Monday 13 January 2020

Oscillating Emotions, Maddening Institutions... and Technology

My current emotional state is worrying me. Rather like the current climate on our burning planet, or our scary politics, its not so much a particular state (although depression and burning-Australia is of course worrying), but it is the oscillation, the variety, of emotional states that's bothering me. It's one extreme and then the next and no control. The symptoms, from an emotional point of view, are dangerous because they threaten to feed-back into the pathology. In a state of depression, one needs to talk, but things can become so overwhelming that talking becomes incredibly difficult, and so it gets worse.

A lot hangs on the nature of our institutions. It is not for nothing that stable democracies pride themselves on the stability of their institutions. This is because, I think, institutions are places where people can talk to each other. They are information-conserving entities, and the process of conserving information occurs through conversation. "Conserving conversation", if you like.

So what happens when our institutions fill themselves with technologies that disturb the context for conversation to the extent that people:

  1. feel stupid that they are not on top of the "latest tools" (or indeed, are made to feel stupid!)
  2. cannot talk to each other about their supposed "incompetence" for fear of exposing what they perceive as this "incompetence".
  3. feel that the necessity for conversation is obviated by techno-instrumental effectiveness (I sent you an email - didn't you read it?)
  4. are too busy and stressed working bad interfaces to build proper relationships or to ask powerful questions
  5. are permanently threatened by existential concerns over their future, their current precarious contract, their prospects for longer-term financial security, their family, and so on
There is, of course, the "you're lucky to have a job" brigade. Or the "don't think about it, just get on with it" people.  But these people reduce the totality of human life to a function. And it clearly isn't a simple function. And yet there is no rational way to determine that such an attitude is wrong. Because of that, these people (sometimes deliberately) amplify the oscillation. 

This functionalist thinking derives from technological thinking. It's not particular technologies that are to blame. But it is what computer technology actually does to institutions: it discards information. Losing information is really bad news. 

So we have institutions which traditionally exist by virtue of their capacity to conserve information (and memory, thought and inquiry) through facilitating conversation. We introduce an IT system which loses some information because it removes some degree of uncertainty that required conservation to address. This information loss is addressed by another IT system, which loses more information. Which necessitates... The loss of information through technology is like the increase in CO2.

It leads to suffocation. 

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