Digital Exhaust

Posted: March 9, 2007 in Culture, Nomenclature, Philosophy, Technophilia

The New York Times technology page reports that tech researchers calculated that the world last year generated 161 billion gigabytes — or 161 exabytes — of digital information made up of photos, videos, e-mail, webpages, instant messages, phone calls, and other digital content. The calculations strike me as so much wishful thinking, based on conjecture and assumptions, but it does raise an interesting question anyway: What does this deluge of information mean to us, living as we do in the Information Age?

The effect is hard to to assess just yet, as we’re still in the knee of the acceleration curve. Like the impact of TV, it will probably only be revealed in hindsight. Still, even from this vantage point, it’s relatively easy to observe that the ease of creating, copying, and distributing digital information means that a large percentage of that information is mindless chatter, utter ephemera, or mere machine-to-machine instructions. In other words, it’s just so much digital exhaust. For example, one of the most frequently traded bits of information is the current time, usually millions of computers logging into time servers to sync their clocks.

The din of information exchange presents real and largely unrecognized challenges to human value. It used to be, for instance, that the average person met and got to know perhaps 200 people in the course of a lifetime. By necessity, those relationships had continuity and context. Today, we meet tens of thousands of people in a lifetime — many of them virtually (digitally, not in meat world) — and have continuous relationships with almost none of them. Human relationships are now so fluid that they often have little gravity or meaning. Another example is that digital copying has transformed the music industry and rendered its viability suspect. The RIAA is now an institution under siege to reconsider its hard-line approach to piracy and protecting its marketplace. Even further, the Wiki phenomenon threatens to essentially deauthorize information, making information itself fluid and unreliable.

The availability of cheap and abundant (and meaningless and context-free) information sources is a Faustian bargain, of course, though most people are so blinded by their technophilia that they can’t and won’t recognize what they are trading away. What’s at stake is in fact our entire epistemology. When our means of gathering, processing, and using information undergoes a fundamental shift to dominantly digital forms, so, too, will the knowledge that stems from that shift. We’ve already seen it in microcosm when our governments lie to us and we absorb the propaganda directed at us, drawing faulty conclusions (and accordingly, acting foolishly). The difference will be that no one will be coordinating the transformation to a new epistemology. We’re unwittingly creating a future we can’t anticipate and won’t even be able to recognize.

  1. hyleaus says:

    I think it is a bit harsh to generalize that all human relationships have lost their meaning just because some relationships have. You are correct to assess that the number of people whom I know via online media far exceeds the number I know through physical contact, but I do retain close friends none the less. Even my meager counterexample is enough to combat the large, categorical stroke of your pen regarding relationships. I do think that you are right to weigh most human relationships as you have, however.

    I would hate to give up hope on close friends on the assumption that relationships mean nothing anymore.

  2. Brutus says:

    I appreciate your comment. I am rather harsh sometimes (OK, most of the time). The happy post is still under editorial consideration.

    I used the words “often have little gravity or meaning,” which isn’t absolute. Relationships can and still do mean something, but considering how many we have in the course of a lifetime, they are substantively different from those of the past. A marriage, for instance, as often as not is no longer for life. I have an earlier post called Throwaway Friends that also speaks to the issue of relationships.

    The phrase “large, categorical stroke of [my] pen” is wonderful. It suggests (among other things) both effectiveness and need for caution.

  3. hyleaus says:

    Surely I grant you that marriages are no longer similar, but let’s consider this particular in detail and context. Marriages, in addition to no longer lasting as long as the once might have, are rarely for:
    Political amnesty (the Romans)
    Social gain (nearly all of medieval Europe)
    Tying kingdoms together (17th century royal Europe)
    Eye candy (pre 1960s America)
    In fact, I’ve read a few scholars who proposed that marriage could not have ever been about love until modern times. That is to say that marriage for love is a rather modern invention. Also, only recently has divorce been legal or not social taboo. Think of all those marriages that would have ended in divorce had the women not been afraid of social stigma or repercussion from the law or church.

