Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Read this and then close the browser.

New media have nearly-limitless time-wasting potential. How do we rein it in?

Time is wasted when we get distracted from our purpose or when we have no purpose to begin with. This happens when we go to new media with open-ended questions or impulses. For example, if I want to know "what's on TV," I am signing up for a meandering journey with the remote that could consume any amount of time. And if I sit down at the computer because I am feeling lonely and it offers various products vaguely resembling the company of others, once again I could be in for a long, ultimately-unsatisfying ride.

Purposefulness in approaching these media can go a long way toward reaping the best things they promise without becoming enslaved to the worst of their possibilities. If I go to the TV to watch game 3 of the National League Championship Series, my commitment has definite bounds I am able to evaluate before choosing to engage. If I go to my computer to answer three different e-mails, there is a better chance that I will accomplish exactly what I set out to than if I just open the lid of my computer and see where it takes me.

Note that such thoughtfulness is not nearly so imperative when using older media. There are not too many ways to get tripped up when reading a book. You may read for longer than you intend, but you are still completing a task you knew you wanted to complete at some point. But in general the newer the medium, the better it is at presenting appealing distractions. Media providers make more money the longer consumers are engaged, and so they have made engaging consumers into something of a science.

For instance, last week I signed up for a trial streaming subscription of Netflix. I thought of doing so as gaining access to a library of movies and TV shows. But it was clear that Netflix thought of itself as something more than that. Right off the bat it wanted me to give it some examples of works I liked. It also wanted me to plug in a facebook account so it could tell me what my friends were watching and vice versa. Moreover after everything I watched it asked me in prominent type to rate what I had seen, the better to know the profile of my tastes. Perhaps most subtly and impressively, after one installment of a series started rolling the credits it gave no more than than fifteen seconds before going straight into the next.

So the system is constantly priming itself to dig out new things its consumers will like, and it is actually more work to stop watching than it is to continue. Netflix clearly intends to be more than a library that passively waits to be accessed. Rather it aspires to be a constant stream of entertainment freeing users to think as little as possible in order to be engaged for as long as possible.

For those who aspire to nothing more than enjoyment, that kind of service is an incredible innovation well worth the modest monthly fee. But for those seeking to use new media for their own bidding in larger pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, discipline is paramount.

Know the questions you seek to answer before sitting down. Answer them, and then stand up.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Play it Again, Joe West

Humans watching humans playing a human sport.

I am a baseball conservative and a baseball purist. My positions are two-dimensional and trivial to guess. I hate the designated hitter and I do not think Barry Bonds deserves to go to the Hall of Fame.

I do not apologize for my simplicity, for the baseball diamond is two-dimensional as well. Unlike any other sport in America we look to baseball for the simplicity, naivete, and innocence elsewhere celebrated only in childhood. Therefore I believe my perspective is warranted.

There is another issue against which I am predictably knee-jerk. This issue is that of instant replay. In recent years baseball has started to follow football, tennis, and others in admitting the use of instant replay to determine "what really happened." So far it has only been admitted in one limited, high-leverage situation: the question of whether a home run was really a home run or not. But starting next year the use of replay will likely expand, and one assumes in the future it will expand some more.

I hate instant replay. I hate it even more than I hate blown calls by umpires. But its advent is hardly surprising given the zeitgeist.

How often have I heard the complaint that ours is an overly litigious society. Well, a challenge by a team's manager to a call is effectively a lawsuit. This is a qualitative difference from the old state of affairs in which the manager could come out and kick up a cloud of dust shouting his face Phillies red, but the call as called would stand immutable. With every challenge we bring the weariness of the courtroom onto the ballfield.

Second, ours is an age that highly prizes empirically-determined objectivity. The subjectivity housed in an umpire arbitrarily bestowed with authority does not withstand for one second the scrutiny of our sensibilities. Cameras are supposedly objective, despite the fact that multiple cameras positioned at different angles frequently imply contradictory conclusions and the fact that video must be interpreted by an observer subject to the same quandaries of authority and subjectivity. At any rate, replay certainly gives us collectively more confidence that we all know "what really happened," and that the ruling in the game reflects that consensus. That confidence is what we are looking for.

Finally, ours is an age that ironically verges on the misanthropic. Previous generations may have had a low view of humanity because of the Doctrine of Sin. This idea was tempered by the idea that humanity was made in the Image of God, and God so loved the World, and so forth. Current generations have a low view of humanity because of computers, and this lowness is not tempered but rather reinforced by a materialistic understanding of evolution. Gary Kasparov's defeat at the no-hands of Deep Blue was only the tip of the iceberg. We refer to "humans" not as noble dust animated by the spark of Divinity, but as a shorthand for members of the species homo sapiens.

Just look at Wikipedia. The entire thing is written to be species-neutral, a ridiculous charade given that all of its readers are human. The page for "Human" ought not begin with, "Humans (variously Homo sapiens and Homo sapiens sapiens) are primates of the family Hominidae, and the only extant species of the genus Homo..." but rather with, "You are a human, stupid!"

Without intending to the encyclopedia literally addresses the superior machine intelligence we expect will succeed us in our office as King of Terra Firma. We see no reason why it shouldn't! We agree that evolution has left us with all kinds of quirks that just aren't rational and all kinds of weaknesses that we can engineer a better solution to. We pave the way for our own obsolescence, not just in the realm of engineering but also in the realm of philosophy.

Let the machines officiate over machine sports. I will take the ignorant, loud, biased, ornery, and overweight umpire over them any day. I come to baseball to acknowledge, experience, and celebrate my humanity. I do not need it to kick me back into the dust.