Monday, April 21, 2008

Moore's Gnaw

I'm becoming more aware of the natural tempo of using mechanical things. Most of my professional and personal life is spent interacting with electronics in "standby" mode, waiting for the slow human to do something. Thanks to Moore's Law, the computer that I'm typing this entry on can now wait for me over one hundred times faster than my ten-year old laptop at home. Although this is convenient for my job, it does tend to add a certain note of guilty urgency to anything I do. I try not to think about it: I have enough angst without fretting about my machines sitting around waiting-waiting-waiting for me to tickle one of their buttons.

Computer chip designers are constantly working to improve the speed and performance of their devices; I suppose they're driven by the unconscious guilt of breaking the Law, of falling behind that 12-18 month doubling benchmark. I call this guilt Moore's Gnaw: it's that constant nagging push-push-push to make it faster-faster-faster because... well, because Faster is Better, I suppose. I'm not complaining about this upgrade cycle, as there's not doubt that I can do a lot more tasks on my computer more rapidly, and as a software guy, I like being able to run all my tools in one place, in a reasonable amount of time. Retro-minded I may be, but I'm not crazy enough to want to go back to running FORTRAN batches stamped out on punch cards. Thanks, but no. What I am disturbed about is how the hungry maw of the Gnaw has eaten into our culture, and how it's changed us into an instant-consumer as well. The things we make now are designed, used, and disposed of with munching of the Gnaw in the background.

I've proselytized about mechanical machines having a "soul" which microprocessor-based machines lack. It's easy to make comparisons: this computer? Soulless. The Underwood on my right? Full of soul. My cell phone? A husk. Rotary phones? Packed with the stuff. Why? Why does something with a microprocessor on board (my car! my TV! my microwave!) very obviously have no "there" there? I've puzzled about this for a while, and then it hit me. It's been Gnawed away. The tendency to imbue all of our devices with sparkly anxiety-inducing microbrains-that-wait has caused that intangible quality of soul-ness to be eaten up. Without a soul, we don't really care as much about the things we use, or how we're using them, and this gets us on the dreaded upgrade cycle, gathering in new devices in magpie fashion: new phones every year or so, new computers to feed this-year's operating systems, new cameras that double the capacity and quality of last-year's model. Just a lot of husk-swapping, really. And I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors in the process. I am distressed by the trend/fashion statement of wearing Bluetooth headsets permanently stuck in one's ear, little blue light blinking away as the device Gnaws into the owner's brain, waiting-waiting-waiting for some human to pay attention.

8 comments:

Duffy Moon said...

Wow. I don't know what to say beyond that. Well thought-out and well-written.

It's odd being a quasi-luddite who is able to sustain his technological bottom-feeding only because of the ravenous appetites of those further up the chain for more, faster, better. I realize that the same consumer throw-away culture that I decry is what allows me to live comfortably on all the cultural cast-offs.

mpclemens said...

I think I'm just frothing at the mouth (keys) and am about this close ->| |<- to just settling in a remote woodsy cabin and hammering out manifestos that I read to the band of squirrels that I have named and tamed and who nest in a hatbox in the rafters.

I honestly started out writing a nice post, really. I'm going to have to type the next one just to get my blood pressure back down. Durn kids and their earpieces!

Strikethru said...

Hmm, you are absolutely right. I have never formed a real fondness for anything you can plug into the wall. Note that children don't either, young children, I mean. Whatever they drag around lovingly or play with until it is lost or broken is rarely if ever something that requires batteries. Of course this changes when they become tweens and get their first cell phone...

mpclemens said...

Of course, the best toy ever is still a cardboard box (proven empirically by my own children.) I've seen the phenomenon described as children don't prefer toys that can play by themselves, which do tend to be of the insert-batteries-here variety. They are flashy and fancy at first, and we're certainly attracted to the flashy and fancy. Part of my combing through Goodwill and their ilk is looking for children's toys that don't require batteries or light up or (the worst) play a never-ending loop of royalty-free children's tunes when prodded. Many of the toys I remember from my own childhood are all beepy and blinky and tuneful now.

For example: when did this need to (d)evolve into this? I mean, really? My littlest one will not be regularly quizzed on her math skills, and certainly not when she's trying to figure out walking. This is usually the point at which I invoke Dr. Toy, a click-lover if I ever saw one. Considering the spate of problems we had with toxic Chinese imports these past few years, my kid's next toy may have to be a typewriter. (Just not one of mine.)

Teenagers are a lost cause. I prefer them yapping on cell phones to demonstrating their Superior World Knowledge to me.

Joe said...

Heh, makes me of last week... I was in the process of picking up the Craigslist find of a lifetime: A complete basement letterpress studio, for FREE. While I was moving 500 lb cabinets full of lead type (by myself), my benefactor (who was very kind, I'll add) was talking on a Bluetooth headset to her mother. The studio was her father's, and while she was tempted, she hadn't the time to practice the antiquated art of handset type herself. Meanwhile ol' Joe is moving even further backwards in time, going from my manual typewriters to the even older craft of letterpress. Next I'll be taking up calligraphy, followed by chiseled stone slabs.

I had a diatribe relating to the attachment of mechanical devices, but I should be preachy in my own space. I really need to start a blog...

Maybe I'll top all you typecasters with a letterpressed blog, hmmm?

Duffy Moon said...

Hah! You'll never catch me, Joe! (Says DuffyMoon, rolling out his clay tablet and sharpening his cuneiform stylus)

CStanford said...

I just found this blog, and it comes at a good time, because for the past couple weeks I've been thinking about mechanism and spirit. Two days ago I sat in front of my Royal Safari and tried to get some of my thoughts down on paper about this.

One of my favorite poems is a sonnet by Rilke about the threat that machines made if they dared to take their place in the mind or spirit instead of obeying. But now mechanical machines have been supplanted by digital devices and the old machines that were once instruments of dehumanization are rediscovered and redeemed by luddites or "quasi-luddites" . . . now that they're no longer corrupted by power, we can see their beauty more clearly? I don't know, but I want to think about it some more, because I love my typewriters, I love old paper - I'm an archivist and while I can get away with hanging out with old stuff I'm also expected to be familiar with new technology so as to further my profession.

duffy moon makes a very good point. I got my 2 manual typewriters for free and $2.50 respectively. 50 years ago people had to spend serious money for one.

Thanks for writing about all this.

mpclemens said...

Outdated technology certainly has nostalgia value (sometimes in lieu of actual market value!) and like Duffy I'm grateful, since it means I can indulge my packrat habits with a low budget. I do believe that there's something more to purely mechanical devices, though. It may be that they are the epitome of true human cleverness, so that we can appreciate them like art. Once the components get to the microscopic scale, they lose a sense of real-ness and become intangible, and the only humans that might have been involved were wearing bunny suits. Although I'm grateful that all those tiny transistors are doing their jobs, it's hard to romanticize the birth of my flat-screen monitor.