Paul Kelly on Wed, 25 Aug 1999 15:53:16 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> What's So Natural About Technology? (review of Paul Levinson)

What's So Natural About Technology?
Review of Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the
Information Revolution. New York: Routledge, 1997.  257 pages.

                       By Paul Kelly

A "natural history and future of the information revolution" is not a light
undertaking, especially if, like Paul Levinson, you are literal about the
word "natural". Here's an example from the first page of the book:
"Information and the structures that disseminate, preserve, and thus shape
it are, in their very origin, natural: what else is DNA, and the living
structures that it both shapes and is shaped by, if not a system of
_information technology par excellence_?" [p. 1, emphasis mine] _The Soft
Edge_ is about this abstract bridge between the technologies we consider to
be cultural artifacts and the evolutionary adaptations we normally
associate solely with the biological. Although it deals contentiously with
many timely issues--the future of the book, the role of government in
cyberspace, the implications of electronic media upon authorship and
ownership, the outlook for artificial intelligence and the ultimate limits
of electronically-mediated interactions--the book's arguments ultimately
derive from this underlying evolutionary theme which deserves attention in
its own right. The journey over the wall demarcating culture and biology is
a perilous one and Levinson smashes through it with a Mack truck loaded
with ideas about how technologies, from language to the Internet, live or
die by their conformity to the selective forces of nature, "human nature"
in particular. Let's put our crash helmets on and see if his vehicle
survives the impact.

The most simple likening of biological and cultural processes comes in the
book's analogy of information technologies with animal species. Each
technology enters a specific cultural environment and either survives or
perishes according to how well adapted it is to that environment.
Levinson's most interesting example in this regard is radio. Once the
dominant broadcast medium, many forecast its demise after the advent of
television. One of the reasons radio survived is because it changed its
content: no longer the best means of bringing news and variety programming
to the home, radio took opportunistic advantage of the newly improved music
recordings. Rock and roll in particular was a godsend; a new energetic
music for a new teenage market spelled more advertising dollars for radio
broadcasters. To this day, because it was fortunate enough to be able to
exploit a newly emerged cultural niche, radio's profit margin is wider than
any other mass medium.

But this wasn't the only reason for radio's survival. Radio exploited not
just a historical niche but a niche created by the human sensorium. The
acoustic environment is a pervasive human reality. Hearing without seeing
is normal, as we know when the sun goes down and the lights go off. There
is nothing amiss with a medium that serves this sense only. By contrast,
silent movies present the unnatural proposition of an active world without
sound and did not survive the arrival of the "talkies". Radio conformed to
a prior, "natural" sensory mode and this "natural 'pre-technological' mode
of human communication" (p. 98) plays an important role, perhaps the most
important role, in the selection of technologies. A technology must "fit"
human nature and human nature is here defined as the enduring legacy of our
biological, unmediated state before technologies were able to enhance our
natural organs.

Just as  a medium can change to suit the human environment it enters, so
will that environment itself be shaped by its dominant mode of
communication. Whole cultural patterns are enabled or disabled according to
the patterns established by the communication tools in use. This is
mainline media studies in the tradition of Innis and McLuhan but Levinson
retains his biological sense of the niche which media can create for
particular cultural traits. Thus we learn that the failure of the Egyptian
pharaoh Ikhnaton's monotheistic cult was ensured by the medium in use by
his society--hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs, with their literal pictographic
residue, were unsuited to the expression of a single abstract deity which
transcended all fragmentary representations. The best Ikhnaton could come
up with, apparently, was the sun but even that is a single, separate entity
and, worse, disappears at night. A further strike against Ikhnaton's
innovation was the fact that the difficult hieroglyphic medium was firmly
in the realm of the priestly class whose power monotheism would have
undermined. Ikhnaton sowed his seeds on barren cultural ground.

Not so for Moses. The message of the sole Hebrew God found a much more
sympathetic carrier in the newly invented phonetic alphabet acquired from
the Phoenicians. The phonetic alphabet, by the very physical structure of
its medium--infinitely recombinable abstract characters representing sounds
which combine to form words bearing no analogic resemblance to what they
signify--was able to convey concepts and phenomena for which the more
literal hieroglyphics were unsuited. The medium which a society uses will
have an influence on its form and cultural traits. From the Hebrews on, the
phonetic alphabet was an enabler of Greek philosophy and science and
Christian and Muslim monotheism. Levinson calls the alphabet "the first
digital medium" because of its limitless configurability from a relatively
simple set of discrete units, or bits. This he compares to the computer's
binary digital code and to the neuro-chemical processes of the brain, which
also bear no resemblance to the representations constructed out of them.
According to Levinson "they all partake of a same, highly powerful,
underlying natural strategy of communication. Indeed, DNA itself operates
in this way, looking nothing like the complex protein structures it
commands into being." (p. 16-17)

Communications media, then, function within a wider cultural ecology in
which medium and environment mutually affect one another. The analogy with
biology in such an approach is obvious. The introduction of a new species
into an environment upsets the ecological balance enabling or disabling new
forms for the environment to take. These effects are generally
unpredictable. Likewise with media. A new medium introduced into a society
will have disruptive effects, for good or ill, quite apart from the effects
which are generally associated with individual users of the medium, who
focus on its content. It's not television programming that effects change,
it is the social context which emerges when that piece of hardware is
introduced into homes across the nation and presents so much information in
the form of dots of coloured light on a cathode ray tube. Once again, this
is standard media studies and there is no reason at this point to consider
the biological analogies as anything other than metaphorical, as an
interesting and logical attachment to a growing, if not quite established,

But Levinson does not stop here. Underlying his pronouncement of DNA as an
information technology is the idea that biological evolution is itself a
process in which information plays a vital role. He writes: "Life itself is
on all levels a knowledge or 'intelligent' process, in its generation,
testing, and dissemination of strategies for survival, though of course
only humans are apparently aware of it." (p. 213) The late psychologist
Donald T. Campbell, to whom Levinson dedicates _The Soft Edge_, wrote
"evolution--even in its biological aspects--is a knowledge process, and the
natural-selection paradigm for such knowledge increments can be generalized
to other epistemic activities, such as learning, thought and science." [1]
Evolution is a knowledge process because surviving adaptations represent
knowledge, indirectly acquired, of the species' environment. The fish's
body knows something about water, even if the fish itself has no conscious
knowledge of hydro-dynamics. The same applies to birds and aero-dynamics.
Species structure embodies knowledge of what the conditions for life will
be like. But, as is dictated by the trial and error character of natural
selection, this knowledge is conjectural and never certain. A sudden change
in the environment could render it useless. If the fish's pond dries up its
embodied conjecture about the abundance of water is refuted.

>From single-celled animal to conscious human there is an evolutionary chain
of adaptations for greater control over such dangerous refutations. The
organism that can best anticipate changes in its environment has a greater
chance of survival. Those with the richest means of anticipation are the
ones with the most stored models (or modelling systems) of their
environment i.e. those species able to represent their environment in some
mediated and distanced form. What is vision but a mediated encoding of our
environment enabling us to foresee what we would otherwise bump into by
chance? How is the regrowth of a salamander's lost leg controlled if not by
an internalized substitute model of its environment? Further, the more
knowledge a species has accumulated via adaptations, the more survival
decisions devolve to individual organisms. Humans, with their conscious
rational wills, are less biologically-determined than paramecia. One-celled
animals might outnumber _homo sapiens_, but humans have, via their unique
means of representing and manipulating their environment, overcome the
simpler species' brute force method of survival in which the cold calculus
of producing more than can be eliminated is the evolutionary _modus
operandi_. As Campbell explains, "the locus of adaptation [shifts] away
from a trial and error of whole species or gene pools, over to processes
occurring within the single organism." [2] If evolution is conceived in
this qualitative fashion, technology is simply a continuation of a natural
process begun via biological methods. Technology only differs in that it is
a means of altering the environment to adapt to the species rather than the
species altering to adapt to it. Technology represents and distances the
process of species natural selection, abstracting it and transporting it to
the safer realm of our outer material environment, which is transformed in
our stead.

Levinson's achievement is to extend Campbell's "evolutionary epistemology"
to communications technology which continues the biological process of
representing ourselves and our environment to ourselves. Each surviving
medium has enabled ways of thinking which have proven beneficial, for the
most part, in enhancing our knowledge and thereby our well-being as a
species and this is continuous with the knowledge process identified in
biological evolution. For example, this is what writing and, later, print
did for us:

"Like the myriad, restless reshufflings that comprise the success of DNA on
this planet, the essence of the scientific method that eventually arose
from the DNA of our brains is testing, re-resting, dissemination, and
repeatability. That science was practiced at all in the ancient world was
due to the invention and stabilizing impact of writing--it is unknown in
pre-literate societies as a rational, testable process, and exists there
only as magic. That science is in the pre-eminent position it now enjoys in
our world is due to the printing press." (p. 28)

At this point two objections to such a sunny view commonly emerge: that of
media determinism on the one hand, and of the unintended negative
consequences of technology on the other. For Levinson, the printing press
was a necessary but not necessarily sufficient condition for the scientific
revolution and makes a case for "soft determinism" which "entails an
interplay between the information technology making something possible, and
human beings turning that possibility into a reality. Human choice--the
capacity for rational, deliberate decision and planning regarding media--is
an ever-present factor in our consideration of the impact of media." (p. 4)

Still, human choice may be no defense against the unpredictable outcomes
which have accompanied information technologies. Are we really better off
than the fish in a dry pond when our very own technologies--intended to
enhance our chances of survival--end up threatening not just the whole
species but the entire planet? Or, to put it in less extreme words, doesn't
technology always seem to create at least as many problems as it purports
to solve? Levinson takes a moderate approach to this question with his
theory of remedial media, best exemplified by his parable of the window
shade. Once upon a time there was no way to get daylight into rooms while
keeping the weather out. Then glass windows were invented which solved that
problem. But windows created an unexpected problem of their own--lack of
privacy. Access to light went both ways, giving access indoors to peering
eyes. Hence the window shade which perfected window technology.

One could apply this idea to the Internet, an interactive remedial solution
to the dominance of passive broadcast media and to the unresponsive,
non-interactive book, and Levinson does. The window shade is, of course, a
rare ideal. The story of most technologies is never so neat and tidy. The
Internet has its own shortcomings, most significantly the low signal to
noise ratio which naturally accompanies such a democratized medium. A
remedial medium like the cell phone, solving the problem of immobility
while telecommunicating, is accompanied by the invasion of ringing devices
and obnoxious conversers in the most inappropriate places, most notably
behind the wheel of cars, a situation currently ameliorated by legislation,
not technology. But, says Levinson, although remedial media are not "more
'noiseless' solutions to problems than the original media themselves...
they play a crucial role in offering more than they take away--by providing
a net rather than an absolute improvement..." (p. 111)

This slow, trial-and-error process of gradual, evolutionary improvement is
related to the most important idea put forward in the book, that of
technological anthropotropism. Most technologies start out raw and demand
much refinement by their users. Slowly they will acquire micro-improvements
which make them more suited to solving the problems for which they were
intended. James Watt was a famed improver of the crude steam engine. His
many improvements to Newcomen's technology enabled the revolution in
manufacturing of the early 1900s to begin. [3] But the theory really
applies beyond single technologies to cover the whole environment within
which media compete and migrate "ever more fully into human consonance" (p.
60). The theory posits an initial, balanced and unmediated communication
environment in which no messages extended beyond the time-space limitations
established by the senses i.e. eyesight, earshot and memory. In a second
stage these limits are broken but a price is paid "in the balance and other
human sacrifices [the new media] sacrifice (the total lack of resemblance
of the alphabet to the real world is a prime example)" (p. 61) A third
stage ensues in which we "increasingly seek media which preserve and
continue the extensional breakthroughs of the past, while retrieving the
elements of the naturally human communicative world that were lost." (p.
61) In Levinson's schema, these are the A, B and C stages, respectively, in
the story of a technology.

A good example of an extending and distorting B technology is the telegraph
which transported at light speed messages encoded in an abstraction of an
already abstract communication system--Morse code encodes the written word
which is an encoding of speech. Not long after its invention more human
technologies like voice telephony appeared. Movies were originally silent
and in black and white. Then came sound and colour and there have been more
"lifelike" enhancements since--larger screens, stereo sound, not to mention
novelties like 3D and sensurround which represent unsuccessful
over-extensions of the anthropotropic C impulse. Another example is
photography morphing into motion photography as a fulfillment of the desire
to see the portrayed subjects come to life with the added real-world
dimension of time. Radio, of course, survived because it conformed to an
important aspect of the pre-tech A environment. A recent article in the
_New York Review of Books_ explains how in 1849, well before the invention
of the cinema, a crowd

"came to the Louisville Theater in Kentucky, paying fifty cents for dress
circle and parquet, twenty-five cents for boxes on the second tier, to see
Henry Lewis's [painting] 'Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River',
'representing the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony.'
'Doors opened at seven forty-five and the Pano-rama commenced moving at '8
1/2 precisely'.' There was a spoken commentary and a piano accompaniment."

The list goes on and on. The theory has tremendous explanatory power and
second and third stage technologies are emerging today, millennia after
humans knew any non-technologically mediated environment. Levinson contends
the sense of this early environment is deeply embedded in our biological
makeup. The idea that technology could ever spin completely out of control
and impose a wholly dehumanized order on us is, according to Levinson, held
in check by the anthropotropic principle in which technologies sooner or
later head back home.

But where is home? Although he extends the ecological approach to media
technologies beyond mere metaphor, Levinson does not address a persistent
puzzle with which all such "whole system" theories must wrestle. How can
one talk about the fit of a technology to its environment when that
environment is itself altered by the arrival of the technology? As I have
shown, Levinson deals with both sides of the problem--the fit of technology
to culture and the fit of culture to technology--but does not give a sense
of how one can talk about fit when the situation which must be adapted to
is a moving target. Instead, Levinson relies on the fixed point of a
"natural 'pre-technological' mode". This is presumably the state of _homo
sapiens_ after first evolving but before any significant biological
"amplifiers", or technologies, were invented. However, one tool, called
language, did exist and Levinson has this to say about it: "No information
technology developed by humans since our emergence as thinking-speaking
beings has come close to equaling, let alone exceeding or in any way
replacing, the centrality of language as the essence of our species." (p.

The trouble lies with this characterization of language as  a technology.
With language and speech arose human culture but the use of language itself
emerged with a set of dedicated biological adaptations: the physiology
which enables excelled vocalization, the deep grammatical structures which
are presumably encoded into the linguistic "operating system" of the brain,
etc. Language appears to be both biological and technological and thus of
central importance to any theory which attempts to bridge the two. But here
the anthropotropic theory only raises more questions than it can answer.
How can a pre-technological environment include the technology of language?
How is the concept of a pre-technological environment even relevant when a
technology like language presumably defines the "essence" of our species
and therefore denotes the very humanness against which all media are
measured? The confusion resides in the awkward chronology suggested in the
phrase "no information technology developed by humans since our emergence
as thinking-speaking beings". The complicated reality is that _homo
sapiens_ is a species defined by its linguistic capabilities and language
is both a biological and cultural artifact which presumably emerged in
response to some prior state of imbalance, or survival problem the species
needed to solve. The true pre-technological environment existed prior to
language and its inadequacy led to the emergence of language. Then the
language-only technological environment was obviously unsatisfactory enough
for it to be superseded in most, if not all, parts of the world today.

Part of the problem in understanding the correspondence between biological
and technological adaptations is coming to grips with the unprecedented and
mysterious phase transition that took place when language, and therefore
culture, was invented. Language was an autopeotic technology which created
the environmental conditions for its use. In other words it contained a
fusion of B and C tendencies which has served as a metaphor of unity for
the likes of the Jesuit media theorist Walter Ong who wrote: "The word is
something that happens, an event in the world of sounds through which the
mind is enabled to relate actuality to itself." [5] No doubt Ong took his
cue from the New Testament: "In the beginning was the word." (John 1:1)
Yes, there are continuities where language is involved but there are also
discontinuities which must be reckoned with. Calling "information and the
structures that disseminate, preserve, and thus shape it" natural suggests
continuity. Saying technologies must inevitably conform to a
pre-technological human environment suggests discontinuity. And yet both
are true. Technology in its B phase enacts the expansion beyond prior
biological limits which all adaptations, biological and technological,
represent. Technology in its C phase enacts the human reappropriation of
the natural via culture by rendering nature in mediated cultural symbols.
This is our dual nature as beings both within and without nature, as beings
whose technologies change us as we use them to change our environment.

The irony of Levinson's denigration of the B phase of technological
evolution is that it puts him in the company of the bad guys in _Soft
Edge_, techno-pessimists like Ellul and Postman. The pessimistic emphasis
on the distorting and disruptive capacity of technology is acknowledged by
Levinson but he proposes that we can set things right again in the C phase
and thus bring about that net gain which characterizes any
techno-evolutionary tradeoff. But what is the Internet Levinson loves but
an ongoing orgy of B technologies? Yes, C-stage improvements have made it
more popular--the day web browsers could display pictures rather than just
text was the day the Internet was born for the masses. But the pictures
were of far poorer quality than those available on higher-resolution
printed pages. A significant catalyst of Internet growth was the demand
for, and supply of, poor digital scans of naughty images from the pages of
_Playboy_ and _Penthouse_. The difference was you could now access those
pictures from the convenience and, more importantly, privacy of the home.
Is that convenience a C or B phenomenon? Or are B and C always coupled
together, the one extending the power of our reach and the other retrieving
the comforting goods?

The B and C phases are real enough and one may be present more than another
at any given stage of a technology's trajectory. But if too much B is a bad
thing, so is too much C. Television is an example. The very first
television sets were so B they had no discernible market. This, of course,
is true of almost any technology in its early stages. The first marketable
television sets of the '40s had poor displays, were expensive and had
little programming to offer as an incentive to purchase. Still, television
had enough going for it, i.e. was a natural enough fit for our built-in
Levinsonian media demands, that it could break through this initial
chicken-and-egg conundrum. By the mid-'50s there was enough programming and
television set owners that the medium settled into its familiar North
American niche as the electronic hearth. Then a number of things started to
happen, among them several major adjustments to social and political life.
Politicians and political institutions caught off guard by the new medium
suffered. Those who--knowingly or not--exploited its bias, thrived. Social
practices coldly revealed on the tube as patently unfair withered while new
standards and styles emerged more suited to television's reconfiguring of
the world in its own image. Here are the things television didn't like:
Nixon in 1960, bigoted brutes from the Southern states and American
soldiers killing Vietnamese. Here are the things television did like:
Kennedy in '60, cool media-savvy activists like Martin Luther King and his
associates and rock solid commentators like Walter Cronkite. All this
before C-stage colour sets had entered the majority of homes in America.

It wasn't long, however, before politicians and the Pentagon wised up.
Nixon won in 1968 because he learned how to use television to his
advantage. By the time Ronald Raegan was elected, whole armies of media
specialists were involved in the portrayal of presidential "image". Today,
politicians are assessed by how the "come across" or portray themselves
rather than by how they "really are". Haunted by Vietnam, the Pentagon was
sure to have complete control over the flow of information and images
during the Gulf War. This time the victory was decisive, both on the ground
and in the living rooms. The point is that television went from being a
disruptive, radical medium to a conserving one, one in which the images
became more and more contrived, more and more deliberately and
sophisticatedly constructed [6]. A medium which caters too far to people's
prejudices and expectations is unbalanced toward the C stage. Once
television ignited righteous indignation across the land over the treatment
of blacks in the South. Now, watching television, you would think half our
judges, lawyers and doctors was black, a too-comforting illusion in sharp
contrast to a still far-from-perfect reality which the medium can no longer
convey with any real force.

What happens when the dominant medium of a culture has swung too far into C
territory? An exciting new B technology comes along which first attracts a
small number of specialist pioneers but at every stage its ever-diminishing
B-ness attracts new hordes of users. In answer to televisions' extreme
C-ness comes the Internet's answer in the key of B. And, to repeat, we are
still in the B-phase now. Email, a relatively primitive technology still
limited by the constricted ASCII format, is probably the most popular
Internet application. Shopping online is convenient but still raw and
unreliable. Audio quality is rising but video is still very dodgy. As a
software development environment it is nowhere near as advanced as the very
desktop computers from which most people access the net. Here is Internet
programmer and pioneer Tim Bray: "Web technology has not succeeded because
it is a better way of delivering information, but because it's easy, cheap
and fast. You may not be able to build a better application on the web, but
you will be able to build it quicker." [7] At some point, presumably, there
will be just the right mix of B and C in the Internet. That time will be
the net's golden age and we certainly ain't there yet.

But in spite of the above reservations, we have Levinson to thank for
breaking the most ground yet upon which we can think about technology as
continuous with biology. By crossing the humanities with the sciences
Levinson is not merely smashing through the wall of separate disciplines or
even divergent modes of inquiry, he's bridging two cultures which often
view one another with suspicion. Scientists dislike the imprecision of
cultural theories and humanists are wary of the simple reductions of the
scientist. Perhaps this gulf is a little narrower now that we have thinkers
like Levinson around.  His arsenal of theories and thought-provoking ideas
are the most impressive tools so far on public record for considering
technology as something less artificial and closer to our nature as a
species--and closer to natural forces, period--than most are willing to
admit. If his vehicle lacks the maneuverability to dodge the rubble it
created, perhaps that's because Levinson's ideas are still in B phase
awaiting C-phase perfection. But as I've tried to make clear, there's
nothing so wrong with that.

[1] Campbell, Donald T. "Evolutionary Epistemology" in _Evolutionary
Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge_, Gerard
Radnitzky and W.W. Bartley III, Eds., La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988. P.47
[2] Campbell, Donald T. "Blind Variation and Selective Retention in
Creative Thought as in Other Knowledge Processes", in _Evolutionary
Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge_, Gerard
Radnitzky and W.W. Bartley III, Eds., La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1988, p. 93
[3] For macro- versus micro-inventions, see Joel Mokyr, The Lever of
Riches: Technological Creativilty and Economic Progress. New York: Oxford
University Press., 1990.
[4] James Fenton, "Grand Illusions" in _New York Review of Books_, Dec. 3,
1998. (
[5] Ong, Walter J, S.J., _The Presence of the Word_, New Haven: Yale
University Press. p. 22
[6] I owe this analysis of the history of the impact of television to Henry
J. Perkinson, _Getting Better: Television and Moral Progress_. New
Brunswick, USA: Transaction Publishers, 1991. See also Joshua Meyrowitz,
_No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour_.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
[7] See Bray's _Textuality_ weB site.

                    Paul Kelly:

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