The State of Informed Bewilderment [1]


The question that I’ve been asking myself for a long time is, what kind of framing should we have for the dilemmas posed by the technology we’re living through at the moment? I’m interested in information technology, ranging widely from digital technology and the Internet on one hand to artificial intelligence, both weak and strong, on the other hand. As we live through the changes and the disturbances that this technology brings, we’re in a state of mind that was once admirably characterized by Manuel Castells as "informed bewilderment," which was an expression I liked.

We’re informed because we are intensely curious about what’s going on. We're not short of information about it. We endlessly speculate and investigate it in various ways. Manuel’s point was that we actually don’t understand what it means—that’s what he meant by bewilderment. That’s a very good way of describing where we are. The question I have constantly on my mind is, are there frames that would help us to make sense of this in some way?

One of the frames that I’ve explored for a long time is the idea of trying to take a long view of these things. My feeling is that one of our besetting sins at the moment, in relation for example to digital technology, is what Michael Mann once described as the sociology of the last five minutes. I’m constantly trying to escape from that. I write a newspaper column every week, and I've written a couple of books about this stuff. If you wanted to find a way of describing what I try to do, it is trying to escape from the sociology of the last five minutes.

In relation to the Internet and the changes it has already brought in our society, my feeling is that although we don’t know really where it’s heading because it’s too early in the change, we’ve had one stroke of luck. The stroke of luck was that, as a species, we’ve conducted this experiment once before. We’re living through a transformation of our information environment. This happened once before, and we know quite a lot about it. It was kicked off in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of printing by movable type.

In the centuries that followed, that invention not only transformed humanity’s information environment, it also led to colossal changes in society and the world. You could say that what Gutenberg kicked off was a world in which we were all born. Even now, it’s the world in which most of us were shaped. That’s changing for younger generations, but that’s the case for people like me.

Why is Gutenberg useful? He’s useful because he instills in us a sense of humility. The way I’ve come to explain that is with a thought experiment which I often use in talks and lectures. The thought experiment goes like this:

I want you to imagine that we’re back in Mainz, the small town on the Rhine where Gutenberg's press was established. The date is around 1476 or ’78, and you’re working for the medieval version of Gallup or MORI Pollsters. You’ve got a clip slate in your hand and you’re stopping people and saying, "Excuse me, madam, would you mind if I asked you some questions?" And here’s question four: "On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is definitely yes and 5 is definitely no, do you think that the invention of printing by movable type will A) undermine the authority of the Catholic Church, B) trigger and fuel a Protestant Reformation, C) enable the rise of something called modern science, D) enable the creation of entirely undreamed of and unprecedented professions, occupations, industries, and E) change our conception of childhood?"

That’s a thought experiment, and the reason you want to do it is because nobody in Mainz in, say, 1478 had any idea that what Gutenberg had done in his workshop would have these effects, and yet we know now that it had all of those effects and many more. The point of the thought experiment is, as I said, to induce a sense of humility. I chose that day in 1478 because we’re about the same distance into the revolution we’re now living through. And for anybody therefore to claim confidently that they know what it means and where it’s heading, I think that’s foolish. That’s my idea of trying to get some kind of perspective on it. It makes sense to take the long view of the present in which we are enmeshed.

Since then, I’ve gone back to Germany again for an alternative way of approaching this problem of trying to understand and explain where we’re at. This is an interesting year because on October 31st, it will be the 500th anniversary to the day when Martin Luther pinned his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I know there are arguments about whether or not he actually pinned it to the door, but we do know that on that day he dispatched a copy of those theses to his local archbishop. We may dispute the detail of whether or not the church door was used or not, but there’s no question that this was the day in which Martin Luther took on the Catholic Church.

When I was in Berlin last year, it was impossible not to appreciate that, at least for German society, 2017 was going to be a really big year. The reason being that in that society, that act by Luther in 1517 is seen as one of the most significant events in German history. The bookshelves were full of stuff about Luther.

At the same time as I was pondering this, I was reading The New York Times every day, which was on a daily basis essentially repeating Donald Trump’s tweets. In a strange way, those two experiences came together because the thing that characterized Trump was that he’s the first politician who understood how to use a particular medium. In other words, he understood the functionality of Twitter and what it would do for him, enabling him to climb over the heads of mainstream media and all the rest of it. He became very adept at doing that.

Why does that connect to Luther? The thought was that if Luther were around now, he would also be using Twitter. It seemed like a banal thought at the time, but then of course one of the things that stands out about Luther and his revolution immediately is that he understood, in a way that almost nobody at that time understood, the significance of the printing press. More importantly, he understood its mechanics and how effective it could be in getting his ideas across.

There’s a wonderful history of Luther’s engagement with printing by Andrew Pettegree, who is a Reformation historian. One of the things that’s very striking about it is that after printing became more commonplace, most scholars treated it as a conventional way of transmitting ideas. In other words, you wrote in Latin, you wrote a sizable tome, and that was it.

The interesting thing about Luther is that he understood the economics of printing. If you were a printer in his time, then first of all paper was a very expensive commodity. Secondly, getting a lot of paper in order to print a book represented a massive upfront investment for a printer. But because Luther understood the significance of the technology and its economics, he realized that if you took one sheet of paper and you folded it in a certain way, you could get an eight-page pamphlet. For a printer, that's an interesting proposition because it means that you could create pamphlets that might sell. And if you have an incendiary author, and Luther was nothing if not incendiary, then maybe that would be a good proposition. Luther understood that and he fed that market. He also wrote in German. So, we saw somebody mastering a new communications technology and using it to transform the world.

