Slow Tuesday Night

I don’t know how many of you have G-mail, or spend any particular amount of time following technology related news. I don’t follow with any tremendous devotion, but I like to keep up on the big things that happen. I was content to watch the iPad be launched, for example. And over this past weekend, I watched as Google launched Buzz and met with a more or less unanimous uproar of irritation and crankiness.

Now for the complete details on the product, the irritation, and the ensuing techno-drama, you can probably rustle up a fair bit of information all on your own. I don’t necessarily need to recap for you. I’ll offer you this link which gives you a clue on the issues.

People raged (or were just mildly irked; I mean, I don’t want to sound like the whole internet got out pitchforks and torches). It was a disaster for Google on the level normally reserved for Amazon.com and their ideas. It had to be fixed, and right now.

There was something in that above article which caught my eye, though. A particular quote.

Next Few Days! Guys, you have got a few hours at most to sort this out – its the weekend, loads of people have now got the time to look at it (like this blog post) and loads of ordinary Gmail users are going to come home from work and discover this happening to them.

Google was promising to get things ironed out in the next few days, and over the next couple of weeks. And the reaction, in more than a couple of places, was the above. Days? Days? You’ve got hours! Frankly, if we’re getting into double-digit minutes here, guys, you are pushing it! (I know I’m exaggerating; it’s a hobby)


(And in the interest of fairness, one of the things I tend to like about Google, and one of the reasons I’m willing to give them some time and a chance is that they tend to come through and say guys, we botched it, and we’re rushing to fix things, and we’re sorry. And here’s their article, saying more or less that and talking about how they were fixing things.)

As I said, the ramifications and tech issues are yours to have and find and read about, and aren’t what I’m getting into here.

The reason I found that quote so interesting, and indeed the whole issue was because, this past Thursday, that nice Mister Gaiman posted a link to a short story called “Slow Tuesday Night,” by R.A. Lafferty.

R.A.Lafferty is one of my favorite authors. He writes short stories which are brilliant and leave me reeling and delighted. I’d read the story before. Now it was fresh in my brain when the whole matter of Google Buzz happened, and I got to thinking about it.

We’re definitely in that world now. The world where everything happens in a quarter of an hour, sixty minutes ago is history, and twenty-four hours ago is prehistoric. Last week? Forget it.

Google really does have mere hours to fix the product, or lose its potential customer base for ages and ages. And at the same time…they don’t have to worry about it too much, because Google Buzz Launch Issues will, in a week, be gone and forgotten. Relegated to the back of history, along with Microsoft Bob and dinosaurs and 2008.

The issue is raised, disseminated, addressed, discussed, solved or at least concluded and put away, and if I had gone away for the weekend, I would have noted it only as a vague echo somewhere in the realm of Twitter, or as a blip on the news that Google gives me now and then, and I would have gone “huh…” and then continued with my morning.

We’re living very much in the world of Lafferty’s story.

It reminds me of many interesting things that many authors have said, or had to deal with. Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, with the television screens and The Family and no attention spans anywhere. Or Kurt Vonnegut in his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” in which everyone is made equal by applying handicaps to those who might have excelled (sandbags on the lithe, shrieking sounds in the ear of the intelligent, twisted masks for the beautiful). In that story, a momentary revolution fails in the span of a commercial break, and no one can think long enough to remember it, or care.

It also reminds me of the interesting interviews I was reading with William Gibson about his last couple of books, Spook Country, and before that Pattern Recognition, which are both set in a modern setting instead of the future. He would talk about how hard it was to predict technologies, or even to write about the future without it being obsolete by the time your book was released. (I’m paraphrasing here, I can’t find the interview, and I’m gnashing my teeth about it. Go, fair reader, and search for it. Any Gibson interview is an illuminating, wonderful thing to read about anyway).

Finally, I think about something Alan Moore said. So much of what he says in interviews can be dismissed, at first thought, as absolutely nuts stuff. Talk of magic and the power of words and the evolution of culture and so forth. Closer thought tends to show that it’s not all that nuts. At least not to me. Or maybe I’m just nuts on a similar wavelength, which I can definitely live with. (And even when it is a bit nutty, he cheerfully admits that as a possibility, which wins me over). Something he talks about is the idea of “steam culture.”

