Blogs > Cliopatria > History and Appliances

Apr 27, 2007 10:59 am

History and Appliances

If you're reading my colleague Bill Turkel's routinely brilliant Digital History Hacks, you've already seen his recent posts on Luddism and history appliances . (And if you aren't, why aren't you? He won an award, you know.) Bill's"history appliances" series starts like this:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta's Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray's Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you'll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris ... even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity's Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

Sounds pretty swell, doesn't it? But allow me to offer an alternate scenario:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. Nothing happens. You get up and fish around the couch for your remote controls. Once you find the nine individual remotes for your TV, PVR, set-top cable box, cable modem, stereo, LCD wall panels, Turkelectronics"history hub," and the two"universal" remotes that maintain a shaky peace among the other seven, you are eventually able to press their nine power buttons in the one correct sequence that will activate all of your interlinked appliances. Of course, none of these devices are ever actually"off"--just in"standby" mode, generating a soothing blanket of white noise and drawing 1,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Once the television finishes booting, you scroll through several menu screens in order to set the date to 1973. The television gives you a 1-800 number you may call to order an upgrade. You forgot: everything before 1977 is bundled in the Platinum Package. So be it: you set the date to 1986. You are asked for your credit card number in order to prevent assure you and your family"a worry-free histo-tainment experience." You provide it. Kenny Loggins begins streaming on the stereo.

You try to download a Keith Haring mural for your walls; you can get a lo-res version to appear on the LCD panels in your kitchen, but not in your living room. The DRM controls embedded in the image files don't permit you to transfer visual images from room to room, and the micropayments for living room art can really add up. After all, you might invite more than six guests into that room, and according to the newly revised Digital Millenium Copyright Act, letting nonsubscribers view those images would be stealing. Your friend Bill says he knows where you can download pirated visual art, but you don't want Disney to sue you like they did that kindergarten on your block, and besides, ABC News is reporting that copyright-infringing visuals can trigger massive seisures.

In your news reader, you find headlines about the Space Shuttle Challenger, National Hugging Day, and Geraldo's plan to open Al Capone's vault. Some of those don't sound very significant, historically speaking, but your histo-content provider has an exclusive arrangement with USA Today. Seven hundred miles away, a consumer data index logs your activities and puts your address on the mailing list, twice, for a glossy 200-page catalog from Abercrombie and Fitch. You and your heirs receive eight such catalogs every year hereafter until the final extinction of Earth's forests.

But that lies in the future, and your mind is on the past. Doing your best to ignore Kenny Loggins, you settle in to enjoy that episode of The A-Team where Boy George played himself. In accordance with current Canadian content legislation, one-third of the screen is obscured by a red maple leaf. For all of these services you pay a billion-dollar corporation $138 a month.

So. What was the point of this dystopic little reverie? Do I hate the idea of history appliances? Do I hate technology? Am I a Luddite?

Answers: No. No. No. And/or yes. I certainly don't hate technology, and I actually love the idea of history appliances: of smart objects that know their own history, of historians thinking beyond the production of texts and into the physical realm, of media devices that allow ordinary people access to the riches of the past.

The question of Luddism is a little more complicated. The"self-proclaimed Luddites" Bill describes can annoy me too. It's a self-deprecating label that really isn't; it reminds me of people who are too pleased to tell you they don't own a TV. But the original Luddites weren't people who don't like Blackberrys or only watch Nova at a friend's house. They were artisans and laborers threatened with extinction by the automation of the British textile industry. In Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson shows how 19th-century Luddites smashed the knitting frames and steam-powered looms of factory owners and cloth merchants who were using automation to slash wages but spared those owners who observed more traditional customs and practices in setting rates. Real Luddism was never a fight against technology per se. It was a fight against the shift in power caused by a specific implementation of a specific technique. The Luddites' targets were human choices, not machines.

If the word Luddism has come to represent a free-floating hostility to"technology in general" (a perverse and probably meaningless stance for a member of species homo sapiens), that's symptomatic of a larger amnesia afflicting our society. We seem determined not to remember that all technology is political and politically constructed. We pontificate about the"natural" progression of technology, ponder the"inevitable" impacts of technological change, wonder if information"wants" to be free. We persist in forgetting what the original Luddites knew in their bones: technology is the sum product of human choice.

We could use more of that kind of Luddism today. Technological change demands our attention and our input. We have to have conversations and make real decisions about the kind of technological environment we want to live in and bequeath to our children, or those decisions will be made for us. And the people most eager to make those decisions do not have our best interests at heart.

When I say we need more Luddism, I don't mean simply grousing about gadgetry. If my rant above comes across as a peevish complaint about the number of remote controls on my couch, I didn't do it right. What I want to get across is that design choices are political choices, and that ordinary people are not being consulted on the ways these choices affect all of our lives. The inconveniences of inconsiderate design--proliferating gadgetry, feature creep, overzealous DRM--do not seem as serious as the oppression of the British working class in the industrial revolution. But they add up. And the more ubiquitous gadgetry gets, the more imperative humane design becomes.

Do we need a"built environmentalism" to shepherd the built environment just as environmentalists seek to protect the natural world? If"smart appliances" are going to be everywhere in our future, let us pray--better, let us take responsibility for making certain--they really are smart.

[A slightly longer (!) version of this post appeared in two parts--I Love The Gilded Age, and The Case for Luddism--at Old is the New New.]

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/27/2007

The inevitability of technological progress, the automated application of knowledge to production... these are memes we need to squelch.