Digitized We Fall

Photo credit: GBlakeley

If the nation is divided, blame computing. A nation digitized against itself cannot stand. When we invented the computer we started down a slippery slope by reducing information to data—a series of binary on/off switches. Everything became zero or one, plus or minus, yes or no…us or them.

In the process of digitizing information, we have also distilled knowledge and understanding to extremes. Once you express ideas in absolutes, the next step is to think that way. Life imitates information. So now we have red states and blue states and politicians pandering to their “base,” which is not really the base at all but the fringe. We’ve got a left wing and right wing but the body politic is missing its core.

Remember the proverbial pendulum that would dependably swing back when things got out of hand? That grandfather clock has been replaced with a digital readout. It’s not just a metaphor. Technology changes how we view information. Sure, a digital watch tells exact time—it’s 11:47:03. But precision is no substitute for context. The reliable hands of an analog clock pointed to the hour in relation to the day. We saw what time it was and what time it wasn’t.

No more. Today we calculate but we don’t figure. We advance but don’t progress. Taking things to extremes, the Internet connects like-minded people so they can communicate, commiserate, coordinate, instigate. This gives radical causes a louder voice. The media comply with publicity in a quest to sensationalize events into big stories. Everything achieves “controversy” status. We used to have talking heads but now they shout.

Through this polarized filter we see the world as a snapshot but not the whole picture, like a digital photo distorted by poor resolution.

Why do we reduce, produce, record and convey information in this way? Because it’s easy, fast and cheap. Where will it end? We need only look at our digital devices to know: We’re going to crash. That’s because digital and electronic systems function perfectly or not at all. It’s everything or nothing. A mechanical system on the other hand, like an old model automobile, undergoes a graceful degradation. It gradually becomes less efficient until it peters out. In the past, you could always prop the carburetor open with a pencil. But in the electronic world of black boxes, we have no role in how the car runs and little advance warning before it dies completely. This total system failure is what engineers call catastrophic degradation.

Depending on machines is frightening enough. Let’s not allow how we think to depend on them too.