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Technology Luddite?

In a recent blog post, Tony Kontzer is discussing a San Francisco Chronicle article about Jaron Lanier.  The article discusses Jaron’s concern regarding limitations imposed on people by virtual reality and Web 2.0 structures.  The article mentions that some people have labeled Jaron a “Luddite”.  Tony goes on to say that the term isn’t a bad one and that Luddites serve an important role, balancing the Pollyanna vision of technology’s value against its potential risks.

Although I agree with Tony’s defense of Jaron’s position, I think the “Luddite” term is being misused in Jaron’s case.  In fact, I disagree with an assessment that Jaron’s comments, as well as the well-articulated theme of his book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” equate to those of a technology Luddite.

Let us consider a definition.  Merriam-Webster includes in their definition of Luddite, “one who is opposed to especially technological change.”  However, Jaron’s point is not one that opposes technological change.  Instead, he is concerned that specific uses of technology and underlying limitations within the virtual (digital) world limit our human interaction and experience.  The limiting factors are imposed by computers and software.

Jaron’s thought process, bringing in examples from both his technology and musical backgrounds, does a great job of describing how computer programs constrain us.  Developers have experienced frustration when extending functionality as they try to add features to an existing program.  Separate from the technologists’ issues, and this is key, computer hardware and software limitations also impose boundaries and set expectations for people who interact with computers.

It is this latter aspect, the unintentional or intentional limiting of people’s uniqueness due to the design and implementation of software, that concerns Jaron. I emphatically agree with him on this point!  I believe that most of us would accept that the setting arbitrary boundaries around self-expression and creativity in the physical world can lower the quality of life for people.  If the digital world does likewise might we end up in the same place?

The argument against such a concern revolves around the belief that we aren’t forced to remain in the digital world and can still be expressive and creative outside that world.  However, that is a less and less accurate view.  As we continue to leverage technology to lower costs and increase productivity we see more and more digital technology (virtual worlds) where we used to have physical technology.

For instance, could constraining a person to produce an electronic slideshow using clip art and digital drawing tools instead of creating a presentation by drawing and coloring on paper reduce the ability of the individual to express him or herself?  I think that is likely.  What serves for business expediency might end up being used in society where it serves to stifle personal exploration and expression.

Jaron is asking us to consider the mechanisms by which computer technology is created and used.  People are imperfect, software projects are limited to specific purposes and, as Jaron stresses, developers are not prescient. Therefore, our virtual world contains errors and, more importantly, limitations due to our inability to predict the future and build an all-encompassing solution.  This means that the designers and developers of software can’t predict all the different ways someone might want to use the application or data structure they are creating.

A great example he gives, and one that hits close to home for me, is the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) encoding standard.  I arrange and compose music.  The programs I use to notate that music can produce and consume MIDI files.  However, MIDI is nowhere near expressive enough to truly support the range of playing options available to an actual musician playing a physical instrument.

Although I can add comments and symbols to the music to tell a human to play in different ways, I cannot communicate that with MIDI encoding.  This limitation, inherent in all MIDI devices, immediately limits anyone composing or listening to music being transferred via MIDI.  Just ask my daughter; who cringes whenever I have a MIDI device play a piece I’ve written for her – saying it sounds nothing like how she performs.

As Jaron points out, MIDI was not conceived to be the be-all and end-all for expressing music.  It was created for a specific purpose when using a specific set of technologies.  As happens with many “solutions” it was picked up by a variety of product and software vendors and has become a de facto standard.

This same path can be traced when looking at design decisions made for operating systems, file structures, XML schemas, and so forth.  Further, we can extend the argument to software such as word processors, image-editing programs, and Web 2.0 environments.  Each of these arbitrarily limits the user to some set of digitized functionality.

Through all of this, I don’t see where Jaron’s message is to destroy computer systems, as the Luddites destroyed looms.  Rather, he makes the point that we need to be vigilant about the potential side effects that computers have on our own thinking.  Since the computer must be able to represent its “knowledge” in a digitized fashion it must convert from more fluid human thought to some strict computer format, which involves a loss of detail.

Being aware means we can always seek to improve systems or interact in non-digital ways when appropriate.  Computers have their place; it just may not be everywhere.  I know that I continue to enjoy a live concert much more than a MIDI-driven one.

I highly recommend Jaron’s book.  It is healthy to look at the ways in which we interact as people, including those interactions filtered by virtual worlds.  I doubt that most of us are interested in reducing our broad human individuality into relatively narrow digitized forms.  We need to make sure such an outcome does not occur because we aren’t paying attention.


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