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Technology Abhors a Mystery
Lost works of art, the internet's permanent record, and the slow death of Alexa.
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1. Lost Things
Writer/poet Alex Thomas writes a Substack named—wonderfully— “The Drugs Don’t Work Anymore.” And this week had talked about lost works:
I’m sure in some language, there must be a word for the things we think pleasantly about in the moments before we fall asleep. For example, I like to think about the Titanic — about how it’s out there in the total-silence beneath the Atlantic Ocean. I like to think about the Grand Staircase, two-and-a-half miles under-the-sea and still darkly elegant.
I also like to think about lost works, which I suppose are similar to the underwater ruins of the Titanic. They are all lost, right? In possession of a beauty or rarity that exists (or once existed) in this world but is no longer accessible. . . .
I like to think about Hemingway’s suitcase. You know the story, Hadley was on a train to Paris. She got up to buy a bottle of water and when she returned to her seat, the suitcase full of unpublished Hemingway was gone. Just about everything Hemingway wrote when he was a novice — gone. And almost certainly, gone forever.
But of course maybe, just maybe. In some French attic somewhere is a suitcase full of unseen Hemingway stories. . . .
There are dozens of places I like to go — dozens of lost works I like to imagine. They don’t exist in the world anymore and that means we get to make them up. A fanatical priest convinced Gogol to burn the second part of Dead Souls, which he had modeled on the Divine Comedy. Dead Souls ends in the middle of a speech — what happens to :? Something happened — it must have, Gogol wrote it. But the book is lost except to our imagination. I like to lay in bed and make up endings for Chichikov. . . .
Philip Larkin’s diaries are burnt up and gone. James Joyce burned a play. Malcolm Lowry spent almost a decade on a novel and lost it in a fire. All that writing by our great writers is gone, what did we lose?
There’s the driving question behind this interest — what did we lose? We don’t know and we won’t ever know. The same way we won’t ever know what happened to DB Cooper or Amelia Earhart. And the world is a more interesting place because we don’t know these things.
The idea of lost works is anathema to the digital worldview. The entire object of the computer is infinite memory with perfect recall. And the entire ethos of internet connectedness is that we catalogue and quantify everything. And then the machines remember it all. Perfectly.
There are no mysteries. No abstractions. No imaginings. You have pictures of your meals, data about your workouts. You can search the entire text history of or your communications. As Maciej Ceglowski once balefully noted, the idea that something could “go on your permanent record” used to be a boogie man used to scare kids.
Today, it’s business case for the entire tech economy.
We’re richer for it in some ways. Technology can be quite helpful.
But we’re poorer in some ways, too.
Technology itself doesn’t (normally) get lost.But it does go away. Ranjan Roy talks about the slow death of Amazon's Alexa:
It's seven years later, and in many ways the Echo's ended up the "glorified clock radio" Benedict Evans called it in 2019. The difficult thing to reconcile is my family still uses it tens, if not hundreds, of times a day. It should not be a failure. But as Amazon just laid off thousands in the division, former employees call it a "a colossal failure of imagination," and "a wasted opportunity," and as no one talks about voice-as-a-platform anymore, it certainly feels like it is. . . .
I think there were four reasons that stunted the promise of voice: closed off ecosystems, overly ambitious proclamations, distorted monopolistic incentives, and of course, too much capital. The first culprit is best represented by Apple and the closed-off ecosystem it built around Siri. Thanks to its device stranglehold (which certainly has some benefits) it was allowed to let Siri continue to be the hot pile of garbage it continues to be.
With Siri, there are the little things, like preventing Spotify from being your default music player in order to keep pushing Apple Music. . . .
For all the hype around AI, Siri still regularly confuses me asking it to "call Janie", my wife who I've called maybe 10,000 times in the past few years, with "Jennie Grouper", a girl I met once on a Grouper (anyone remember that?) date over a decade ago. Sure, I should clean that contact (I’m going to get in trouble for writing this), but after listening Eddy Cue spouting off the promise of Apple's AI while wearing his classic untucked shirt, I'd hope simple algorithmic logic would be able to solve this.
That’s my mini-Siri-rant, and I acknowledge Google and Amazon were better about building more open platforms. But each still built its voice platform to push its own peripheral services, often to the detriment of the user. Apple is the worst here, but the relatively closed nature of the overall voice ecosystem played a big role in kneecapping any transformative potential.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. (It’s free and it’s great.)
What gets me here is that voice didn’t have to become a dead-end. In an alternate timeline, maybe voice becomes a co-dominant interface for devices.
But technology is path-dependent and the path we are on has a certain set of environmental conditions and constraints built into it. One of which is that the players big enough to develop voice also had incentives to keep voice in closed-off ecosystems.
And so the technology withers and dies for reasons that have little to do with the technology itself.
Which is the technological equivalent of a fire burning up an unpublished novel.
3. Steampunk Search
Henrik Karlsson talks about using a blog as a search engine:
I was born in July 1989, which means I am of the last generation who will remember the time before the internet. The cables and data centers and hyperlinks grew up around me; they grew with me. I find it hard to disentangle the evolution of my psyche from that of the internet.
Explaining it to my daughter, who was born in 2017, a year when the world’s largest economy had begun tearing itself apart from the tension of this ever-evolving network, I tell her that the internet is like an alien intelligence. We don’t know exactly what it is; it has just landed, and only the first ship. We are trying to figure out how to talk to it. The first generation of explorers have noted that by making certain finger motions you can make the aliens show you images of cats and clothes, or tell you all the ways the world is falling apart.
Karlsson goes on to explain how he inadvertently discovered that you could use the internet as a search engine by writing on it:
During the night, the internet had been set in motion. Tossing hither and thither in silence—as the fields lay frozen and waiting and the hedgehog slept in its pile of leaves—the internet had rearranged itself around me.
I had written an essay about Ivan Illich and systems thinking, a topic I had never found anyone else intrigued by, and which magazines thought below a rejection letter—and the internet had suddenly reshaped itself so that my keyboard hooked up to the screens of a bunch of people who wanted to talk about these topics, and a little later, their keyboards hooked up to mine. . . .
This gave me a first glimpse of the social mechanics of the internet. Looking at the traffic data, and talking to readers, I could retrace how my words had traveled through the network, and I got a sense of why. . . .
The way the machine seemed to work was:
The more precise and niche the words I input, the better the internet would match me with people I could forge meaningful relationships with. This precision was hard for me, partly because my sense for how communication is supposed to work is shaped by reading mass media. Writing for a general public, you need to be broad and a bit bland. I didn’t want a general public. I wanted a specific set of people, the people who could help me along as a human being obsessed with certain intellectual problems. I didn’t know who these people were. I only knew that they existed. Hence my writing was a search query. It needed to be phrased in such a way that it found these people and, if necessary, filtered others.
The pleasant parts of the internet seemed to be curated by human beings, not algorithms. For my writing to find its way in this netherworld, I needed to have a rough sense of how information flowed down there. The pattern was this: words flowed from the periphery to the centers. This was a surprisingly rapid stream. Then the words cascaded from the center down in a broader but slower stream to the periphery again.
I will spend the rest of this essay unpacking those two statements.
It will seem like I am mainly talking about how to use writing to forge meaningful relationships. I think doing that is beautiful and important. But lurking behind it is a larger idea. Namely, that you can shape yourself by reshaping your relationships. By changing who you are addressing, and the responses you garner, you steer your development. You become more agentic.
Read the whole thing. It’s a niche subject, but it’s all driving at the same idea: The internet and our humanity.
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