No one could’ve predicted even ten years ago the 2019 shitshows that are US and British politics (except for David Harvey), much less the tech advances or internet upheavals. At least, as far as we know, no one did. That’s why my co-columnist Yusuf Osman and I are giving ourselves some slack on what we knew, almost knew and wished for digital culture 13 years ago when we wrote our column, TechKnow (uhhh, yeah, excuse us Al Jazeera English, but we got there first).
We probably knew better than to name anything with a portmanteau, but we did it anyway. If you scroll through the columns that we published with PopMatters and click on the website or product links in our articles, tellingly, you’ll run into, “error page not found.” Because contrary to what many of us think: the web is not forever.
Tbh (“to be honest” in Twitter parlance) when we pitched a technology column to PopMatters in 2005, we were scheming on ways to get our greedy little digits on gadgets. As early adopters and reckless spenders, we were on top of the latest Apple products, carting around Asus mini-laptops and swapping SIM cards out of European mobiles, which we carried as nightclub accessories moreso than a vital utility in our pockets.
Alas, we didn’t find ourselves, in fact, awash in gadgets and fending off product placements. In the pre-social media influencer, pre-unboxing video world of the early aughts, looking back over our columns, we pretty quickly worked ourselves away from our preoccupations with consuming gadgets and firmly into writing about our anxieties about technology. We wanted to trouble the 0s and 1s that we critically let into our lives.
Technologist Tim O’Reilly, in a recent talk for Data & Society for his new book, WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us? (HarperBusiness, 2017), captures the journey we invited PopMatters readers to take with us. O’Reilly remarks that, “WTF?” is an expression of delight and awe… or of fear and dismay.
We delighted in our Palm TXs and speculated about the possibility of iPods with audio and video. There was a creeping dismay in our tech-ponderings about what we were really getting ourselves into when we considered the ramifications of digital culture. Religion, surveillance, privacy, the on-demandness of wants vs needs, virtual reality, and entertainment culture were all areas of concern.
Let’s have a look at what we thought we knew and what we hoped would happen in the future of technology and digital culture.
What We Thought We Knew
How deluded we were about our devices being labor-saving, productivity-increasing cure-alls! We loved gadgets, but we weren’t convinced they were anything more than an expensive time-suck. With the knowledge of how 1950s and 1960s housewives were bamboozled into cycles of planned obsolescence and “labor-saving” devices, we were wary of tech’s promises.
About his new Palm Pilot, Yusuf wrote,
It has been a great two weeks. I feel a lot more in control. I have a great memory. I remember everything until the last minute at which point it slips my mind and I miss an appointment. My Palm helps me to remember… but only if I remember to enter information and then look at it.
About about my gadget envy of his new Palm Pilot, I wrote,
How cool to have something that can tell you when you’re free. Then, on second thought, if I need a gadget to tell me when I’m free am I really… free?
In that first TechKnow column, (see TechKnow: “Tech-tock: Technology the Time Saviour?“, 8 Dec 2005), we called on PopMatters readers, as much as ourselves, to exert agency and consciousness about our relationship to technology and its potential to be great or terrible for us. Deep down we knew we were verging on being overly attached and possibly compulsive about relying on technology. Yet, tech-determinist hysteria (THE GADGETS WILL KILL CONVERSATION AND THE ROBOTS WILL KILL US ALL!) has only been amplified by a general unwillingness to recognize the agency and biases of the people writing the algorithms that drive the most populated platforms.
What We Had an Inkling About
Podcasts consisted of on-demand content in 2005. KCRW, Santa Monica’s public radio station, was an early content producer with Nic Harcourt heading up new music. Being able to listen live online or to download a recording of his show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, felt as close to timeshifting as one could get with live radio shows. Sure, there were pirate radio stations broadcasting, but to have these downloads on a succession of iPods, iPod minis and the iPhone’s closest cousin, the iPod Touch was a godsend for commutes, plane rides and exercising. (See TechKnow: “The Year in Review” 15 Jan 2006)
We couldn’t have predicted that those early This American Life podcasts would add definition to the tone, intimacy and pacing of the genre as distinct from radio shows. Frustratingly, many local public radio stations were mired in their own hubris about being able to do audio better than anyone could record in their bedroom. What they didn’t know was that the dawning of social media and the rise of content as a mover of advertising dollars and shaper of public opinion, would make the rough-around-the-edges sonic quality of podcasts more authentic-sounding than public radio’s on-demand content and trademark cadences.