The way he phrases it is thus, and I’m paraphrasing again: If you set up a camera in a field and had it take snap shots once a week from about two thousand years ago or so, and then you put all the snapshots together and played them as a film…what you’d get is the first three-quarters of the film showing some buildings appearing and then slowly decaying away. And then, the last quarter of the film, as you approached the modern age, the buildings would be boiling up and down, building and disappearing almost instantly. “Steam culture,” as he talks about, is the idea that we are accelerating and processing and doing more and more and more. It’s pointing out that we are (maybe, still) more or less the same as cavemen. Maybe smarter, but he’s water and we’re very hot water. We’re both still water. Steam is something else entirely. It’s beyond a transitional point. He thinks we’re approaching that.

It probably sounds nuts, and I’m hardly trying to convince you on its rationality, or even expecting belief. All I’m suggesting is, after reading “Slow Tuesday Night,” and then watching a very fast Google Buzz storm, you might be able to concede that the speed of our lives is reaching a boiling point.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, or that the speed of technology is evil, or anything along those lines. I’m passing no judgments. I’m a half-hearted Luddite: I like technology, I get seriously infatuated with new gadgets, but they make me nervous and I can never stop thinking about how they change our lives, and how we think, and how we act. (I’ve found, the past few months, that if I want to write fiction to a level of quality that satisfies me, I have to do it off the internet and by hand. I have to slow down and focus. Again, not technology’s fault. Just my reaction to technology, and how I have to deal with it sometimes).

The question the whole thought process leaves me with is this: as things continue to accelerate, will it reach a point where a company like Google can literally not write code fast enough to satisfy consumers? Or any other company for that matter. We’ll we be moving and splitting and bouncing and typing and tabbing so quickly that when a programmer says “It’ll take me an hour to code, and an hour to debug,” we look at them aghast and move on? Will our speed-of-use outstrip the speed-of-technology?

Probably not. I hope not. Human beings tend to fling ourselves wildly to both extremes of any scale, and then eventually find an equilibrium. I think that’ll happen with technology issues, as with any others.

If we draw nothing else at all from this little rumination of mine, we can at least draw comfort in this fact: science fiction, despite the occasional suggestions, has clearly not failed. If this issue can bring up references to R.A. Lafferty, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, and Alan Moore – some of the best and sharpest, in other words – then science fiction clearly still functions as a predictive tool about the future. Maybe we don’t have hover trousers, or light speed, or holograms…

…but we do have a slow Tuesday night.

4 thoughts on “Slow Tuesday Night”

  1. “as things continue to accelerate, will it reach a point where a company like Google can literally not write code fast enough to satisfy consumers?”

    What are those ‘things’? What is ‘it’? Are consumers those it-things? If not, then this question doesn’t really make sense. If so, then where is the human agency (and limitations)?

    I don’t like the word consumer in most cases for the simple reason that it dehumanizes. Even unintentionally, it leads to sloppy thinking whereby what happens to human beings is the result of some mystical abstraction of unaware, consumptive behavior. (Above, do companies write code? Or do humans write code?)

    But as you say mere paragraphs previously, we are still–physically, and maybe socially–not much different than our caveman ancestors. We are messy animals. We are not mere cogs in an ever-accelerating technological machine. Our biological selves are the machine.

    For every frantic Twitter user, there’s another person still using ancient USENET. For every skyscraper that goes up and down in a few decades, there are tens of thousands of families living in houses which will outlast the next few rounds of skyline shifting.

    While the rate of change (of certain narrow ‘things’) has increased somewhat, what makes modernity different is really the rate of dissemination of change. What took hundreds of years to spread culturally or technologically in the past might only take weeks or days now. But that doesn’t alter the fundamental human reaction to it.

    “We’ll we be moving and splitting and bouncing and typing and tabbing so quickly…”

    This is among the most dystopian of future visions. It may well come to pass, but only if people (and designers and engineers of products) continue to see themselves as more machine than human. We, as a species and as a conglomeration of cultures, certainly have the potential to create a human-centric technological future. Constantly typing, tabbing, and tweeting in an accelerating spiral goes against that potential.

    This has gotten long winded, but my point is: we are humans, first and foremost. Asking questions like the one above appears to forget that fact–but it is a vital fact to remember when envisioning the future.

    [Postnote re: Gibson. His earlier books deal largely with people carried helplessly along the currents of technological change and computers always end up taking over the world, or solipsistically reducing it. But his most recent two near-future books have a very different tack: highlighting people using technology in purposeful, directed ways with very human expressive motives: making movies and playing political cat-and-mouse. Why the change, I wonder?]

