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gibson on media and technology


If you have a few minutes check out this incredibly good speech by William Gibson to the Directors Guild of America. Quote:

What we call “media” were originally called “mass media”. technologies allowing the replication of passive experience. As a novelist, I work in the oldest mass medium, the printed word. The book has been largely unchanged for centuries. Working in language expressed as a system of marks on a surface, I can induce extremely complex experiences, but only in an audience elaborately educated to experience this. This platform still possesses certain inherent advantages. I can, for instance, render interiority of character with an ease and specificity denied to a screenwriter. But my audience must be literate, must know what prose fiction is and understand how one accesses it. This requires a complexly cultural education, and a certain socio-economic basis. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of such an education.

But I remember being taken to my first film, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary (I can’t recall which I saw first) and being overwhelmed by the steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve: in that hour, I learned to watch film. Was taught, in effect, by the film itself. I was years away from being able to read my first novel, and would need a lot of pedagogy, to do that. But film itself taught me, in the dark, to view it. I remember it as a sort of violence done to me, as full of terror as it was of delight. But when I emerged from that theater, I knew how to watch film.

What had happened to me was historically the result of an immensely complex technological evolution, encompassing optics, mechanics, photography, audio recording, and much else. Whatever film it was that I first watched, other people around the world were also watching, having approximately the same experience in terms of sensory input. And that film no doubt survives today, in Disney’s back-catalog, as an experience that can still be accessed.

[...]

Much of history has been, often to an unrecognized degree, technologically driven. From the extinction of North America’s mega-fauna to the current geopolitical significance of the Middle East, technology has driven change. (That’s spear-hunting technology for the mega-fauna and the internal-combustion engine for the Middle East, by the way.) Very seldom do nations legislate the emergence of new technologies.

The Internet, an unprecedented driver of change, was a complete accident, and that seems more often the way of things. The Internet is the result of the unlikely marriage of a DARPA project and the nascent industry of desktop computing. Had nations better understood the potential of the Internet, I suspect they might well have strangled it in its cradle. Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.

As indeed does the emergent realm of the digital. I prefer to view this not as the advent of some new and extraordinary weirdness, but as part of the ongoing manifestation of some very ancient and extraordinary weirdness: our gradual spinning of a sort of extended prosthetic mass nervous-system, out of some urge that was present around the cooking-fires of our earliest human ancestors.

He makes a point near the end that I (surprinsingly) disagree with:
I imagine that one of the things our great-grandchildren will find quaintest about us is how we had all these different, function-specific devices. Their fridges will remind them of appointments and the trunks of their cars will, if need be, keep the groceries from thawing. The environment itself will be smart, rather than various function-specific nodes scattered through it. Genuinely ubiquitous computing spreads like warm Vaseline. Genuinely evolved interfaces are transparent, so transparent as to be invisible.
I don't think we are entering into an era of less function-specific devices. Rather, we are entering an era of even more "specificity", but with greater interoperability. What is on the fridge's door that reminds you of an appointment doesn't come built in with the fridge, it's a PDA-fridge-magnet (let's ignore the problems of magnetic fields on electronics for a minute). And you can take it off and carry it around. Or put it in the car, and it always stays sync-ed with your main data store, which is a black box hidden somewhere, subwoofer-style.

Function-specific, transparent, pervasive, energy-efficient, data-aware, people-aware, context-aware, portable (if possible), fully interoperable. That's, IMO, where things are going.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on May 27 2003 at 1:01 PM

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