Apr 14, 2010

Where is Facebook?

Whenever anyone describes the early days of computers, they describe the bulk and sheer size of the things. They were monsters! Dinosaurs! Lumbering beasts upon the plains! As if the size and shape and tangibility told us something. Tom Wolfe, for example, says, "Computers were huge, hellishly expensive, made-to-order machines as big as a suburban living room and bristling with vacuum tubes that gave off an unbearable heat."

What happens here, besides the description being fun and fairly easy, is that the computer's physicality is presented as evidence of how it's archaic. This, we are told, is strange; This is not us anymore. Old, in the simple math we use, equals huge and new equals tiny; old equals baroque and monstrously gothic; new equals sleek.

New technology is sleek and modern, thin and small only in the product reviews, though -- after that, in most of what's said about technology and how it's used and what it does, it is described as if it is completely immaterial. The attention is all on interface and function, to the web as it works, which is to say, as we experience it. The physical, tangible parts of the digital age are all as hidden as the town dump. It's easy to read digital reams of writing on tech today, and social networking and our digital world without ever hearing about how and where the virtual world is physical. The emphasis, in this writing, is always on the overcoming of geography, the overcoming of the physical, as if the digital didn't also participate in and contribute to our geography (with, e.g., server farms, satellites, warehouses, mailrooms, etc.).

The mechanical reality of the digital age and how it works, what has to happen for a facebook update, a netflicks purchase or a google search, are almost without exception ignored. It's complete opaque to us.

But why?

The immateriality seems to be taken evidence of something -- yet it's not clear what. Physicality is used to make the technology seem strange, so what does the move in the other direction mean? The move is so smooth and so consistently done what's being covered up can maybe only be uncovered by reversing the move, by reversing the procedure, and focusing on the physical, material, tangible manifestations of technology, and how weird and surreal they are, and then to ask, why is it they're so weird and surreal?

What is it about them that makes us uncomfortable?

I suspect it's something about ethics.