Steampunk reveals three relationships that people want with their technology. First, they want their technology to have a sense of humor. Humor and jokes give us a way to connect with and understand each other. Also, humor is a great cultural indicator that we understand each other. Studies show that if I can make you laugh, you not only think I’m smarter but also feel a deeper human connection to me. If we want to have a closer relationship to these technologies that are filling our lives, it makes sense that we would want them to get our sense of humor and make us laugh.
Second, people want their technology to have a sense of history. History is the on-ramp to the future. Only by understanding where we have come from can we make sense of where we are going. It might surprise you to realize that a pocket watch is a lot like an iPhone. We carry both around in our pockets. Both give their owners an advantage over other people who may not have them. But there is one difference: a pocket watch was designed to be handed down from generation to generation. An iPhone is designed to be refreshed from generation to generation. For an increasing number of people this doesn’t work. They want their devices to have grounding in history, a connection to the past so we can have a clearer view of our future.
Finally, people want their technology to have a sense of humanity. They want their devices to understand them as individuals. If you sleep with your smartphone next to your bed you want it to know who you are when you wake up in the morning. As our devices become increasingly smarter and central to our lives, we want these devices to understand us as individuals, not as consumers.”
A Thin Line Between Documentation + Surveillance
“The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school. The band delivers certifiable Quality-with-a-capital-Q, a perfect product of the English and music departments—the way that Lady Gaga is a perfect product of the semiotics department and an MBA program, though I definitely prefer Lady Gaga.”
“As an industry, coolhunting explicitly turns on this production of authenticity and legitimacy. The transaction between brand and employee is one of social—and increasingly, multicultural—capital. My own misgivings about these dynamics, however, soon gave way to more practical constraints of time and money. Or so I told myself. Really, what I would be selling was not my time, but something that I realized—albeit with cringey trepidation—was far more valuable: my own multicultural capital and connections. My wasta.”
Futurist John Smart, president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, recalled an insight of economist Simon Kuznets about evolution of technology effects known as the Kuznets curve: “First-generation tech usually causes ‘net negative’ social effects; second-generation ‘net neutral’ effects; by the third generation of tech—once the tech is smart enough, and we’ve got the interface right, and it begins to reinforce the best behaviors—we finally get to ‘net positive’ effects,” he noted. “We’ll be early into conversational interface and agent technologies by 2020, so kids will begin to be seriously intelligently augmented by the internet. There will be many persistent drawbacks however [so the effect at this point will be net neutral]. The biggest problem from a personal-development perspective will be motivating people to work to be more self-actualized, productive, and civic than their parents were. They’ll be more willing than ever to relax and remain distracted by entertainments amid accelerating technical productivity.
“As machine intelligence advances,” Smart explained, “the first response of humans is to offload their intelligence and motivation to the machines. That’s a dehumanizing, first-generation response. Only the later, third-generation educational systems will correct for this.””
It’s not hard to imagine how the less confident students, despite moving in a forum that promised connections galore, might grow more isolated, revving the cycle all over again.
I find these results oddly heartbreaking. It seems an irony typical of the Internet that the people who feel safest expressing themselves online actually damage their social standing when they do so. Not because they’re somehow opting out of the real world, as Facebook critics like to insist, but because they are lulled into relaxing their facades. Cheery icons and a shiny, sanitized format make it easy to project the friendliness of a diary onto the Facebook community. Yet the site doesn’t “change” your audience so much as disguise it. Those with low self-esteem may treasure Facebook because it eliminates situations in which social feedback is inevitable (whereas you can’t help seeing your friend’s aggrieved expression when you slip up in person). But you need live feedback to teach you to navigate relationships with grace.
We’ve heard how Internet anonymity—or the illusion of it—can give people license to act like boors. Yet it seems we’re less attuned to the dangers of seeing other Internet users as anonymous or unreal. Social networking sites, with their endlessly personalized apps, can sometimes feel less like meeting places than giant mirrors (Facebook for me has always had the echoey effect of a mansion that a crowd of partiers has just vacated.) Amanda Forest’s study should remind us that when we’re online, for better or for worse, we’re not alone.”
“That’s the real problem with attempting to make sense of 9/11 using social media: The former requires deep thought while the latter feeds on immediacy. Ten years and millions of articles after 9/11, we’re still trying to come to terms with what happened that day. We’re still sifting through the debris and our collective emotions in order to find whatever it is we lost, or to explain why things are the way they are now. I have a hard time believing 9/11 tweets or Facebook updates would have changed any of that for the better. And by now they’d be forgotten anyway, buried under 10 years of more shouting into the abyss.”
“The Egyptian people have proven time and again that they are leading digital activism innovation, that they are heroic stewards of their own revolution and their own freedom. We in the West need to learn that there is not always a role for us and if our help is needed we must act with humility and in subordinate roles. It doesn’t matter if technology efforts like Wathiqah make us in the West feel good or helpful or part of a moment in history. When the creation of these projects draws attention and potential resources away from home-grown efforts, when it causes fragmentation, we need to have the humility to step back. Because, in the end, it’s not about us.”
“Most of narcissism’s critics, however, do not evince much concern for its sufferers, whom they regard with more Schadenfreude than pity. They just find all this expression of ego to be grating, gauche, and borderline immoral—like wearing tights as pants, talking during movies, or being Snooki. This is our new cultural mini-monster, somewhere down the scale from terrorists and pedophiles, in the general vicinity of Charlie Sheen and those people who go nuts during American Idol auditions: the Raging Narcissist. Press coverage of that music study conveys the sense that a song like Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock”—whose refrain runs, “Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful”—is a substantial threat to the nation’s soul.”