    To make a comparison between modern American relationships (especially marriage) and previous decades of American marriage is nothing without the context of thousands of years of its existence.

    Regarding relationships in general, do throwaway friends have to be a bad thing? As long as both friends are consenting adults, what’s the harm. If we all still reserve a place in our hearts for a small circle of close friends, we needn’t worry about these throwaway acquaintances.

  4. Brutus says:

    If you have read more than a couple of my posts, you probably realize that I’m not solving problems or agitating for political action. Making comprehensive comparisons to historical precedent would make my posts way too long and the analysis way too involved for my modest purposes. Nor to I expect or want things to stay the same. Change is inevitable. What concerns me most, though, is that the engines of change are currently so blind and fast moving that we don’t realize the risks we’re taking and the inevitable losses incurred. I’m attempting to raise some issues in light of human values that we might wish to preserve rather than be swept away by changes we neither control nor recognize.

  5. hyleaus says:

    Eh, that comment just made me lose interest in you as an author. Sorry, kiddo.

  6. Brutus says:

    hyleaus wrote:

    Eh, that comment just made me lose interest in you as an author. Sorry, kiddo.

    In that regard, you join a very large group of people who have no use for what I’m writing about and the things I’m driving at. That’s fine; I remain untroubled.

    You didn’t specify what my failing must have been. I’m clearly willing to entertain your comments and enter into dialogue. But I’m also clear about my own limitations and the limitations of the medium. So if you want book-length analysis, I suggest you read a book. (I reserve my longer analytical jaunts for other venues.) If you want analysis without much perspective, I suggest you read the Freakonomics Blog. If you want intelligent (but lite) content, I suggest you read the Dilbert Blog. Those two blogs have found a niche that I plainly haven’t, and they’re both pretty entertaining.

  7. hyleaus says:

    My qualm with your style is that you either disregard scholarship or propose that I have unrealistic expectations about the content that should go into a blog. I do not propose that you should blog about anything, as I merely happened upon your blog and commented on what I felt resonated within me.

    Specifically, I propose that maybe the issues you see happening with relationships (specifically marriage) are not so bad in the context of its history as a social institution. But you respond that you are not looking for analysis of this kind.

    I would never expect someone to know EVERYTHING about the topic on which they are posting, yet I would hope that they are open to said context when they come up in comments or critiques.

    That being said, I have no problems whatsoever regarding the topics and content of your posts, but it is indeed how you handled critique that made me turn away. Necessarily, I did irresponsibly give critique. Any decent human being probably would have build report and even thrown in a compliment before critiquing. ἐμου ἀπολογίαι

  8. Brutus says:

    We interpret the discussion differently. Your comment (#3) focused narrowly on the varieties found within the institution of marriage. My response (#4) refocused the discussion to the theme of the blog (if not the theme of the post we’re discussing). I didn’t disregard your comment, but neither did I answer it directly.

    Any decent human being probably would have build report [you mean built rapport ?] and even thrown in a compliment before critiquing.

    You don’t have to stroke me. You can critique however you wish. But I also get to respond how I wish. If you find something you don’t like, perhaps you can register your displeasure without completely disappearing. In reciprocity, I’ll read your blog more carefully and see if there is something there on which I want to comment.

  9. hyleaus says:

    But you see, it’s not about liking or disliking. Should I wish to only read things I like, then I’m subjecting myself to a shallow world indeed. My comments are about furthering my understanding of the world. Conversely, I do not write to further the understanding of others. Largely, my blog stands to provide a medium for my venting or novel gestures toward the world. If you should wish to comment, you have every liberty to do so. But I write as if no one were reading, and shall continue to do so.

  10. grasshopper says:

    Great discussion, you two. Swinging back and forth like that counts(metaphorically, you’re both so serious here)as a marriage in its own right–at least in my book.