  2. Let’s see…

    First, I think you’re right and I DID phrase that sentence rather poorly. By “things accelerating,” I was referring to technology and our interaction with it; the cognitive effect had on us. THINGS could easily refer to the blazing speed of dissemination, as you mention. I dislike using the word “things” overmuch — and shouldn’t have done, above — because it’s vague. What’s these things? But in this case, it was the best I had.

    I’m talking pretty specifically about certain aspects of technology and our relationship to it, as well. I think that we are still messy human beings, and that’s one of my favorite things about us: our disastrous, gleeful messiness. I think we’re pretty nifty.

    But I do worry about seeing ourselves as gears in machines. Not just social machines — we are, all of us, little wheels which, when spun together, can be called FACEBOOK — but corporate machines. Douglas Adams said, somewhere, “when I was a kid, people started up rock bands. Now, they start up start-ups.” Certainly when I putter around a college campus and listen, so many of the kids seem to be more interested in going to get a good job at a corporation than anything else.

    (And like all generalizations, that one is accurate until it’s not. We’ve got tons of little bands around.)

    Mostly, though, this article (and this comment) was me thinking about the issue of technology and how it affects people. I REALLY hope it didn’t sound like me trying to make statements about it, because I’m mostly thinking and having questions. How ODD is it that Google Buzz and that whole matter I mentioned appeared, flared, fizzled, faded all in the space of a couple of days? 

    If science fiction can be defined as “thinking about technology’s effect on the human condition,” (a good definition, and I think harlan Ellison used it), then I wind up looking at the increasing acceleration of our interactions and wondering about it.

    I don’t think we’re going to magically turn into steam creatures, by the way. I probably shouldn’t have included that Alan Moore snippet. It just came to mind, like the short stories, and I put it in to show how I was thinking about it. I think it’d be FUN for us to turn into Vorlon-like creatures, but I don’t expect that. 

    I suppose I could more accurately summarize my question as “if our technological relationship, and our brain’s processing of it, continues to accelerate, what will be the end result of this acceleration? What is the product of this increase in velocity? And are we seeing it? And what will our increasing speed of consumption do when production cannot keep up?”

    The answer, as always is, “we’ll collapse, reassemble, get on with life in a new fashion and write it into the history books.” That’s what human’s do. I just wonder about the little incidences that’ll happen along the way.

    (And on the topic of Gibson’s change in novel tone, that’s a really good question, to which I can’t even offer an answer. I hadn’t thought about it. But what does come to mind is, I wonder if you see the shame shift in the work of Neal Stephenson? The Baroque Cycle, as compared to Anathem? And again, I don’t know. But now I’ll be thinking about it.)

  3. “What is the product of this increase in velocity? And are we seeing it?”

    I guess my response is to ask, is there really some objective acceleration in the first place? Certainly technology itself is accelerating in some manner of speaking, and the result is a level of seeming chaos in how people relate to, understand, and accept/deny new technology…but is our relationship to technology really accelerating? Maybe we’re just at an inflection point; a point of punctuation in the equilibrium.

    I’m not saying there’s definitely not a relational acceleration…I just haven’t seen it convincingly demonstrated anywhere I’ve looked.

    “And what will our increasing speed of consumption do when production cannot keep up?”

    I think we’re already in the midst of this answer. Production (of digital content) is no longer controlled and bottlenecked by producers. Google doesn’t have to keep up with an insatiable demand for new code…all they need to do is provide an infrastructure which millions of others can contribute to. For better (Wikipedia) or worse (YouTube comments).

    PS. I always sympathized more with the Shadows than the Vorlons (for good, socially constructive reasons!), but mentioning that fact always earns me dubious looks from B5 fans…

  4. IS there a quantifiable acceleration? I don’t know. In order to make points on the matter, one has to already be sympathetic to the underlying premise. That is, you already have to be inclined to say “yes, there is a quantifiable acceleration” before you can begin looking at things — like the Google Buzz matter — and view it as evidence. 

    If you’re not previously inclined, I don’t know that it’ll sway you. If you see what I mean. 

    And I could just vanish into a well of Babylon 5 geekery at a moment’s notice…so I’ll carefully say that I always thought the Vorlons AND Shadows were bastards (the Vorlons were just more arrogant about it) and all my sympathies lie with the wrecked Narn, or the completely-neurotic Drazi. 

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