Perfect internet, algorithms and long tails

“There is no standard Google anymore”, “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web”, “The internet is showing us a world we want to see, not what we need to see.” This is what we all glory in, that whatever we want is available to us, the long tail in action. As in the post below, however, the tail has to be attached to something. The long tail says that you can profit from deviating from a norm, but the result of the algorithms that choose for us is that new norm are created. Thus we have the phenomenon of your Facebook page becoming an echo chamber. Such algorithmic editing has swallowed wholesale the arguments behind generation me, as well as the result of the culture wars where all norms are negative. What we have, then, is software as a crypto-morality. “There cannot be such a thing as a norm”, this narrative tells us, “because nobody has a right to tell me what’s normal!” There is a confusion in our conceptual apparatus, because a quantitive norm is being interpreted as a qualitative norm. There is a case where there is a cross-over, as Hegel tells us, but basic exchange of information requires this standard in terms of brute numbers. There is not a political or ethical agenda to this concept of the numerical norm.
The assumption behind algorithmic editing is that there is a perfect search result. It is a cybernetic version of Plato’s forms. There cannot be such a perfect internet experience, however, and we mislead ourselves in even imagining it is impossible. Perfect, in the sense of Lt. perfectus implies completion, of something being finished. This is nonsense, and so perhaps the ideology of perfection that underlies the thought and practice of  information technologies should be reminded of the irreducible reality of noise, of that which does not necessarily communicate a message, but without which the message cannot be communicated. We need to be able to go for a stroll with no particular destination in mind. We need that element of play in the hard sense, not hippy-dippy “y’know like whatever man”. StumbleUpon curiously tries to inhere play into an algorithm, but for me it lacks that spookily magic sense of achievement when you find something that hasn’t been linked by a thousand others already. We must realise there is a fundamental and structural contradiction in terms by attempting to make our online environment perfect for us in all ways because this leads to the isolation everyone on their own personal desert island. This simply establishes us in our own limits. Where then do we meet communally? Where do we have arguments? Where do we hear new stories, or jokes, or gossip? We need to have a norm from which we deviate, we need to have a same for there to be difference.

Towards a definition of technology

One popular view holds that the human mind truly came into its own via a “rewiring” (Kevin Kelly in Out of Control, online version here).  With this there was an extension of the brain beyond its grossly physical, biological limitations. Technology serves body, body serves brain, with brain and body as a multiplicity serving the genes in the final reckoning. Technology is the overcoming of limits – of whatever kind. That which overcomes limits in whatever mode thus serves us as a technology. We should be able to extend such a provisional definition beyond hammers and wheels and machines. Accordingly, in the most serious sense, art is a technology. A poem, a painting, a dance is a recalibration of purely crude literalism (as a kind of tyranny of an ontology of representation, of reality as a ‘given’ rather than as a ‘made’). Art can move us beyond these assumptions which we have forgotten were once new.

With this, considering all things in terms of limits and our overcoming them, does this open the door to new analyses? Are there examples where it can be said not to apply? In technological terms, what is the function of this definition, and can it tell us anything new? It is basically an engineer’s-eye-view, whereby a technology is a solution to a problem. Its function is to solve a problem, the problem being a limit which has been encountered. From this definition, some fascinating implications follow. Technology at this basic level of analysis appears to us as being self-perpetuating. Each technology brings with it a new set of problems, which in turn requires new sets of solutions, and on, and on…literally ad infinitum. We can say then that the first characteristic of technology is that it is autocatalytic. In chemical terms, a reaction is chemically autocatalytic if its product is also the catalyst for further reactions. This is so for technology and as such it manifestly is a source and product of feedback. Edward Tenner examines this in detail in terms of “revenge effects”. I am not taking an ethical stance on the matter one way or the other, as Tenner’s thesis requires of him. Nor am I suggesting this is simply a corollary of technology. I am saying that this feature is structurally integral to all technologies. (For an alternative overview with an ethical focus, see “The Unanticipated Consequences of Technology” by Tim Healy.)

Problem: solved.

If we return to the human mind, and consider the following. The rewiring that brought about consciousness brought about the ability to think in terms of what is not present, in time and space. It allowed for planning for a harsh winter. It allowed one to consider the potential benefits and dangers the next valley over. It escapes what I above called crude literalism. There are lines in Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” that capture this:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?…”
The human being is that creature par excellence whose reach exceeds its grasp, except it is the cognitive reach that exceeds the physical grasp. Technology is the attempt to bridge the two. We will never, in our present form, have the steady-state evolutionary form that living fossils such as the coelacanth; in them, reach and grasp coincide perfectly. Homo sapiens, in contrast, are necessarily an imperfect solution to the problem of life (if this can be said without woe-is-us connotations), the problem of adaptation to an environment. The reason for this is that by being sapiens we continually alter our environment such that no steady state becomes possible. We are implicated. Each new product of our mind that enters the world as either a physical or a mental technology is a solution that creates new problems. The cycle cannot stop.