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Shiny Metal Box

The peculiar thing about the new iPhone, aside from all the homeless people standing on line for it, is that it is really one of the last drops of a social revolution that began when amateurs started tinkering with kits that have as much relation to a smart phone as the Wright Brothers plane has to an Osprey.

The computer revolution wasn't a accident. A society needs its frontiers and by then one of the few frontiers remaining in America was the abstract conceptual world inside a metal box. It would take decades until that abstract world became concrete and we were all living inside it. Its final revolution was to eliminate the metal box. Or least to make it as portable as possible. But by then the things in the real world that the box was supposed to take you away from were already inside it.

The America of the tinkerers was already narrowing down a great deal. By the nineties, a lot of the people were ready to climb into the box. In the teens or whatever we're calling this decade, everyone is in the box and waiting on line for a slightly improved version of the box. Or hoping that there's a box within the box so that like a set of Russian nesting dolls, we can vanish into an even less understandable universe in our minds before the authorities, political, corporate and cultural get there.

The revolution was really the escapist ending of Brazil with millions of people humming to themselves having won a brief victory over their pursuers, even if the victory is only in their minds.

I don't take the computer lightly. It's an amazing device. But there's a reason that we have it instead of all the things everyone expected the future to bring. Doing some of those things would have meant pushing real frontiers, instead of abstract ones. It would have meant an open society of individuals, instead of a closed society where everyone is trying to be an individual to escape the conformity.

Can you imagine flying cars in a country that outlawed lawn darts and has gun control fits every time a shooting happens? A real space program run by a government that can't get anything done and is out of money? Food pills in a society whose food neurosis now extends into the Oval Office?

The frontier has closed. The tinkerers found a new one in a metal box and for a while the internet was a new frontier. But that was before Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. It was also before Amazon and Google. It was when web pages were randomly thrown together and when the internet looked  like an anarchic bulletin board of entertainment value, but not deep meaning.

You passed by there. But you didn't live there. It added a dimension to life, instead of the overlay that it throws down over your day.

The internet is much more of a loop these days. A series of links leading to the same place. The one story that everyone is talking about. The Google search that focuses on trending topics by default so that when you type in Sudan, the only results will be what happened in Sudan a few hours ago, with the Sudan before it existing only as a lone Wikipedia entry. The sites that track your habits and show you only what you're interested in. Even as it's getting bigger; the internet is contracting.

The contraction of the internet mirrors that of the society. It's gotten dumber as it's gotten bigger. The amazing things on it that you're linked to are less likely to be a thought and more likely to be two dozen randomly plucked photos of Africa presented as linkbait on a site that stole it from twenty other sites. Everything is awesome, amazing, world changing and will totally make you lose it.

Except it won't.

The computer has become distilled down to the internet. Google bet hard on that with Chromebooks. Eventually the different platforms will fall away and the only difference between Macs and PCs will be the color and shininess of the box running the same applications.

The internet stopped being an experiment a while back. It's a finished product. And like television, the product is your time. Getting it is a science. The professional website, like a casino, is expert at the science of wasting your time while giving you as little value as possible. It knows exactly what people will click on and how to get them to keep clicking in the loop that leads to affiliates and the best way to cash in on all that. And yet outside all that noise and clamor, revolution is possible.

Steve Jobs didn't make the iPhone what it is. The apps did. To see what the iPhone would have been like today without them, pick up a Windows Phone. It would be a slick device with some decent functions, but no room to grow.

The iPhone is a platform for apps. So is its Android rival. The difference is that Google knows that while Apple still pretends that it has to come out with some new revolutionary product.

The PC was what it is was because it was a platform for programs. Windows has never been more than a means of running programs well or badly. But Microsoft, in a fit of Apple envy, decided to embrace a new vision with Windows 8. It wanted to be Apple. And it did that at the expense of the open desktop. And it's paying the price.

The internet's more revolutionary possibilities involved the escape from control. Some of those possibilities are still there, but they are fading as the abstract becomes concrete and the same forces that eliminated freedom in the old real world are doing the same thing in the new digital world.

The internet was always destined to become a mirror of our societies and that meant that it could never serve as an enduring escape. The rule of the nerds who helped shape it was always going to give way to the corporations looking to monetize it, the governments seeking to exploit it and the masses who just want whatever the corporations and governments tell them to want. But most of all, the same forces that shaped our society would come to shape the internet.

The leverage that it provides to revolutionaries of all kinds is not itself enough to overcome the inertia of those forces. And that is what makes the power struggle uneven. It is the determined blandness of political correctness, the leftward tilt of content creators manifesting in a thousand ways and the limitations of the medium to do anything but win by sinking to the bottom.

That whole teeming world, enclosed in a small plastic rectangle, is our society abstracted, stripped of nuance, of anything but id and rendered down to an easily accessible form, is no longer an escape, it's an unlovely mirror of our failures as a society to find a frontier and make it our own. The technology is revolutionary, but it's a revolution constrained into smaller and smaller boxes, into narrower corners, from operating systems to app stores and from there to what further hub of central control?

The internet does make the world smaller. Sometimes the box is a reflection of the world and sometimes the world seems like a reflection of the box. Both become metaphors for the other. The world starts looking more like the internet and the internet starts looking more like the world. It becomes easier to think of programming people offline the way that they are programmed online and regulating them online the way that they are regulated offline.

Compacting the world into a box did make for revolutionary possibilities. It still does. But the possibilities of control in a simplified world are greater than those for freedom. That is what the revolutionaries never entirely understood. The more the real world could be mapped into the box, the more controllable the box and the world outside it became.

The social media revolution was a giant leap forward in achieving that mapping, in interlinking the worlds inside and outside the box, in defining, pinning and maintaining the citizenship of the web.

Our technocracy is an unholy mashup of liberal social programs and dot com whiz kids learning the joys of bribing public officials. Cass Sunstein's nudge is the perfect government concept for the dot age. It's slick, it's creepy and it's about indiscreetly manipulating people.

These sorts of Freakonomics gimmicks have become the ubiquitous way for the anti-social to
understand people. They are the politician's version of the amateur hypnotist's kit, the rules for making men/women do what you want and the entire social engineering handbook that the nerds were playing with at the same time as they were tinkering with circuit boards.

Government, like the operating system, has ceased to be a means to run programs. Like Windows 8, it imagines that it is the program. Its vision is of putting everything in the cloud, running everything through it, appropriating, redistributing and centrally planning everything. It was that way already when the operating system appeared as green text on a CRT monitor.

And it has gotten only worse since.

The shiny metal box has been incredibly disruptive, but disruption alone is not revolution. And once you climb into a box, it can be hard to climb out again.


  1. Anonymous25/9/13

    "I don't take the computer lightly. It's an amazing device. But there's a reason that we have it instead of all the things everyone expected the future to bring. "

    I am old enough to remember being tacitly promised the stars when I was a five year old watching the Disney pieces on space travel in the 1950's. The politicos were right in there as well, a time of optimism and cultural confidence.

    We were promised the stars, and all we got was Facebook and a misbegotten welfare state.

  2. Anonymous25/9/13

    Sultan, you are correct. That shiny box makes people believe they are also smart by the fact that they carry one around. Now Cass Sunstein and the Education establishment wants to give students the ubiquitous "tablet" so no more heavy, out-of-date books to lug around. But who will produce the content. And even while a "Core" curriculum is mandated, the nature of the tablet beast is such that the Core will be watered down with wasted time to search all that great information out there on the www. And do not forget the wasted tax money trying to keep all these gadgets powered up and running as versions of new software become available with their corresponding bugs, not to speak of virus' and malware. It will take a big IT staff and more teacher's union members to keep those things running. And lets' not forget the life cycle of these devices and the user demand for the latest and greatest. Can you image a student having to use the same tablet for their entire four year high school course? Oh the shame! What that means of course is collusion with the hardware vendors to replace the tablets with more acceptable (the latest) versions with all the bells and whistles on a regular basis. Which begs of course, is more money for education, because we all know that education never has enough funds to teach properly. Oh, I guess that was my own goal assessment. I should have said more money is needed for the Education establishment to keep growing like it's overload, the federal government. Growth and power are the game, not education of young minds.

    Of course it is the majority of students who lack the discipline, self-motivation, will, etc. who still won't put the device to good use just like those who never crack a book. Those stellar students among us will succeed in most any environment. But for the majority whom politicians depend on for votes, the dumbing down of America will only become more widespread as the left's agenda is promulgated at a speed that no school district nor parent will be able to keep up with. But hey, the child's backpack will be much lighter, and after all, we do it for the children, right?

