Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pynchon's Tribute to Steve Jobs

appears on page 668 of Mason and Dixon:
"The true humiliation came at the end of each Exhibition, when Vaucanson actually open'd me up, and show'd to anyone who wish'd to stare, any Bas-mondain, the intricate Web within of Wheels, levers, and wires, unto the last tiny piece of Linkage, nay, the very falling Plummet that gave me Life,-- nowadays, itself 'morphos'd, so as to fall without end....They pointed, titter'd, sketch'd exquisitely in the air,-- Indignity absolute. He would never allow anyone the least suspicion that I might after all be real. Inside me lay Truth Mechanickal,-- outside was but clever impersonation. I was that much his Creature, that he own'd the right to deny my Soul."
The speaker here is a robotic duck built by the Enlightenment-era inventor Jacques de Vaucanson. This duck, it is worth noting, actually existed, although it was a kind of glorified (although, considering its remarkable theoretically underpinnings along with the fact that was built in like 1706, pretty audacious) wind-up toy that never achieved quite the level of self-awareness that Pynchon depicts. But no machine has, and neither do most human beings for that matter. See the freaky thing about this passage is that it's almost dizzyingly self-reflexive--the duck, which knows on some purely intellectual level that it's actually a network of wheels and levers and wires, etc., is struggling to understand how and why it is even capable of struggling to understand how and why it exists. And the questions it poses are maddening. What is this sublime, un-explicated Truth Meckanickal? More importantly, how can anyone or anything redeem itself from a state of soulessness? The poor duck is trapped in the kind of paradox that can only be made sense of with the help of an especially twisted sort of metaphysics (or negative metaphysics or what have you). Which is to say that it's condition is our condition, basically.

To pivot away from Pynchon for just a moment, I suppose one of Apple's signal accomplishment is to make us realize how little control we actually like, want to have over the technology we use. Apple's business model is an especially energetic form of horizontal integration. Hardware, software, fabrication, retail and even product maintenance operate as a seemless whole. On top of that, Apple products are just stupidly easy to use. But this integration works on the psychic level as well. Apple's programming architecture is notoriously rigid. There's a reason you void your warranty when you jailbreak an iPhone. You're not meant to countermand the choices that Apple has already made for you; to do so is to violate the entire spirit of the product. As best I can tell, Apple's success proves that we want our interaction with technology to be as simple and homogeneous as possible. Simplicity and homogeneity are a virtue when it comes to technological design, but excuse me for pointing out that they're virtuous in few other contexts, and are downright corrosive as far as matters of social, intellectual or moral import are concerned. In fact, "simplicity" and "homogeneity" are really shitty things to organize a society around.

Now I don't think Steve Jobs had some kind of evil plan to co-opt some basic passivity or laziness endemic to human nature, and then conscript as much of the human race as possible into his vision of how technology should work and what role it should play in our lives. But that's sort of how things have turned out, and this is both an exhilarating and terrifying thing to consider. Would that we, the children of this modern-day Vaucanson (at least according to Farhad Manjoo), have as self-critical a spirit as Thomas Pynchon's talking duck. Outside is but clever impersonation...

...Posts I'm gonna write at some point over the next couple weeks, roughly in order of urgency:

-Gambling, and what I learned about myself and the moral and spiritual composition of the universe whilst occasionally doing quite poorly at it--but also, at times, quite well.

-This, and why it was all I could think about when I was jogging the other day (I think that has something to do with matters of personal choice and political first principles, and how abstractions like "personal choice" and "political first principles" might end up being completely meaningless in the end...).

-Venture Bros. vs. Archer, the defining cultural debate of our time, if you really think hard enough about it and are the type of person willing to take a wildly contrarian and deliberately provocative argument like that one at all seriously.

Gamar chatima tova, everyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment