Infinite Loop 11: “Permanence and Technology.”

On August 7, 2000, in Features, by David K Schultz

When it comes to reality, I am a
realist. The danger of the web, however, is how
it affects this realism. One danger of webbing
(a verb, mind you), if there are any dangers at
all, is that it changes the way we think about
the world in ways that are not always good. Permanence
is one example. It is fundamental concept we all
have. We believe in permanence. If we catch a
killer twenty years after a murder we still convict
him. We do so with a clean conscience because
we believe some things are permanent, like the
killer’s identity and guilt.

 

I think things remain permanent
but how we think with the idea of permanence
can become confused to say the least the more
time we spend webbing. In fact, we grow scared
of losing it, and this is seen in a peculiar behavior
we all engage in. I will address this below.

 

This is one danger of webbing: How
it affects our thinking about reality. How easily
or how difficult our tools (and the Mac and the
Web are such a tools) manipulate the world, affects
how we view the world. The world will be thought
of (if you will forgive the poetic language),
as soft if our tools easily affect it; it will
be thought of hard if our tools affect the world
only after great effort on our part.

 

The web, if it does anything, makes
the world seem soft, not hard. We zip around easily
from place to place all over the world; we bounce
from point to point as though we had wings and
are as light as the air; we speak instantaneously
to others thousands of miles away; we have fast
access to information, and many times useful information;
we can set up pages, web pages or print pages,
with ease due to spectacular software. I can take
a picture in a digital camera, move it to my Pismo,
print it up on a photo-realistic printer, all
within minutes. I can also send it to every family
member in the world. It makes the world feel so
soft.

 

But sometimes the hardness of the
world breaks through. Servers go down, programs
crash, DoS attacks occur, systems won’t boot.
Now ask yourself how you react when these things
happen. So, how do you? Seems there are at least
two options.

 

If you are one who pounds his fist
on the table while singing melodic profanities,
then maybe, just maybe, your sense that the world
is soft has become part nature to you. The softer
you see the world, the more angry you react when
its hardness confronts you.

 

On the other hand, if you are one
of those who resigns himself to these technological
foibles, then the world’s supposed softness has
affected you too. Just the moment before you were
free-spirited, and now you find yourself imprisoned.
There is nothing left to do when the hardness
of the world hits you, and you know it. You go
do something else.

 

When technology reveals reality
the thought that it has not actually changed reality
can be disquieting. When one realizes that in
the end technology has not changed a thing about
the world our optimism fails us and our sense
of control is betrayed. For some reason, a reason
I do not fully understand, human nature attaches
its hopes to things like science and technology.
The content of the hope thus attached? Change.
For some reason, we desire to change the world.
This desire only makes sense if one assumes that
the world needs to be changed. And the
belief that the world needs to be changed only
makes sense if we assume that changing makes it
better
in some way. So, we end with the view
that for some reason human nature deeply believes
that the world can be a better place than it is.
We believe that the world is a pretty despicable
place to begin with, don’t we? But if technology
can only reveal reality and not change it, then
this is all a chimera, and a dream of a dream.
This fully explains the reactions one has when
the hardness of the world confronts him: His dreams
of a better world are dashed. Anger or resignation
follow.

 

Sure, there has been technological
advance in history. It would be silly to deny
it. Yet in the end technology has only advanced
our understanding and our ability to manipulate
the world. All else remains
the same
. If we discover that quarks are
fundamental particles, then they were fundamental
particles two thousand years ago too. Nothing
has changed but our thinking. The world has remained
hard and we show our softness. And it comes out
in strange, ritualistic behaviors. To wit . .
.

 

The superficial softness we try
to impose on the world makes me worry. It makes
me unbalanced sometimes. In fact, it seems to
make a lot, and I mean a lot, of people worry.
So what do I do? What do millions do to fight
softness? Right: Back-up everything. Backing
up is a multi-million dollar industry in the United
States. Whole companies house huge storage capacities
for us to backup to. We have Zip drives, extra
hard drives, iDisks, redundancy precautions, all
because we are afraid of losing data. The fear
of losing data is actually the fear of the loss
of permanence. One cannot lose permanent things
after all. It makes no sense to back-up something
permanent, does it?