  3. Anonymous25/9/13

    How I envy the people who get to break bread with you.

    1. Anonymous25/9/13

      As do I. The conversations must be absolutely splendid but I would be happy to simply listen. ~arasina

  4. ericcs25/9/13

    "The Future" has been a vast disappointment. No expansion, no new frontiers, everyone retreating to their own little mindless fantasy world aided and abetted by shiny boxes, and a miserable welfare society with the almighty State extending its reach over all. There is nothing even close to the possible bright worlds envisioned by creative, confident futurist writers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

    In addition to the leftists, do you know who helped put this in place? Brilliant nobodies, infesting places like Silicon Valley, able to handle thousands of detailed trees and bushes all at once, but absolutely unable upon pain of death to ever describe what kind of forest they're in or where it's located (I know because I worked with these people for 30 years). Don't ever depend on any of them for a viable future. As to what we are leaving for following generations, it will take a revolution, probably extremely violent, to ever escape from the dystopic excuse for a civilization into which we have devolved.

  5. Anonymous25/9/13

    I started out in IT but moved into sales. I used to at least try to keep current with the computer industry but with social media I just gave up. I don't get it. It is boring. You build lousy websites that look like all others. It is not social at all but exhibitionist. Maybe that's why I don't have a knack for it. On a blog like this it is actually social. Sure we quote under anonymous but we exchange ideas. We'll never meet in person so why the need for "identification".

    Facebook identities are the opposite. They pretend to promote responsibility by providing a so-called real consistent identity but you know that the more Facebook identities you get the cruder the comments. Its perfect for leftists. Crude online poses combined with venom, faked concern and even faker intellectualism are what passes for conversation. Sadly a lot of "conservative" and "libertarian" websites are falling into the same mode.

  6. Anonymous25/9/13

    "The internet does make the world smaller. Sometimes the box is a reflection of the world and sometimes the world seems like a reflection of the box. Both become metaphors for the other. The world starts looking more like the internet and the internet starts looking more like the world. It becomes easier to think of programming people offline the way that they are programmed online and regulating them online the way that they are regulated offline."

    There is so much and very sad truth to that.


  7. Anonymous25/9/13

    "On a blog like this it is actually social. Sure we quote under anonymous but we exchange ideas. We'll never meet in person so why the need for "identification".

    Indeed. What makes a blog such as this unique is that I am sure Daniel can recognize our "voices" in what we post. Perhaps not by name for all of his readers but by many.


  8. I do book signings at Colonial Williamsburg's bookstore in the Visitors' Center. This is an arcade that all visitors must pass through. Aside from seeing droves of dull-eyed visitors who look like they haven't read a book since high school, there are the uncountable numbers of them who can't leave their iphones and other devices alone. They'll sit on a bench for half an hour thumbing their little silver boxes, as though nothing else in the world or in their surroundings could be interesting or even matter. I ask myself: Why are they here? What drew them to the site? Because when they leave Colonial Williamsburg, they'll take away nothing except the number of games they played or who they spoke with in Walla Walla, Washington.

  9. K, indeed. The majority may comment as anonymous, but authorial voices come through

    Edward, that's the overlay, in the best case scenario, people are retreating into virtual worlds built around themselves breaking down society

  10. Anonymous25/9/13

    Smart Fones = Dumb Fones
    Don't do anything well - except play games.
    As a fone they're too complicated to use and don't have the functions of "real" fones without buying extra apps.

    As a 50 year Telecommunication professional I find it amazing that users have gone back to near morse code / Telex in the form of texting to communicate. The voice quality of VOIP has much to be desired. Dropout of conversations whether in radio comms or fixed lines were unknown only a few years back. There were no outages of mainline equipment back in the analogue days.
    Users now put up with a quality of service that would have been against government regulation only a few years back.

  11. If anyone doubts what Greenfield says -- I recently completed a Coursera course taught by a CS professor at Stanford (STartup Engineering). He did not just mention in passing but made sure we were well aware that (a) the state has greatly increased the barrier to entry for innovation, this has pluses and minuses but is undoubtedly real (although the internet has generally escaped it for now), and (b) even the last bastion of unfettered innovation, Silicon Valley, is gradually losing its edge (1001 to-do list apps, no real fundamental innovation) and becoming more entwined with government "regulation." One considers the possibility that if this is what kids are taught in liberal Southern California, the reality is probably much worse.


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