Physicality & Power

Over on Wired, Amber Case sets out to illuminate the brave new world of calm computing.  The idea being  – as Mark Weiser puts it – that it appears when when it needs to be used, and gets out of the way when it isnt, suggesting an ever present techological field attuned and pre-empting our desires.  Case uses an interesting quote in the article to describe this phenomenon – taken  from The Communist Manifesto she uses the subtitle “all that is solid melts into air“.  It is worth putting this snippet into context.

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The idea that the world would dance to my tune just as I wander around it is mightily appealing at first glance, but as my fixed frozen relationshop to the physical world is swept away, as the hallowed laws of physics no longer hold what does it tell me about the conditions of my life and relations with others of my kind.

I am increasingly feeling more and more at the mercy of computers (or at least ubiquitous software programmes, their ideas and their power)   Particularly in a week when facebook its entire user population into a nerd – the whole of facebook is talking about facebook, with a gradual sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs that comes with the realisation of exactly how much information this massive corporate entity holds on them coupled with an awareness of how central social networking has become to their lives.  The corporate stranglehold on our cyborg selves has become exposed.

Intertwining digital technology and the physical world through geolocation devices has potentially massive benefits.  Case cites the example of her house lights coming on as she approaches, and switching off when she leaves.  Without technology there would, of course, be no lights to switch on- we would be back in the days of candles or governed by the patterns of the sun, however digital technologies are fundamentally more disruptive than candle making or electricity.

While real-life is governed by the laws of physics, cyberlife is governed by a combination of conventions and economic power.   At the moment those two domains are kept quite seperate – so you can suspend disbelief when playing Little Big Planet as Sackboy effortlessly hovers over his creations, but know that if you want to see the other side of the lego tower that you have built you will still need to walk round the other side.

Physical laws can be studied and apply everywhere – any exceptions to what you might expect are simply a misunderstanding or over-generalisation of the law that you are using to interpret, or of course, just simply wrong.  Cyber laws – for example the convention that a square thing with a bit of text in it does the action that the text says are not universally valid – buttons can be broken, they may be poorly designed or they may even be placed as a joke

Beyond error, ambiguity and amusement however comes the manifestation of power and its relation to the development of cyberlaws where inferior conventions or technologies win out over superior ones because of their intersection with economics – another artifical set of laws which govern our existance.  First mover advantage, business modelling and market dominence can all see inferior, propriatory systems become too big to overthrow as technologies gain a grip.

Once you mix up static physical laws, with the much more arbitrary cyberlaws you are putting power over the physical world into unknown hands. The physical world has no consciousness it merely dumbly obeys the laws of its existence; humans have consciousness and they obey their will.  Humans can study and understand physical laws with a view to better interact with the physical world – each individual shapes the physical according to knowledge and understanding formed from the first years of existance.

Computers have a strange hybrid role.  Unconscious acting they obey the direction passed down from their programmers.  These programmers obey the instruction given for software construction which have been shaped and influenced by the financial backers.  As is ever the case, resource ownership and control leads to an expansion of resource domination.

And what does that say about our “real conditions of life, and  relations with our kind”?  Human will and computer instruction may well come into conflict at some point once computing and physicality are conflated.  Mere existence, or unconscious action can trigger an event that you would not knowingly wish to occur or even know that it being triggered.  Indiana Jones accidentally stepping on the wrong paving stone and triggering an avalanche of arrows may well translate to staying too long in the one spot and having your credit card deluged in charges.

It is indeed a brave new world that we enter – but while technology remains a rich man’s plaything and corporate control governs our cyberselves we must proceed with caution.  Until software is free we must be wary of becoming enslaved to it.

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