“The CharaChorder is a new kind of typing peripheral that promises to let people type at superhuman speeds. It’s so fast that the website Monkeytype, which lets users participate in typing challenges and maintains its own leaderboard, automatically flagged CharaChorder’s CEO as a cheater when he attempted to post his 500 WPM score on the its leaderboards.
It’s a strange looking device, the kind of thing Keanu Reeves would interface with in Johnny Mnemonic. Your palms rest on two black divots out of which rise nine different finger sized joysticks. These 18 sticks move in every direction and, its website claims, can hit every button you need on a regular keyboard. “CharaChorder switches detect motion in 3 dimensions so users have access to over 300 unique inputs without their fingers breaking contact with the device,” it said.”-Matthew Gault, “This Keyboard Lets People Type So Fast It’s Banned From Typing Competitions.” Vice. January 6, 2022.
Open Question: What is a good “investment” in technology?
Let’s imagine you have a child that it at the age they are starting to use a computer and a QWERTY style keyboard. Do you spend $250 and get them this kind of peripheral knowing:
- It’s a new technology that likely will not be around in 20 years
- It seems likely that in 20 years or so that the main input with computing will be via voice and/or video
- It is even possible that in 20 years everyone will have a brain-computer interface.
Personally, I think it is useful to learn how to use new devices, even if they turn out to be novelty devices. It’s easy to see that certain popular devices that became obsolete have paved the way for the evolution for the subsequent devices that come later. Examples:
- Mainframe computing led to personal computing which led to mobile computing
- Blackberry, PalmOS, iPods were the precursors to Android and iPhones
- Every few years, someone makes a new chat app, from ICQ and IRC to Telegram and Discord.
Familiarity with the previous version can help you transition to new variants. So, it’s probably a good idea to get familiar with technologies, even if you don’t think they will last.
“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”
An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…
…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.
Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.
If you find the list below interesting, you could always subscribe to his newsletter, and as with all Substack newsletters, it can be turned into an RSS feed by adding /feed to the main url, like so: https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/feed. Don’t know what RSS is? There’s a post for that. h/t to Alan Jacobs for the reminder.
- What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
- What habits will the use of this technology instill?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
- How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
- How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
- What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
- What practices will the use of this technology displace?
- What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
- What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?
- What was required of other human beings so that I might be able to use this technology?
- What was required of other creatures so that I might be able to use this technology?
- What was required of the earth so that I might be able to use this technology?
- Does the use of this technology bring me joy? [N.B. This was years before I even heard of Marie Kondo!]
- Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?
- How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
- What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?
- Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?
- How does this technology encourage me to allocate my time?
- Could the resources used to acquire and use this technology be better deployed?
- Does this technology automate or outsource labor or responsibilities that are morally essential?
- What desires does the use of this technology generate?
- What desires does the use of this technology dissipate?
- What possibilities for action does this technology present? Is it good that these actions are now possible?
- What possibilities for action does this technology foreclose? Is it good that these actions are no longer possible?
- How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
- What limits does the use of this technology impose upon me?
- What limits does my use of this technology impose upon others?
- What does my use of this technology require of others who would (or must) interact with me?
- What assumptions about the world does the use of this technology tacitly encourage?
- What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about myself?
- What knowledge has the use of this technology disclosed to me about others? Is it good to have this knowledge?
- What are the potential harms to myself, others, or the world that might result from my use of this technology?
- Upon what systems, technical or human, does my use of this technology depend? Are these systems just?
- Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?
- Does using this technology require me to think more or less?
- What would the world be like if everyone used this technology exactly as I use it?
- What risks will my use of this technology entail for others? Have they consented?
- Can the consequences of my use of this technology be undone? Can I live with those consequences?
- Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbor?
- Can I be held responsible for the actions which this technology empowers? Would I feel better if I couldn’t?
