Hi, I'm Jake. I'm a senior studying English and I'd like to officially welcome to my blog for the Sawyer Seminar. For a bit of background, this seminar is run by the Humanities Research Center with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and it brings in speakers to discuss digital humanities, specifically the production and distribution of knowledge, in the digital age.
Our first guest was Ian Bogost, who is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a founding partner of Persuasive Games, and a contributing editor to The Atlantic. Bogost has a dedicated following, which was apparent by the number of people who came to his talk.
The first thing I noticed, before Bogost had even started speaking, was his use of a Macbook Pro. Having read The Geek's Chihuahua, which contains some scathing criticism of Apple, it was hard not to note the irony. This contradiction though, remains bound up in the topic of his lecture, what he calls a "life inside computers." Even as we critique technological progress, we also feel that the trajectory of technology is unchangeable and unavoidable. Even if we don't buy from Apple, we buy from a company that isn't all that different.
The course technology has been taking, and will continue to take, according to Bogost, is the continuing integration of nearly everything with computing devices -- the Internet of Things. It seems to him, that this creates new anxiety under the guise of reducing it. He used the GasWatch, which connects propane tanks to a smartphone app to monitor their levels, as an example. Do we really need this tool? According to Bogost, we have solved the problems posed by propane tanks without the need to connect them to the internet and, in fact, we are producing the need to think more about our propane tanks than before by creating devices like this. Of course, this is a singling out of a particular implementation of computing, but it speaks to a general trend of fitting everything possible with computers, regardless of the actual utility we derive from it.
To me, it seems like this tool or ones like it might provide real value to someone. The problem doesn't begin because of one or even many potentially extraneous implementations of computing. Instead, it comes from the attitude that computers can solve problems we didn't even know we had by creating them. We produce all-encompassing networks of computing that begin to control us while telling us we now have more control. If we produce data simply for the sake of producing data, then we run the risk of obscuring meaningful information under piles of junk. Even more dangerously, if we invest too heavily in technological solutions, we often ignore political and economic problems that technology can create or amplify, for instance, hyper-employment and privacy violations.
Bogost raised one question that sounded a bit absurd, but that I have found thought provoking. He asked, "Can we feel sorry for the toaster?" Before going further, I have to note Bogost's assessment of our existence today. He asserts that we are neither dumbed down by technology, living in a sci-fi dystopia, nor have we reached the singularity. Rather, he suggests, we are compulsively drawn toward technology and, at least to a certain extent, enjoy this compulsion. It's Disney goes cyberpunk. Right now, computers can adjust our thermostats and keep stock of our food. Soon they'll drive our cars. As this ecosystem grows, each individual device exerts pressure on the others to act as part of the ecosystem and, for instance, if one device loses connection, it's left out. Can we feel sorry for the toaster that's left out? I think we can feel something resembling sympathy, even if we recognize the silliness of that behavior. Maybe, says Bogost, we don't need the humanoid machine to emotionally connect with computers, and this is the form the singularity will take -- just us and our "weird hybrid alien things."