Luther was an extraordinary individual, but he was also in some respects a deeply unpleasant one. He was fanatically anti-Semitic. The point is that the effect he had was at least partly because he was the first person to understand the significance of a new communication technology.

Coming home after being in Germany, I fell to thinking about that and about my own rather impoverished attempts at communication. I’ve written two books, one on the history of the net, another one trying to communicate the essence of the technology for people as I saw it; I write a newspaper column once a week; I’ve written fifty columns a year since 1982. So, I’ve been a communicator. As anybody who works in newspapers and writes for newspapers knows, it’s never clear whether you’re having any impact or not. It’s a bit like putting a message in a bottle every week and sending it out.

My assessment was that perhaps I’m not a great communicator, really, so why not try something different? What I came up with was, why don’t I try 95 theses about technology and, using the technology that we have, put them on the web and see what happens there? The idea of a thesis is a very attractive one. A thesis is a strong, clear statement of a proposition. It doesn’t mean that you believe that it’s right. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you believe it’s the most important kind of statement that can be made. Its function is to serve as the beginning of an argument, or the beginning of a discussion, preferably. I thought that might be an interesting way to approach this. It means that there’s no commitment on the part of your audience. They can dip into it and dip out, but the point is that it provides a new way of discussing the dilemmas, the opportunities, and the strange unprecedented crises that this technology is presenting us with now.

One thesis is that technology is the art of arranging the world so you don’t have to experience it. That comes from an experience I had, which was watching The Rolling Stones give what was probably going to be their last concert at the Glastonbury Music Festival. For those of us who think they’re the greatest rock band ever, this was a really big moment, and it was treated as such by the crowd on that Saturday night. There were tens and tens of thousands of people at this event, which is never going to happen again. What was very strange for me was to see that instead of absorbing it, being in the moment, most people held up their phones. And in that sense, I think they distanced themselves from it. One sees that everywhere.

I was recently in Venice, and every single person in Venice appeared to have a selfie stick. Instead of looking at St. Mark's, they were looking at themselves with St. Mark's in the background. It’s a very general phenomenon, and it says something about our culture and about what the technology is doing to it. It’s a thesis worth discussing.

This selfie tweeting, this humble bragging, is so fake that I find it infuriating. There are two kinds of people now: those who do that and those who have some sense of propriety in relation to this. I had a colleague who said he always divided people into two categories: those he would go into the jungle with and those he wouldn’t. His view was that you could only know what people are like when your back and their back is up against the wall and it’s dangerous. Then you find out who’s got moral courage and who hasn’t.

One of the conclusions we reached from that was that most academics are probably moral cowards. If you want to see moral courage in action in these situations, don’t look to high intelligence. Look to people like college porters, who often display more of that moral courage than highly trained and very sophisticated intellectuals. In relation to the behavior of people on Twitter, there’s some kind of dividing line like that, too, which I now see. It’s partly the power of egos, and I guess in the business that you’re in there are quite a lot of big egos.

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I’m obsessed with the idea of longer views of things. In the area I know, which is information technology, the speed with which stuff appears to change has clearly outdistanced the capacity of our social institutions to adapt. They need longer and they’re not getting it.

A historian will say that’s always been the case, and maybe that’s true. I just don’t know. If you’re a cybernetician looking at this, cybernetics had an idea of a viable system. A viable system is one that can handle the complexity of its environment. For a system to be viable, there are only two strategies. One is to reduce the complexity of the environment that the system has to deal with, and that, broadly speaking, has been the way we’ve managed it in the past.

For example, mass production—the standardization of objects and production processes—was a way of reducing the infinite variety of human tastes. Henry Ford started it with the Model T by saying, "You can have any color as long as it’s black." As manufacturing technology—the business of making physical things—became more and more sophisticated, then the industrial system became quite good at widening the range of choice available, and therefore coping with greater levels of variety.

How many different models does Mercedes make? I don't know. Every time I see a Mercedes car, it’s got a different number on it. I used to think Mercedes made maybe twenty cars. My hunch is that they make probably several hundred varieties of particular cars. The same is true for Volkswagen, etc. Because manufacturing became so efficient, it was able to widen the range of choice.

Fundamentally, mass production was a way of coping with reducing the variety that the system had to deal with. Universities are the same. The way they coped with the infinite range of things that people might want to learn about was to essentially say, “You can do this course or you can do that course. We have a curriculum. We have a set of options. We have majors and minor subjects.” We then compress the infinite variety that they might have to deal with into much smaller amounts.

Most of our institutions, the ones that still govern our societies and indeed our industries, evolved in an era when the variety of their information environment was much smaller than it is now. Because of the Internet and related technologies, our information environment is orders of magnitude more complex than institutions had to deal with even fifty years ago, certainly seventy years ago. And what that means in effect is that in this new environment, a lot of our institutions are probably not viable in the cybernetic sense. They simply can’t manage the complexity they have to deal with now.

The question for society and for everybody else is, what happened? What will happen then? How will they evolve? Will they evolve? One metaphor that I have used for thinking about this is that of ecosystems. In other words, we now live in an information ecosystem. If you’re a scientist who studies natural ecosystems, then you can rank them in terms of complexity.

For example, at one level you could say that we have moved from an information environment, which was a simple ecosystem, rather like a desert, and is much closer to something that’s now like a rainforest. It's characterized by much more diversity, by much higher density of publishers and free agents, and of the interactions between them and the speed with which they evolve and change. Most of our social institutions have not evolved to deal with this metaphorical rainforest, in which case we can expect painful changes in institutions over the next fifty to 100 years as they have to reshape in order to stay viable. Universities are suffering from that already.​