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May 03, 2005

Egocasting, Literacy & Relativism: The Question

Yesterday morning on NPR was a woman, Christine Rosen, who held an interesting thesis about the power of television. In particular, the power of the remote control and what our ability to control our content streams has done to ruin our capacity to encounter and deal with new ideas.

What is true of the television set is also true of its most important accessory, the device that forever altered our viewing habits, transformed television programming itself, and, more broadly, redefined our expectations of mastery over our everyday technologies: the remote control. The creation and near-universal adoption of the remote control arguably marks the beginning of the era of the personalization of technology. The remote control shifted power to the individual, and the technologies that have embraced this principle in its wake—the Walkman, the Video Cassette Recorder, Digital Video Recorders such as TiVo, and portable music devices like the iPod—have created a world where the individual’s control over the content, style, and timing of what he consumes is nearly absolute. Retailers and purveyors of entertainment increasingly know our buying history and the vagaries of our unique tastes. As consumers, we expect our television, our music, our movies, and our books “on demand.” We have created and embraced technologies that enable us to make a fetish of our preferences.

The long-term effect of this thoroughly individualized, highly technologized culture on literacy, engaged political debate, the appreciation of art, thoughtful criticism, and taste-formation is difficult to discern. But it is worth exploring how the most powerful of these technologies have already succeeded in changing our habits and our pursuits. By giving us the illusion of perfect control, these technologies risk making us incapable of ever being surprised. They encourage not the cultivation of taste, but the numbing repetition of fetish. And they contribute to what might be called “egocasting,” the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s personal taste. In thrall to our own little technologically constructed worlds, we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate genuine individuality.

I come at the phenomenon from a different perspective. I think what we are wintessing is the destruction of our ideas about the centrality and value of individual intelligence.

The way I see it is that we are profoundly affected by two simutaneous artifacts of the information age. Firstly, the intelligence of our society is embedded in systems, objects and organizations to a greater extent than ever before. Therefore our loyalty belongs less to people than ever. Secondly, there are more intelligent and literate people in the world than ever before. Consequently, there are countless economies of intellect. Perhaps Rosen fears that brains are a cheap commodity. Well, they are.

But that can be a very good thing. I means that there are a great deal more of us who can live above the reptilian level. There is a reason that Europe had what was known as the Dark Ages. All the books were locked away in monasteries, and they had all of the authority. One could even think of monarchy as a monopoly where there is a scarcity of intellect. Today, however we can all live like kings. There is a lot more authority to go around than ever before. Things that are consequential on a human scale now get out to more humans. There is a greater capacity in today's world for more humans to encounter more of the artifacts of intellect and creativity than ever before.

One consequence of this is that people of average intelligence seem to be fetishizing certain ideas. But I think it's more correct that there are a surfeit of intelligble ideas out there and because we are aware of so many of them, the interests of any individual seems relatively limited. You might consider yourself the King of Monty Python scripts. A thousand years ago, that much memorization might have gotten you a nice comfy seat in the Vatican. Today, you need to command a great deal more. Consider how much knowledge the average contemporary medical student has to absorb before she makes the first incision into someone's belly. More than two decades from birth. What we know about getting someone's appendix out is massive, and as any news junkie knows, what we're supposed to think about wine in our diet, or our optimal weight changes every year.

I caution against the excesses of Eclexia now from the perspective of capacity and sanity. There is a delicate balance to be struck between the quest for novelty & new tribes to hang with, and the quest for transcendant principle. Throughout our young lives we're constantly open, but as adults we need to discriminate. We have to sample and integrate. But when do we stop sampling and decide that we are informed enough? How exactly do we know if we are getting closer to something real if there's already two million Google hits on the subject? If Foucault is to be taken with any seriousness, our hermetic discipline my isolate us from the very reality we seek to master. Are we buried in our preferences, or in real knowledge?

I think there is one sure way to know which is to trust our emotions. I don't think I might have come to this conclusion as a student of science, but I have come to belief that they are critical. More in Part Two.

Posted by mbowen at May 3, 2005 05:39 PM

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