequently, to forget and to forgive.
At the societal level, there are concerns that technology is enabling and propelling systemic shifts that our institutions and value systems can no longer keep up with (surveillance, cyber warfare, drones, and social media-amplified uprisings are just some examples). Others fear that technology innovation is erasing the middle class, as Jaron Lanier contends in his book “Who Owns the Future?”: “Kodak employed 140,000 people, Instagram 13,” he points out. Supporting his argument, a 2013 report by the Aspen Institute concludes we may be shifting to a “Power-Curve Society” where prosperity no longer follows a bell-curve distribution across the traditional middle class but instead accumulates at the top strata of winner-takes-it-all societies. Finally, Evgeny Morozov warns us of “solutionism,” a mindset he finds preeminent in Silicon Valley and rejects as a myopic belief in solving the world’s problems through software fixes and patches “designed in California.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In return for our apparent losses, we gain two very compelling qualities: comfort and efficiency. As consumers, we appreciate technology because it enables frictionless experiences and makes the world smaller and flatter. As institutions, technological innovations not only enhance our productivity and sense of control, but also propel our pursuit of charting all human territory to make it explicable and quantifiable—and thereby accessible for effective governance and commercial exploitation.
I would like to propose a third gain, hoping that amidst the age-old dialectical tension between the good and bad of technology innovation there is space for a new notion of value: what if technology wasn’t only there to serve us but to challenge us? What if technology was not only designed to enhance our convenience, performance, and happiness, but if we also used it to for exploration and discovery, to help us become more comfortable with ambiguity and friction? Only if we cultivate our ‘discomfort zones’ will we build strong muscles of discomfort that enable us to cope with the unexpected, the inexplicable, the messy: in other words, life. Especially with an eye on future generations, this kind of digital literacy strikes me as crucial.
What I’m advocating is “romantic technology.” Romantic technology is curiosity-driven and aims at the creation of sheer beauty, delight, and surprise. It allows us to be elsewhere, to see more and live more, to go deeper, not wider. It makes our lives richer, not faster, and makes us wiser, not smarter in the process. It celebrates mystery and adds strangeness and romance to our lives, instead of demystifying and commoditizing them. Romantic technology can be a single feature or merely embedded as a ‘hidden treasure’ in otherwise more utilitarian products and services.
Here are some examples:
– Twitter is a utility, a narrow- and broadcasting channel, a news and information sharing platform, but it is also a poetic medium: a powerful vehicle for our expressive and emotive selves, for community and magical encounters, impressionist musings, and even new art forms (like the 140-character novel or Twitter author NeinQuarterly and his bitter-sweet ironical haikus).
– The School of Poetic Computation in New York is an artist-run school launching this fall that focuses on artistic interventions. The founders say their intention is to promote work that is strange, impractical, and magical. Their motto is “more poetry, less demo” because “demonstrations are driven by the end goal,” but poems, rather than valuing practicality and functionality, desire “aesthetic and emotional impact.” First projects include an “Eyewriter” that allows graffiti writers to draw with their eyes or a “Sonic Wire Sculptor” that uses a 3D drawing tool to create music.
– Online flight tracking sites such as FlightRadar 24 or FlightAware not only provide useful information for those following flights in real-time but with their congested air traffic maps also serve as pure visual spectacle. I know people who spend hours on them in front of their computer—a seemingly senseless activity and yet an example of focus and ‘thick’ presence.
– Online games, by design, present us with “optimal challenges”—built-in friction. Many of them foster community and take us to foreign places where we can meet others and explore and find ourselves.
– Apple’s Siri and other speech recognition avatars offer some built-in-friction as well. The small deviances in the program—when Siri doesn’t know the answer to a question (see, for instance, what Siri responds when you ask her about God on a Canadian iPhone) are moments of poetry that bring us back to a childish sense of wonder disrupting our tightly managed cognitive and emotional equilibrium.
These are small, humble examples, but that precisely is the point. Poetic technology is not a substitute for the critical role that technology can play in advancing our access, expertise, comfort, and productivity. It can however, be an extension, a third way that balances the benefits of conventional technological innovation with small moments of attachments and meaning. Poetic technology can be pointless, but it provides us with a ‘there, there’ that we seem to have lost under the regime of hyper-connectivity. To return to Emerson, romantic technology may not slow down the speed at which we’re skating, but it might make the ice thicker.
This article was first published by the Forumblog.