“An Israeli tech company said it has developed a camouflage technology that makes soldiers on the battlefield virtually undetectable…
…The lightweight sheet is made out of a special thermal visual concealment (TVC) material, comprised of metals, polymers and microfibers. The material allows soldiers much more difficult to distinguish from nature, both with the naked eye and with thermal imaging equipment. Thus, it can be used for countersurveillance in a wide variety of military scenarios.”-Maya Margit, “Israel develops camouflage tech that makes soldiers ‘invisible’.” Y Net News. June 15, 2021.
“Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed a new, low-cost wearable device that transforms the human body into a biological battery.”—University of Colorado at Boulder, “New wearable device turns the body into a battery.” TechXplore, February 10, 2021.
“‘Technosignatures refer to any evidence of technology that could be remotely detectable, specifically through the tools of astronomy,’ explained Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist and senior research investigator at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, in an email interview with The Debrief. ‘Radio signals are one example of a technosignature but not the only one. Other examples are city lights, surface modifications (cities and large-scale deployment of solar panels), changes in the atmosphere (greenhouse gases like CO2 as well as industrial byproducts like CFCs and NO2), free-floating spacecraft, megastructures (i.e, Dyson spheres/swarms), and other possibilities.’
Hunting for otherworldly technology is no longer science fiction. In 2018, NASA hosted a workshop on the subject of technosignatures, and a report was developed concluding that the study of possible alien technology was an important step for future NASA missions. Today, astronomers, astrobiologists, and other scientists gather online to talk about their work and progress on the subject. The idea of systematically searching for signs of industrial or space-faring civilizations was once laughed out of the room, but now the topic is gaining rock-star cachet and serious popularity within the field of astrobiology.”-MJ Banias, “Meet The Scientists Hunting for Alien Technology Through ‘Technosignatures’.” The Debrief. December 28, 2020.
“Buckslip is a weekly-ish email letter (with companion extra bits) in which a few friends wander through the fucked-up landscape of all that we’re living through together now, and weave a few sensemaking threads from what we find. It started with a media and culture focus, but over the years it’s grown into something not quite exactly that. There’s too much else going on.
“Not just internet culture, but Culture, given the internet,” as one astute reader put it, and we like that framing. We do this for love, and for our own understanding, but along the way we’ve found a likeminded community of people who seem to appreciate us working it out in front of them?–Buckslip
“Researchers in the US have created the first living machines by assembling cells from African clawed frogs into tiny robots that move around under their own steam…’They are living, programmable organisms.’…Their unique features mean that future versions of the robots might be deployed to clean up microplastic pollution in the oceans, locate and digest toxic materials, deliver drugs in the body or remove plaque from artery walls, the scientists say.”—Ian Sample, “Researchers foresee myriad benefits for humanity, but also acknowledge ethical issues.” The Guardian. January 13, 2020.
What could possibly go wrong? Also: xenobots.
“In the fall of 2009, as the age of blogs was already fading, I launched The Frailest Thing as a space to think out loud as I worked my way through a graduate program in technology studies. In the years since, I sought to think about the challenges posed by emerging technologies, particularly digital media, in light of insights offered by scholars and thinkers from a variety of disciplines, past and present. Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Langdon Winner, and Walter Ong are among the those whose work has informed my analysis and reflection as I sought to clarify the political, cultural, and moral consequences of technological change. Ten years and 800 posts later, it was time to bring the enterprise to a close.
What you have here are 100 dispatches spanning that decade of thinking and writing about how technology sustains, mediates, and conditions our experience. These are the essays that, in my view, have remained useful exercises in thinking about the meaning of technology. Prominent themes include the relationship of technology to politics, memory and time, ethics, and the experience of the self.
I’ve made the work available at no cost, you’re welcome to it. You are also able to pay whatever amount you like for it, should you so desire. Either way, if you find the work helpful, consider letting others know about it and rating the e-book here.
Thanks for reading.-L. M. Sacasas, “The Frailest Thing: Ten Years of Thinking About the Meaning of Technology.”