  11. javacat says:

    Just because we can measure it, does it matter? A fair question to raise. But better still is your question about the implication on human relationships and interactions in this ever-more digital age. Pluses are pretty easy: quick access to information for many; easy connection to friends & family far away; major events reported in nearly real time; conversations and connections, like those on this blog that would be far less likely in another realm, etc. Some of the down sides?
    Besides time lost in an electronic sink-hole, I can think of several. Like another commenter, I too maintain close personal friendships outside of Facebook, emails & blogs, but I also didn’t grow up immersed in this medium. What the long-term effects are on those who are isn’t yet known. I don’t think we have a good sense yet of how long exposure to digital media affects neurological functioning–what pathways are created, what paths are limited, cut off, etc. Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality, wrote in “You Are Not A Gadget” that the mind, the brain will adjust down to the limits of the software we’re using. These would not be changes we would be consciously aware of, yet would be absorbed.
    Another valid concern–at least for me–is what the amount of information does to my attention span and abilities to concentrate. (How many tabs do I have open right now?”). Even if I don’t read the stories on Tom & Katie, suicidal sharks and how to tone my abs, my brain still has to discard the waste of those teaser headlines, which creates a fatigue, an exhaustion. Too many bits competing for attention. Too many disconnected chunks that need sorting, assembling into some kind of meaning. But what meaning?
    Let me ask you about your Wiki comment. I assume you’re speaking of Wikipedia? Are you concerns that the fluidity allows no grounding, no hold fast for information, and thus can shift and change without confirmation of accuracy? Unlike a printed book or newspaper, with Wiki it’s not as easy to lay different versions side-by-side to see the changes, or judge on what basis they were made. I think we can fall into the habit of trusting the surface of the page–or screen–as the truth, and not dig deeper to assess accuracy.
    Perhaps one the biggest drawbacks to the entire digital experience is that remove from direct experience. Everything digital is pre-packaged and processed to some extent and we are just the receivers. The interaction between me and whatever or whomever is mediated by an outside and often unknown force, which I think creates a passivity of being.
    I think I’ll stay out of the marriage discussion for now. ;-) Thanks for your post & letting me share my thoughts.

    • Brutus says:

      You went deep into the archives for this one, no? Since the time I wrote it, I’ve grown more keenly aware of media ecology. Everything points to how we’re running a live experiment (like the one with TV) rewiring our brains and the consciousness that flows therefrom. That’s inevitable and ongoing, of course, but we lack circumspection about it and practice very poor ecology. As they say, “garbage in, garbage out.” Mediated experience is characteristic especially of digital environments, with their not-so-hidden structures, designs and imperatives, but also of much of analog experience. It’s true any time there is some entity (corporate or individual) packaging experience in one form or another. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, or even very bad. It’s never neutral.

      My comment on the Wiki phenomenon, what some call crowd sourcing, is brief but refers beyond Wikipedia to how we have unwittingly destabilized epistemology, in part through these new media. We can no longer point to truth because it’s constantly being massaged and revised, though not in the good way contemplated by, say, the scientific method. It’s more like spin doctoring. Often, the loudest voice or one with the greatest distribution wins the day, not the one that’s accurate or reasonable. I’ve touched on this topic repeatedly, especially in a blog post called Psychotic Knowledge. I also gave a speech some time ago called The Death of Expertise that expanded on the idea.

      • javacat says:

        Wow! That is deep in the archives but the digging wasn’t intentional. This just showed up in my Google reader. Think how many more exabytes have been exchanged since 2007! You’re good to reply.

      • Brutus says:

        I sometimes revisit my old posts to see what I’ve written and to correct typos and grammatical errors that slipped through the first time. I fixed a couple egregious erros, and unbeknowst to me, the post went back out is some fashion to subscribers. Clumsy, unintended way of driving traffic, but I appreciate your comments.

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