sizing up media, technology, and society

Decompression Sickness, Distributed Knowledge

with 4 comments

hey all,

there will be more coming on what i’ve been up to during the absence (which mostly involves a lot of moving, working, and sleepiing), and the exciting changes in store for culturshock in the near future.  For now, I want to jump right into a topic that I’ve spent a few days pondering about.

It’s no secret that technology has changed the very fabric of our world, how we interact with it, how we model it, and how lives are built around it.  The original example I came across while chatting with a friend was transportation. Namely, how the transportation technologies that have permeated our existence have radically altered human perceptions of distance.

Conceivably, there was once a time where a journey from Toronto to Ottawa was a matter of days or even a few weeks.  The geography of society was navigated using the only available means: feet and the occassional horse.  The use of these technologies placed a practical limit on the possible speed and distance that a traveller could achieve in a given period of travel.  Subjectively, the corner store was “close”, the next town was “far”, and any trip to Ottawa was a big deal. As transportation technologies have improved and become more obtainable, the perceptions of “close” and “far” distances has shifted.  Now, a trip to Ottawa is a day affair, and the B.C. coast a few days at most. Most places within an hour’s drive are “close”.  With these technologies so readily at hand, we grow accustomed to the immediacy of physical transportation that they afford.

It was here that the metaphor struck me.  I saw technology (and its associated purposes, etc) as exerting a sort of pressure over and upon us.  This compressing force brings more and more into smaller and smaller spaces.  As a result, our “reach” is extended. To us, it simply feels as if the room we inhabit is getting smaller.  Just like the pressure of water on the body of a scuba diver at a given depth, technology acts a form of pressure on our perceptual, cognitive, and social systems.  And much like the scuba diver who suffers the effects of compressing or decompressing too quickly (ie: shifting pressure environments), so shifts in technology can alter our ability to function in the world.  A sudden disappearance of transportation would leave many businesses empty, as their employees (normally “close”) live 6 hours away (by foot). I tend to get very grumpy when the internet goes down in my house, as I feel cut off from the world at large, and re-confined to my local space.  This is frustration is symptomatic of techno-decompression sickness.

To change gears slightly, I continue to return to the idea of “distributed knowledge” as a siren call of the networked age, whereby the amalgamation of knowledge communities, websites, blogs, archives, and social networks gives rise to a system far too large for a single entity to possess in any meaningful entirety.  While a great way to frame the literal process, this approach sticks to the preferred (albeit archaic) vocabulary of the pre-networked age, one in which distance is still a concept of value.

Here’s the pitch: the compression ratio of total knowledge per unit space-time has been cranked so high that the knob has broken off.  So high, in fact, that the other day, when my car wouldn’t start, the only distance my hand had to travel was to my pocket, and across the keys on the screen of my iPod touch.  The only restraint on speed was the 3 seconds here or there to load diagnostic pages and address the problem. The knowledge, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t my own or even nearby, and yet at speeds that fast and distances that small, it might as well have been.



Written by jon.

May 20, 2008 at 10:14 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Let me be the (FIRST!!!1) to say, the connections you’ve made here are really interesting. I’ve been thinking about the implications of the looming “semantic web” combined with the eventual takeover of ubiquitous computing, and intend to blog about it soon.

    I think you could certainly use the (potentially) parallel situation of distance/transport to argue for the strong likelihood of the same thing happening with personal knowledge. It’s mind-boggling. I won’t say any more here – I have my own blog entry to make.

    Solid post.


    May 22, 2008 at 11:10 pm

  2. […] on the Techno-Takeover Recently Jon over at culturshock made an insightful post in which he points out how the relationship between technology and distance makes the latter […]

  3. in light of your post, you might want to read paul virilio’s open sky. in open sky, he’s very concerned about the relationship between new technologies and the space-time continuum.



    May 30, 2008 at 8:47 am

  4. […] subject(s) Jon and I blogged about recently have been floating around in the back of my head since then. Instead of repeating […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: