Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

all aboard the Axiom!

It’s been interesting — and somewhat disconcerting — to see the techno-ideology John Gruber has been selling since Apple announced the iPad. See this post, or this one, or the beginning of this one. Basically, Gruber is endorsing the Eloi-Morlock theory of computing experience according to which . . . well, why try to improve on, or even compete with, perfection? Let’s go to the source here, Neal Stephenson’s still-amazingly-brilliant essay from a decade ago, In the Beginning Was the Command Line. Take it away, Neal:

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum about those unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses, coming down from the mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone--the original command-line interface--and blowing his stack at the weak, unenlightened Hebrews worshipping images. Not only that, but it sounds like I'm pumping some sort of conspiracy theory.

But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe, here, could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily bad now:

It simply is the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it's better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all. . . . My own family--the people I know best--is divided about evenly between people who will probably read this essay and people who almost certainly won't, and I can't say for sure that one group is necessarily warmer, happier, or better-adjusted than the other.

I don't know when to stop quoting this, so go read the whole thing. It’s great. My point is simply that those who complain about the increasingly closed architecture of the iPad, and the decline of the personal computer and its replacement by digital “appliances,” are resisting the dividing of the world into Eloi and Morlocks. Gruber is embracing it.

My own view is that I was an Eloi for most of my life but have spent the last few years trying to learn how to be a Morlock, at least a minor-league Morlock — and that has been, I think, time well spent. I am concerned that too many people will simply accept their Eloi status, and will give up on trying to understand the technologies that are shaping their minds and experiences, and will end up in a condition more or less like that of the people on the Axiom in Wall•E. It’s rather ironic, to say the least, that the company that’s doing the most to push us in this direction is the other one driven to its highest standards of excellence by Steve Jobs.


  • How do you decide in what areas of life to dedicate the time and effort to become a Morlock? For example, in theological matters, should I master Latin and delve into the historiography of Augustinian scholarship? Or, given my day job and linguistic limitations, should I read one REALLY good book on, say, Original Sin? Does that make me a passive Eloi in this important topic? Am I an Eloi every time I read a book outside of my area of training? In how many fields can one really be a Morlock? Wouldn't a technological Morlock have to be an Eloi in some other aspect of his life?

    I'm sympathetic to the idea that everyone ought to to know the nitty-gritty workings of *something*. And I'm very sympathetic to the concern that technology abets unreflective living (aside: or is it the human predilection for unreflective living that gives shape to the technology?) but I'm curious how you go about allocating your Morlock energies.

  • As a tinkerer and comp sci major, I certainly appreciate the spirit of what Stephenson is trying to defend. But Peter makes a good point: isn't this an inevitable feature of any moderately technologically advanced civilization? Understanding how stuff works is good for numerous reasons (see Matt Crawford), but one can only master a very small portion of what's out there. Doesn't the division of labor mean we're all Eloi in some respects and Morlocks in others?

    So I find something off about the criticisms that Apple products take you away from the command-line experience, because in the beginning was not the command line but the punch card, and before that, programming through physically moving wires to make new circuits, and before that, the abacus, etc. The command-line was an innovative new higher level of abstraction that programmers at the time found as useful and decadent as we today find the iPhone. Why are people complaining about the loss of the command-line rather than of the days when people flipped switches to set individual bits?

    It's not that there aren't qualitative differences in these advancements. It's just that the expert/layman division falls kind of short of explaining this. You have to make a case for why the particular expertise is worth having, beyond the general virtue of having expertise. I could give you a detailed description of all of the HTTP transfer processes that happen when you open a web page, but unlike Gruber do not bemoan the general public who cannot, and in fact find there to be something sort of wondrous about how ingeniously this system is set up so people don't need to know this stuff to use it. On the other hand, I very much condone the sort of expertise that people are surrendering to their GPS devices.

    One of the fundamental distinctions than can be made in the case at hand is one you've pointed to, which is that whereas in earlier computer interface advancements you still could look under the hood but just no longer had to, with Apple's flavor of new technologies, you can't even if you want to. There are good reasons to bemoan that (though I'm not convinced I agree with them).

  • I was going to say something but Ari and Peter said it much better.

    I can certainly see the point of an open architecture; it allows people who could potentially be Morlocks do something with an existing tool that benefits all of us (without having to ask unnecessary permissions, etc.) But the wider point about each one of us trying to be a Morlock, I am not so sure. Like Peter says, to what do I allocate my Morlock energies?

  • Sorry, I was thinking specifically in terms of computer literacy. Probably didn't choose the best quote from Stephenson to make that point. You're all right that we have to choose which, among the technologies that shape our lives, to learn about in more detail. I believe we should try to think about the technologies that have the greatest effect on our lives, and choose what to pursue accordingly. Because I am a "knowledge worker," I've chosen to pursue the technologies most closely associated with the production and disssemination of knowledge; but it would have made as much sense for me to learn more about food, or medicine.

    My concern is that (a) more and more technologies are becoming impenetrable black boxes, and that in that respect the personal computer seems to be moving in the direction of the internal compustion engine; and (b) this is causing, as I put it, "too many people [to] accept their Eloi status." N.B.: "too many people." It's uneasonable to expect that most people will learn how key technologies work, but it's important that a certain number of amateurs take that time and trouble.

    By the way, Stephenson doesn't literally think that comoutig began with the command line — he talks about the earlier mechanisms in his book.

  • Stephenson’s central metaphor (by way of H.G. Well) is a bit off. Well’s class division is really between labor (Morlocks) and knowledge (Eloi). A large number of the latter were able to live off the efforts of a small number of the former (shades of Huxley’s Alphas and Epsilons). The numbers of the two classes are inverted now; it’s been observed elsewhere that each knowledge worker today has, in effect, 100+ Third World slaves laboring for him or her, usually out of sight so as not to cause any discomfiting moral compunction among the Eloi.

    If I accept Stephenson’s metaphor and the comments above at face value, the discussion appears to be about the differences between specialists and generalists, namely, that the specialists provide a service to generalists by doing the difficult chewing and digestion needed to produce the nearly effortless consumption demanded by a large public unable or unwilling to anything but pablum. And in response to the knowledge/information explosion of recent times, we should all accept the imperative to become generalists in more areas of endeavor.

    If all we care about is greater productivity and efficiency, that sounds okay. But in practice, it means we jettison moral judgment and accountability because we’re forced to simply trust that the specialists have everyone’s best interests in mind and the tools to achieve them. Clearly, this isn’t the case. For instance, hiding straightforward swindles behind impenetrable interfaces and doubletalk led to the functional collapse of our financial institutions, most of which are resurrected only through massive triage. I for one don’t buy that it’s possible to be a warm, happy, well-adjusted Morlock without uncritical acceptance of a baseline insanity borne out of our aged, crumbling, psychotic, public institutions. For that matter, the Eloi typically fare no better.

  • Brutus, I'd like to echo the concerns of your last paragraph.

    Also, I feel that I need to add that I don't know snot about computers. I'm not a programmer and am not even sure I could be called a "power user" (since I don't know what that is). But I'm learning!

  • Brutus makes a great point when he identifies the dangers of blind reliance on specialists. And I like Alan's invocation of the Axiom as an image of what such a reliance would look like when pushed to its logical conclusion.

    I think I understand Alan to be saying that he considers the existence of proficient amateurs important to provide a check on the assumptions or agendas of the professional members of the guild. Is that right? I see the value of that check as well. And it seems admirable to be a thoughtful consumer of technological culture as much as of any other kind of culture.

    But would it be churlish to point out that amateur dissenters open the door to another whole set of dangers? For example, I have a beloved relative who won't vaccinate her kids because she is persuaded by the passionate and detailed dissent of amateurs who reject the technology (and epistimology) of elite specialists. Sometimes what the specialists offer isn't "pablum" but rather expertise and sometimes the ornery independent thinker is just a crank.

    Hey, I'm all in favor of technological and methodological diversity; let a hundred information devices bloom. But my suspicion is that the root of the problem Alan and Brutus identify is independent of technology and has more to do with human inclination toward complacency in the face of others' ambition for power. So I am inclined to see Alan's time in the Morlock minors as a kind of spiritual discipline in that he is subjecting a meaningful part of his mental life to close scrutiny. I ought to do something similar - even if it isn't in the same area. Heh, and if I save my pennies I might be able to reflect on my self-examinations with the help of my automatic transmission, black-box iPad.

  • Great comment, Peter. You're right about the "amateur dissenters," but that particular problem arises when people confuse a very limited body of knowledge with expertise. Consider the dentist in Texas, recently written about in the New York Times, who’s spearheading the America-as-Christian-nation movement in that state, wants textbooks to reflect his views, and really believes that he knows more than trained historians. That’s a classic case of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    What I’m striving for in my own “discipline” (which may be over-dignifying it, but hey, I’ll accept the designation) is something like that opposite of that: I want to be constantly aware of just how deep the waters are I’m floundering in.

    And you know, the iPad is going to be cool. I probably won't get one, not out of philosophical opposition but because the size isn't right for me. And there are many, many people out there who simply need a device that makes fewer demands on them: see some very thoughtful reflections on that phenomenon here.

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