 

Backing up is a worry about permanence,
or the absence of it. The fleeting tangles of
technology are a tightrope we balance with great
caution. “Losing data” is a way of saying
that data is transitory. Backing up gives it permanence
if we do it right, if we do it hard. The only
hard way to back data up is, basically, printing
it. That is, we must remove data from the technology
in question if t is to be safe. Why do you think
we call it “making a hard copy”? Good
old paper will outlast many a hard drive.

 

I have thousands of emails from
the last few months sitting on my Pismo. I want
to archive them. But it’s difficult. There are
programs that dump emails into folders or FileMaker
Pro databases. But this only takes them from one
soft technology to another soft technology. I
want them saved hard. So I print them and file
them away. This is hard backing up. It gives me
peace of mind, unless my house burns down, which
worries me sometimes. And then there are tornadoes.
But I need to stop worrying.

 

Think along with me for a moment.
Imagine that huge PhotoShop file which is your
masterpiece, a masterpiece you worked on for months.
You took great care and caution with it. The only
problem is that it will forever be a PhotoShop
file, and nothing more. Make as many backups as
you wish. Go ahead, do so. They are still only
PhotoShop files just as fragile as the first.
So put it in a safety deposit box. Doesn’t help,
does it? Set it on four servers. That’s scary.
Place it in a safe, cool place away from magnets
and ultraviolet rays. Pass it on to your children
and they to their children. It doesn’t matter.
Printing helps in this instance, but maybe not
as much as with emails though. So print fifty
copies. That’s a bit better. But just a little.
For it seems that one would only have rest once
he has an infinite number of copies.

 

What are you doing? You are seeking
permanence. You are seeking the repose of the
lasting. Anything, anything is better than bare
data on a disk or drive. You know it and I know
it. But we’ll never have it, not with today’s
technology. Reach as much as you want, you can
not reach to infinity. Permanence is so fleeting
at times. well, until the hardness of the world
breaks in to your party. But we don’t like that
that kind of permanence because it reminds us
that little has changed in the world.

 

The emails sitting so precariously
on my PowerBook remind me that I have entrusted
a great deal to this machine. It contains my writing,
my schedule, people I know (lovingly called “contacts”),
and my memories in so many 1’s and 0’s. I’ve heard
people scream, “My whole life was in there!”
after a hard system crash. It’s an overstatement
worthy of a politician. I might ask, facetiously,
“Then why’d you put it in there in the first
place?” For of course it is impossible to
put one’s whole life in a machine. It can seem
like it, not doubt. But the appearance that one’s
life is in a machine presents itself only if one
is identified with data. If I am as digital as
my machine, then the claim “My whole life
was in that machine” might make sense. But
I am not a digital thing. The only things we can
invest a machine with are our attempted ties to
the world. Technology is just a means of making
contact with nature, much like a broom handle
we use to reach something our arms are too short
for. Losing data in a hard crash disassociates
us with the world, and the Romantic dream of being
one with nature collapses. It falls out of reach.

 

Permanence. We desire it gravely
yet only seem to capture it once in a while. The
Web is not helping. It makes the world seem so
non-permanent. It keeps us chasing our tails.
It keeps us moving, it keeps us dancing as we
dodge bullets of hardness. And then the real worry
hits us: Perhaps, just perhaps, non-permanence
is the only permanent thing in the cosmos. This
is Heraclitus’ point: “everything comes to
be out of strife.” But the worry is real
only if the non-permanant structures we’ve imposed
on the cosmos are believed to be permanent. Which
they are not. Thus to worry is not an option.

Next time we will examine further
symptoms of the loss of permanence in our technological
society. It is seen in many weird kinds (if you
think about them long enough) of worries and the
practices they produce. If you have ideas or examples
about this let me know. Until then, keep backing
up everything. We’ll still be here . . .

David
Schultz

 

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