In TechKnow: ” Walkme-Talkme“(12 Feb 2006), we wrote wistfully, “At the rate cell phone technology is developing, we’ll need a built-in GPS that can be read on our phones’ LCDs so that we can navigate a crowded sidewalk without having to look up from our PDAs.” We now have mapping apps. Users can’t seem to navigate their surroundings without them. We also have an even greater inability to looking up from our phones, assuming that the other person will move out of our way — the Star-Bellied Sneetches have stars upon (in the spirit of Dr. Seuss) thars …as well as endless bars of reception.
Our desires for more freedom in how to upload media of our choosing onto devices were so deep that we accepted the clumsiness of ripping CDs and the risks of illegally downloading. We didn’t take for granted the customization that on-demand technologies offered. But recommendation systems and algorithms – the secret sauce of startups and tech behemoths alike – would become easily accessible and take over the fiddly features that only the diligent and mildly obsessive of us could navigate in the hunt for new media.
Still, we were so blinded by the busywork of having media our way, that it’s been easy to give over to streaming services. I’d rather be nickled and dimed by expired free trials and fees under $15, but as low as $4.99 for digital services. I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone talk about fidelity or the lack of warmness of a format, despite music being jammed into our earholes with earbuds of the wired and wireless kind. But half-fretting that, “My phone is listening to me,” is a worry quickly dazzled away by the accuracy of a curated playlist, as well as the rapid shift from simple Top Ten charts to playlists tailored to our moods and activities, such as “Feel Good Dinner“, “Down in the Dumps“, or “Black Boy Joy“.
But We Didn’t See This Coming
Apps, social media, algorithms, notifications and social engineering. I wouldn’t get onto Facebook until 2005 when the platform widened its net to include higher ed students beyond its foundational Boston universities. The first-gen iPhone wasn’t released until 2007 — six months after we’d written our last TechKnow column.
We didn’t foresee the monetization of our attention as commodity. We didn’t predict how easily startup platforms would become the gingerly-regulated economic nation-states they are today. While we wrote about consumers’ potential liberation from media giants via user generated content, we certainly didn’t anticipate that tech companies would be able to take that content and intellectual property so easily and turn it into massive profits via social media.
We underestimated the steady march of capitalism and the system’s ability to co-opt and re-sell our own content back to us. Yet, the seeming ease with which we’ve given up on autonomy, privacy, bodily integrity, and truth as manipulated by gadgets (e.g., wearables, self-surveilling devices) never fails to elicit O’Reilly’s highly contextual, “WTF?” (see TechKnow: “Paranoid Much?” 16 Mar 2006)
That people would continue to misuse the history of the Luddites despite a glaring need for the principles and intention of the actual Luddites, is a curious analog holdover. One would think the misperception that the Luddites destroyed tech to keep their jobs would be corrected given the prevalence and better standing of sites like Wikipedia and Snopes. The persistence of an all-or-nothing application of revisionist Luddite history is indicative of our continued love/hate relationships with tech. (See TechKnow: “Constant Digital Craving“, 10 Jan 2007).
Succumbing to extreme optimism or pessimism, to cater to the lazy simple-mindedness of dualisms, is so tempting, these days. Reacting to social media with, “People are trash” or “People *sigh* so PURE”, and yet continuing infinite scrolling versus or logging off in a huff is understandable in these fucked up political climes. Ultimately, the only ones amongst us who aren’t trash and might be surveillance-free are those who never had any social media accounts, kept their faces off the web, and evaded the credit reporting bureaus with Columbiana-like stealth. In a landscape of lagging civil liberties legislation outstripped by tech innovation, let’s see if the social media and tech hold-outs can keep it up for another 20 years.
Will we at last be free from Apple’s products release cycles?