Brevity & Speed

The examples presented in previous chapters focused on information sharing technologies which were developed with significant promise. The telegraph, cable news, the social network, and information design played the role of straw man in an argument focused on the negative consequences of Technopoly’s forces taking hold. But each of the transformations outlined offers insight into the values promoted by those forces: a high volume of information produced and transferred quickly. These portions may be packaged for man (as in the case of cable news, Facebook, and the infographic) or machine (as in the case of the algorithmic trade). 

There is little surprise that volume and speed are the qualities which appropriately characterize each transformation, especially as a profit motive takes hold of the technology. Business, after all, is driven by consumption — and success over one’s competitors is achieved when one’s product is consumed in larger quantities or at greater speeds (or both). As capital drives the ways in which we produce, transfer, and consume information, the units with which we measure that information become smaller. Even as the technological obstacles on content length are overcome, we continue to worship the short-form.
The Twitter platform, for example, was built to be used over the 160-character-limited text message based SMS (Short Message Service). Today, as the majority of tweeters use desktop and mobile applications which could accommodate larger blocks of content, the platform’s 140 character limit remains (“The Evolving Ecosystem”).

In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan offered guidance on the relationship between information and the form in which it is presented when he asserted that “the medium is the message” (25). Nearly 40 years later, in 2002, theorist Scott Lash translated McLuhan’s aphorism literally: today’s preferred medium of communication is the message. “Previously the dominant medium was narrative, lyric poetry, discourse, the painting. But now it is the message: the message of the ‘communication’. The medium now is very byte-like. It is compressed” (2). In his 2002 publication, Critique of Information, Lash presents a dense but thorough postmodernist analysis of what he calls the “informationalization” of society: a place where “media society’s paradigmatic unit of culture is the ‘communication’, which in its brevity, speed and ephemerality is taking over from narrative and discourse as the axial principle of culture” (viii). 

In our current state of “technological forms of life,” Lash argues, “information shrinks or compresses metanarratives to a mere point, a signal, a mere event in time” (1, 17). As such, the ability for reflection and critique are thrown into question. Narrative and discourse  have given way to the “very byte-like” message — there is no longer room for “the sort of legitimating argument that you are presented with in a discourse” and power, which “was once largely discursive . . . is now largely informational” (3); when speed and brevity become qualities of communication which are heralded above such forms as narrative and discourse, the parties who either store or convey the most information in the shortest amount of time also hold the greatest amount of power. The institutions and traditions that make up our cultural foundation give way to these powers and Technopoly ensues. With his focus on the cultural, Lash provides the same conceptualization of the primary area of concern in our new technology-driven information age as Postman. But Lash also delves into the higher level dangers of the compression of time and space, marking speed and brevity as the primary drivers of the loss of our ability for reflection.

Reflection

But of what value to us is the ability for reflection? To understand this, it would be helpful to explore the teachings of the philosopher Vilém Flusser. Exiled from his home in Prague during the Second World War, Flusser was separated from his family, whom he would lose at the hands of the Nazis. A student of philosophy at the time, he eventually found himself working as an engineer for a manufacturer of radios and transistors in Brazil. His academic inclinations led him back to the academy, however, and in 1960 he began working with the Brazilian Institute for Philosophy in São Paolo. Soon after, he began teaching at the University of São Paolo as a professor of philosophy to students in the school of engineering (Flusser Writings 197–200). As such, his experience of teaching the humanities to students of an applied science makes him particularly relevant to the construction of a curriculum of proper knowledge consumption — one which is meant to adapt the teachings of the humanities to enlighten users of scientifically driven technologies. 

Flusser’s writings do not resemble those of the majority of other philosophers: they lack citations and footnotes and are often delivered as short, lucid essays. This my have contributed to his relative obscurity in the mainstream; he rarely appears beside McLuhan or Walter Benjamin in the annals of media philosophy. His essays, however, provide poignant critiques on the state of technology and communication during his time. In particular, Flusser felt that humans are in danger of developing a “dislocated world view” as they are “programmed” by technology, rather than the being the ones doing the programming (von Amelunxen). 

This fear is outlined quite effectively in Towards A Philosophy Of Photography — a text which will be discussed in the following chapter. The basis for his fear of this programming, however, is elucidated in a talk he gave to the Brazilian Institute of Philosophy in 1963 entitled “Thought and Reflection.” In it, Flusser critiques “the Cartesian viewpoint” — a viewpoint taken on by “the West” in its ushering in of the “Modern Age.” In particular, Flusser sees as problematic the Cartesian distinction of “thinking thing — extended thing,” a process which seeks to simultaneously understand and modify the world through thought. Thought, in Flusser’s conception, is an advancement towards clarity and understanding. He writes: “Thought expands in accordance with the rules of language . . . We should imagine thought as an expanding web” (5). As thought expands, language comes with. However, we cannot help but connect it back to what has made us able to use it, our previous thought: “Through the meshes in that web we always dwell in the proximity of our origins, even though conversation drags us along, because, as we move on, we take our origins with us” (5). Seeking clarity and understanding, therefore, must be balanced by reflection — or, as Flusser calls it, “philosophy.” Reflection, Flusser offers, is a requirement to keep thought from devouring itself:

But should the web of language close completely around us, should the meshes of language disappear, should discourse become rigorous, (as it does in mathematics), we would lose our capacity for amazement. No new words, no new thoughts would then emerge, and we would revolve in the repetitive circles of idle talk (5–6).

The “absolute boredom, mortal tediousness, [and] disgusting idem per idem” (6) of perfect thought, without reflection, eventually leads us to the end of thought — the end of our chances for amazement. In reflection, however, Flusser sees an opportunity for humans to continue on as exactly that: human. “We think, in order to think no more, we talk, in order to stop talking. Thought is absurd, but it is what makes us what we are, thinking things, humans” (7). 

In dissecting the West’s obsession with following Descartes’ wish to know and catalog everything in the world, Flusser calls out the true danger of allowing ourselves to succumb to the values of brevity and speed: we are left with no time or space for reflection, no possibility of discourse, with nothing else to try to understand. We are left with Postman’s Technopoly and Lash’s informationalized society, and to this list we can add Flusser’s “Paradise of idle talk . . . where nothing amazing can happen and nothing can therefore be doubted” (6–7). We are forced into a space of objectivity, where the legitimating argument surrounding information is the information itself, carried along in the bit or the byte.

Opening up a space for reflection, then, is the ultimate goal of the curriculum of proper knowledge consumption. Achieving this goal, however, requires an understanding of what the curriculum entails.