– Z. J. Jones – Louisville, KY –
The middle ages as most people think of them typically refer to western Europe from the 4th-15th centuries, or roughly from the fall of Western Rome to the Printing Press & the Renaissance. People believe it to be 1000 years, lost to history*. It was western civilization trying desperately to reclaim its previously held peak of Roman dominance within a smaller, more competitive world, either dragging or being dragged by their new Church obsession. The masses were stuffed onto the bottom rungs of feudalistic society against their own will so they could serve their Lords and Kings until one day they were ultimately killed off by the plague.
*Save for the fact that everywhere that wasn’t Europe was doing just fine during this time
- Intro- The Middle Ages
- Population and Economic Ceilings
- The Oral Tradition
- Depending on Other’s Literacy
- A Part of a Part of a Cog in a Machine
- Modernity- iPeasants
- Modernity- Intuitive User Interfaces
- Modernity- Centralized Literacy
Many people might say we’re on the verge of a new era of Dark Ages because they’re upset by the political culture or the direction of society. While the cry is most certainly hyperbolic, I believe we are approaching a point in the timeline of humanity where our world will be absolutely influenced/dominated economically, socially and politically by things that most of us don’t even understand. That’s what I see as the parallel to the middle ages.
It is likely that much about what us laymen believe about the middle ages is untrue. For every aspect about life in the middle ages that we get right we probably get one or two wrong- and are completely ignorant of a dozen others. In fairness to us, the history of the Middle Ages is complex, and we’re often taught things which are wrong because historians are dealing with a difficult subject short on reliable details. They’re forced to decipher and extrapolate where modern historians don’t have to. Modern histories are so lush with details and accounts that there are oftentimes even accidental sources discovered which can confirm or deny certain theories*.
*For example, the historian John Tyler was able to use accounting ledgers and insurance claims to verify the fact that early American Revolutionaries were major smugglers. Publicly, John Hancock, pride of Boston and of writing-your-name-really-big fame, would always denounce those who accused him of smuggling and deny it, but the British government was steadfast in their accusations. Manifests coming into the harbor on Hancock’s ships would show only legal goods onboard. But the insurance records didn’t line up. Back then, cross checking this information was probably very difficult and was rarely thought of, but the evidence was right there. If the ship was going to go down from an iceberg or Moby Dick or a Kraken or whatever sailors were afraid of in those days, John Hancock was going to get paid for all of his stuff, not just the legal stuff.
Records from the Middle Ages are much harder to come by compared to even classical records, not only because they would be 1000 years older, but because there were so few people who could be sources to begin with*. The Middle Ages marks the most recent low point in Western Society where the vast majority of people did not know how to read.
*Another thing to consider is the curation of history. Everyone who was writing in the Middle Ages probably had some knowledge of the historical significance of their writing. It was probably written with a heavy amount of bias and curation to make the “good” side look good, and the “bad” side look bad. Think of it this way, there were not as many journals, or candid accounts of people’s lives. It was all instagram and no snapchat. All was intentional, all was curated by the person who wrote it for those who would come later.
Population and Economic Ceilings
Unfortunately, the lack of records caused by the lack of literate individuals makes understanding exactly how many people were literate back then very difficult to find out. There were no census records, no hard numbers of any kind on how many people lived in a town/holdfast/kingdom. Even if those numbers were readily available, defining literacy is made even more difficult because of the number of local languages interacting with the prevailing language of business, politics and religion of the day- Latin. Somewhere around 40% of people could probably read or understand at least some of one language. But estimates about full literacy as I am defining it – being fluent in both reading and writing Latin- are much lower. My efforts to find a number didn’t produce any great sources, but it was consistently low. I’m going with reporting the 2% number I found.*
*(If you have a better source with a different number, please let me know).
I am most impressed by the steady increase in literacy in the lead up to the Renaissance, but what we’re taught about the Middle Ages seems to be dominated by the standard tropes we see in fiction: feudalism, Lords & Ladies, devout (even crazed) religiosity, superstition, rampant disease and an overall lack of technological and societal progress*. Actually, the lack of progress is likely overblown and not true as we understand it, but it speaks to a larger point. Lifestyles were largely stagnant during this millennium of human history. A person living in France in 800 CE would likely survive quite well in the year 700, 600 or even 500 CE. That is probably fairly true of times before the Middle Ages, but not of times since. A modern person living up to 300 years in the past would encounter such a drastic change in lifestyle that they would be completely dysfunctional for an extended period of time as they readjusted, if they were able to at all.
*Not to mention, the properties of buoyancy when comparing witches to ducks.
Life was hard in the middle ages, which should go without saying, and it shaped the entirety of existence for people and societies at large. The entire societal system was based on survival. Crop yields were watched carefully to avoid starvation in winter months, hunting was controlled to prevent depopulation of game, armies were raised to avert conquest and prayers were given in hopes of sparing from the newest onset of disease. The peasants of the time were the ones affected by these events, but were forced to depend heavily on those who could read. Merchants arranged trading to make up for shortcomings in crop yields in preparation of winter, lords protected their forests with decrees and their lands with assembling and coordinating large armies, and priests offered comfort and spiritual guidance in times of lost hope. The peasants of the time were completely dependent on the infrastructure of literate systems to keep society as they knew it functioning.
And it seems that society was operating at essentially peak efficiency given the technology available to them at the time. The middle ages started to try and push the boundaries of old population ceilings and did their best to escape the Malthusian Trap, but were largely unsuccessful. The Malthusian trap states that during pre-classical times, efficiency gains that resulted in income growth were offset by hitting the ceiling of production capacity. The escape of this “trap” was only achieved by the transition period of the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Simply put*, every time the economy looked like it was about to significantly improve the bottom would fall out because they couldn’t sustain growth for one reason or another, whether it be famine, war or a scourge of the plague. Population growth was almost held to nothing during these times as well. Population growth in the Middle Ages was 0.1% year over year. This is remarkable considering that the average family size was between 5-6 per household, which goes to show how hard life was and how likely one was to die an untimely death. For comparison, today the US has a population growth of 0.7% year over year and average family size is 2.5 per household**.
*Possibly too simply
**Upon final reading, I realize that i didn’t take into account immigration, which is undoubtedly higher today than it was back then
So, if only 2% of the population could read or write in the prevailing language of the day, and upwards of 60% of people can’t make sense of any scribbling at all, how did that effect the lives of these people? To them, it probably didn’t seem to matter much. Personally, I cannot even remember what life was like before I could read. Now the action is automatic, almost to the level that breathing is – without thought. If a word magically flashed in front of your eyes for half of a second, you couldn’t help but read it. Something that feels so natural to you and me today wasn’t even necessary to everyday living a thousand years ago.
The Oral Tradition
In the 5th century BCE, Socrates was a champion of Greek society. He was fiercely proud of the culture built up out of nothing on the rocky shores of the mediterranean, but there was a threat that was coming to invade the peaceful lands of Greece which would destabilize civilization as Socrates knew it. It was a disease which spread up from across the sea, one which Socrates warned would destroy the brain and mind from within and cause them to forget who they are. This plague of culture was spreading so quickly that Socrates had a conversation with the philosopher Phadreus about it saying this disease will “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” It was writing- his great fear was the encroaching practice of literacy amongst scholars and philosophers. Luckily for us, his friend Phadreus wrote down the words that Socrates spoke, because without the written word we never would know that Socrates existed. There is an extent to where Socrates was right, life isn’t the same now that people read. People don’t memorize poems, speeches or lengthy passages of literature*. People have to refer to the written word to remember what they did a few months back.
*If they are, they’re typically seen as pretentious douches
There is an issue with finding information on the accuracy of the verbal tradition on the internet today because of a major tiff going on between two corners of a particular spectrum. It seems sources are being co-opted by either side of the Christian Apologist/Atheist debate, arguing whether the centuries before the canonization of the bible where stories were shared largely through oral retellings take away from the legitimacy of the modern bible. I am unable to find a reliable interpretation of the accuracy of information spoken back and forth to one another in an oral society, so I’m going to make what I believe to be a fairly uncontroversial assumption- let us say that oral traditions probably had vastly superior memories to ours today. However, even if their memories were 99% accurate, that 1% sure adds up over time, especially as information passes from one person to another.
This isn’t simply akin to a game of telephone, this should be worse. This isn’t simply mishearing something and passing it along in a matter or seconds and laughing when someone flubbed a word or a mispronunciation makes its way to the end of a chain. This is hearing a story or witnessing an event and then going days without seeing a soul that isn’t someone in your family and then sharing that same story. And over the course of your life you might have told this, your best tale, to 100 people. Is it going to be the same every time? Especially if you don’t have written source material to fall back on? This is someone telling a story, captivating their audience with one of the only forms of entertainment they have. Some people were probably extremely devout, keeping as true as possible the story they originally heard. But the world is full of fallible humans- the more you tell a story, the more likely you are to change it. Some keepers of stories and information couldn’t help but notice that when they would exaggerate a little, people would gasp in amazement. Some couldn’t notice that when they caricatured a person or event that they would get a laugh from their audience. Some couldn’t help but notice it was more fun to tell a better story* and would confabulate the tale over time. Changing one aspect of a story makes it better, but changing one aspect of a story every time you tell it, making it better each time, will eventually make it simply untrue.
*This film was based on a version of events that once was one side of a true story
Our memories are probably only operating at a fraction of what they’re capable of right now*, but that’s because we don’t need our memories as badly as humans used to, we have the written word to fall back on. There’s an original copy for us to turn people to. Most times if the stories we tell get too out of hand someone can say “hold on, let me see this article” and you have to shamefully explain “oh okay, so that was wrong. But this story is still crazy, right??”**
*Do not confuse this with the claim in bad movies that we only use 10% of our brainpower
**How many times have you yada-yada-yada’d your way through talking about a book or article you read only hours beforehand?
Another thing to consider- even if people could remember more than 99% of what they meant to learn (let’s even say 99.99%), people would have been operating within their own set limitations. Remembering 100% of the cliff’s notes of War and Peace is impressive, but you’ve still missed the vast majority of the book. You’ve gained consistency by forgoing accuracy. If I have the means to memorize the first 100 digits of pi with 100% accuracy, that’s all well and good until I learn that there’s someone else who has it memorized to a trillion digits thanks to help from a computer. Before my rival with the computer came along, I had a perfectly wonderful memorization of a concept, but now all I have is an approximation. And sure, I can say that my rival is an idiot because they can’t even memorize 100 digits on their own, they have to rely on a computer! But at the end of the day, the only person who cares is you, and the source of the memory really doesn’t matter. And it’s also important to remind ourselves at this point that memorization isn’t the peak of intelligence. If it were, computers and books would be considered much smarter than humans. I would argue that intelligence is the ability to connect multiple points of reference to come up with new ideas to solve problems as they arise. The ability to offload the task of memorization from the brain so it can spend more time and effort considering more and more connections and creative possibilities is an absolute net good.
So during the middle ages we’re looking at a society that operated underneath a population of an elite literate class, who were largely responsible for sustaining the structure of existence. The masses lived life in an oral culture, agreeing on vague promises, making handshake deals, living all of the time in fear of the next drought, disease or war.*
*Another thing to consider during this timeframe is the lack of availability of accurate timekeeping, another technology which we take for granted in our day but was unavailable to most of the people of 1000CE. The time discussion is fascinating but it would lead to such a long tangent that it’s best to avoid it and save it for a later date.
Depending on other’s literacy
By the time we get to the year 1000CE, 1500 years have passed since Socrates and civilization hasn’t fallen apart, but it hasn’t progressed all that much either. Society existed within the imbalance of literacy, where the elite possessed an amazing skill, allowing the technology of the day to offload their basic brain functionality. Many people probably lived much to Socrates’ satisfaction, forgoing literacy for one reason or another and operating within the bounds of a mostly oral society, but their lives within society as a whole depended on other’s literacy.
People in the Middle Ages were certainly capable of fending for themselves. The population was decidedly rural (in the 20th century for the first time ever in human history, more people lived in cities than not) source. But people still depended on one another to survive. As was alluded to earlier, medieval Europe was operating at pretty much peak efficiency at the time considering available technology and infrastructure. They continually were hitting at the top of the Malthusian trap, limiting their productivity and economic gains in a continuous cycle. Societal structure and a complex economy (for the time) allowed the population and economy to grow as much as it did. The ceiling was artificially high at the time thanks to the ability to move around different resources through various regions- the rudimentary gains from basic economic transfer, Econ-101 stuff. People in one region can produce loads of cabbage, but can’t keep more than few dairy cows alive, while another can’t grow a weed but has a great capacity for making dairy. When these regions traded with one another, they specialized and became much more efficient in the long run. If the structure of this economic system went away, humanity wouldn’t end, but the greater societal structure would likely not last.
The people of this time absolutely depended on other’s literacy. And they depended on literate people to save them from famine, war, weather and disease. Nobility and high ranking members of the caste ran the economy and defense. A normal person couldn’t afford the height of military technology of the day, they might not even be able to afford anything more than rudimentary homemade axes, clubs or spears. When it came to weather and disease, most people of the day would likely have put their faith in religious leaders. Whether this was right or wrong to do, belief of the time was common that hardships were otherworldly punishments. The Black Death was famously blamed on sinners those who people believed were in contact with the devil , or generally Jews and “prideful women”. Leaning on those who could interpret the word of god (this would be before Martin Luther transcribed the bible into the common tongue in the 16th century) to explain their suffering, or find solace in the words of their god meant that without those who could read, the people of this time would be truly, spiritually lost. Medieval society’s dependence on literacy to survive in their “modern” times is (inferentially) clear. The importance of the people on the top of society drastically outweighed the importance of those on the bottom rungs.
A Part of a Part of a Cog in a Machine
In this atmosphere of inflated importance of those among the top and deflated importance of the common people, the individual’s impact on society was infinitesimally small. An individual could not readily incite change, or bring an issue to light, or easily move up in the caste system of society. What was required to do all of these things was an extreme work ethic, intelligence coupled with an even more extreme reserve of luck, typically in the form of influencing a wealthy individual. Social mobility was rough, but not impossible, because of the caste-like society that Feudalism was based on. If there was movement it was likely from one subset of a strata to another. And from what I gather, though not directly, is that for the most part there was a level in this caste system that was viewed as not only “lesser”, but merely as assets or resources (dare I say, human resources?). What was needed to fill positions in the societal structure was essentially just a warm body. Now YES there were skilled craftsmen of the time, and NO I don’t think that people in this time were worthless idiots. But I think it’s fair to say that in their own time, when viewed by those who (literally) lorded over them, the average person was seen as completely replaceable.* Source
*I am truly making a lot of assumptions here. Feel free to correct me and I will absolutely amend these claims
So my claims of the lack of importance to the individual and the feeling of being less than essential in the middle ages are pretty much purely based on assumption, now I’m going to make some slightly more based claims.
One trope of the middle ages that sticks with me is the superstition and belief in the supernatural. There are many reasons for this, and I don’t disparage anyone in any time in history for believing in the supernatural, but you have to admit that it would totally alter their worldview. Imagine seeing a total eclipse (random pic from internet). People of the middle ages knew good and well what an eclipse was, the passing of the moon in front of the sun, but they wouldn’t likely know when they were coming. They thought of eclipses as omens or signs from god hinting to great change or displeasure.
If someone were to hear an argument that people in the 21st century are heading towards an age of neo-feudalism or peasantry, they would probably think about their dissatisfaction with the government, or the power of large corporations. The novel Snow Crash depicts a libertarian dystopia, where business owners have small holdfasts, called burbclaves, which are basically small kingdoms with their own laws and sovereignty, throughout future Los Angeles. I believe that both government and business ability to change our system to feudalistic is unlikely, but Snow Crash is the more likely scenario in the US if it were going to happen- which, again, is unlikely. These businesses will always be pushing for control and power, that is their right and what helps our economy grow. But we won’t have the power to push back against this continuing growth in power because we are 21st century illiterate.
Much like peasants in medieval Europe, most of us are completely functional members of society but totally illiterate when it came to the organization of the complex economic, religious and militaristic aspects of our society. We depend on a few, elite persons in our system to coordinate and help us achieve inflated (real, but inflated) levels of productivity, efficiency and the overall status quo. As a thought experiment, if the aforementioned 2% literate dark age population were to suddenly disappear overnight, society would collapse over a relatively short time (it’s important to note that I don’t mean society would disappear of that humanity would end, but the average person’s lifestyle would drastically change). If any other 2%, or maybe even more, people were to be Thanos-snapped out of existence, it would be an absolute tragedy, sure, but the way of life of the average person would not be changed overnight. The system would still work. The amount of people lost in this medieval Thanos-snap moment isn’t the most important aspect, its the loss of the glue which holds everything in this world together. And if Thanos were to snap every coder or programmer out of existence tomorrow, we would be in an extremely similar situation.
The sad truth is that many of us are living in what is essentially a magical world. We depend on machines, systems and programs that we simply do not understand. The well known quote from Arthur C. Clarke stands out here, where he says “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Because I can’t help but framing things against the past, let’s take our technology back to the middle ages, back to 1000CE. The people of that time would look at us like we were witches. If they could control themselves from burning us at the stake or something else fun like that, they would be amazed with our grand powers and insist that we are either demons or wizards. I could protest to them, tell them that I’m no wizard, that the device in my pocket is made from the minds of normal men and women who have not a magical bone in their body. But it is a technology I am unable to reproduce or even come close to explaining. Sure, I could pull some words out of thin air and say things I’ve heard on TV like “well it all really comes down to 1’s and 0’s”, but in reality I have no idea how it works. A smartphone itself is a bunch of technological advances crammed together, but I don’t even know how to make or explain how the simplest part of it! Without googling, how do we make the plastic that goes in a smartphone? I know it’s something to do with oil, but that’s about it. Even with the information, I’m not going to be able to come close to reproducing it myself.
And it’s not just technology that we depend on but don’t understand- think of the systems. We are surrounded by systems which expand the limits of our productivity as a society. The financial system is a tentpole in the center of our society holding us up way above where we would be without it.
When I have expressed this sentiment to friends before, they shrug it off. They say they know how to use a computer, they know how to use their phone, they can operate in the world just fine. But the only reason that the average person knows how to operate this complex, indistinguishable-from-magic technology is because of the user interface, the design that allows us dummies who can’t 21st-century-read to use the magic of computer processing to our everyday advantage. It’s because of our dependence on those who are 21st century literate. The priest is droning out a song of select passages in Latin and we’re just repeating the words. We’ve learned the lord’s prayer, how to cross our selves, grabbed some rosary beads and now we think we know the Bible- and haven’t even heard of the catechism. Our literacy is centralized in an elite few, and they’re transcribing what they can to us to make it as useful as possible.
Intuitive User Interfaces
A movie that stuck with me when I saw it, despite the fact that it isn’t very good, was Idiocracy. I saw it much later than its 2006 release, but that might be why it struck a cord- the movie was prophetic. No, not in the political sense, and not in the main premise of the movie where dumb people overpopulate the earth with their dumb genes- which is probably not going to end up being true and probably accidentally endorses eugenics. This movie was prophetic only because of its retrofuturistic aesthetic obsession with the height of user-interface technology of the day- the vending machine*. These people do everything by vending machine. They push a big button and out comes the solution to their problems. There’s a vending machine button for broken bones, delivering babies and buying any other service or item you can think of. This movie couldn’t anticipate the iPhone 1 year before its release, and in their 500 year future people apparently still walk to stores instead of having things delivered. But the vending machines, they look exactly like something to me- they’re all shaped and styled exactly like iPhone home screen icons.
*It’s like the store but without having to deal with people!
This is what I’m trying to point out, this is what the term “intuitive user interface” means- so simple a child could use it. The people in Idiocracy are morons— one reason why the movie isn’t very good— they’re the worst caricatures of absolute idiots that you’ve ever seen to the point that a person with a 100 IQ stands out without even speaking as the smartest person in the entire world*. But they can work their magical vending machines. Just as those in medieval Europe didn’t have to be able to rue 12th century literate to know that a sign with an anvil and hammer on it means “blacksmith”, you and I don’t have to be 21st century literate to manipulate our magic pocket machines. Someone else who is literate has made it so simple that your 4-year-old can pick it up and be just as or even more masterful I can. Our phones and computers are designed with the goal in mind of being learned quickly by anyone.
*It makes you wonder who is designing all of these super advanced vending machines and their products, but whatever
In my first job out of college, I sold cell phones. Apart from figuring out that jobs where you’re an employee in every single way except for your compensation absolutely suck*, the biggest thing I learned was how to empathize with a customer who wasn’t a carbon copy of myself. When I showed up, I loved the Android model**. A flagship android feels like a piece of technology, it has all of the newest ideas and features thrown in. The designers take risks, the developers have free reign to do what they want- it’s a glimpse into the future in your pocket. By contrast, an iPhone feels very familiar very quickly. That’s the tradeoff. You trade ultra-simplicity and ultra-reliability that comes with the iPhone and sacrifice the customizability and innovation with most flagship Android platform phones. If you were to compare the users of flagship androids to the users of iPhones controlling for financial constraints and for those who jailbreak iPhones, I would imagine that you’d find people who are more literate when it comes to computers, programming language and software (21st century literate) making up a higher percentage of flagship android users than non-developers.
*(ie. 1099 companies where you have the freedom of being a “contractor” but can’t make your own schedule)
**Coincidentally, we made more money selling Android. I don’t know if this is true to day but it was certainly the reason salespeople desperately pushed Android back in 2012
The “magic” in our pockets isn’t truly magic, obviously. And you wouldn’t know it if all you did was read articles and watch media depictions about programmers and silicon valley, but you don’t have to be an actual genius to learn how to code. In fact, I’d bet that there’s a good amount of programmers who aren’t all that smart at all, just like there are plenty of dumb financial advisors, teachers, politicians, doctors, bloggers (etc.) in this world. From everything I can gather, outside of the creative elite, the most useful attribute for a programmer seems to be obsessiveness rather than raw intellect. Obsessing over a complex progression of coding language using trial and error, looking up information in forums and asking for help from others- this seems to be the real experience of most programmers when they get into writing out complex tasks.
If someone came up to you and started beeping out dashes and lines, trying to communicate in morse code, you wouldn’t feel inferior for not knowing it. You wouldn’t equate this person with a genius. You’ve never tried to learn morse code, some people probably didn’t even know it existed or thought it was something made up for the movies. The simple lack of knowledge doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence, only when someone is unwilling or unable to learn. We don’t need to become literate in the field of programing because there are people who do that for us. Just like peasants didn’t need to do any reading, (they were given their easy to understand user-interface of the lords prayer and a few symbols) we don’t absolutely need to do any programming (we are given our user-interface controls of big buttons to press that do stuff for us). But once we learn to be 21st century literate, we can start creating our own symbols and leveling out our capability with our own feudal upper class.
There was more music in the world than anyone could listen to in a lifetime by the year 1900 [assumed], but when music making came to the masses during the 20th century the available approaches exploded- now there’s probably more music made in a year than a person could listen to in a lifetime. Every two minutes we take as many pictures as were taken during the first 80 years of photography. And I believe (based on nothing but extrapolating from these trends) that In 2100 there will be more programs written every day than have been written before 2019.*
*Yes, this is quality not quantity, but there is undoubtedly quality somewhere within enough quantity. Who did I steal that from? Damnit- Stalin.
But we aren’t yet in 2100, where the ability to generate these programs is widespread. The ability remains centralized, we offload the work of 21st Century literacy to the elite few, an oligopoly of literacy. They curate our user interfaces, and to many we have enough options that it might seem limitless. It’s like when Grand Theft Auto III came out, it seemed like you were in a huge city where you could do anything. Eventually you learned you couldn’t swim, go into 99.9% of buildings, climb ladders, talk- you get it. But the options available for most* seemed virtually limitless. If you don’t think about it (or if you’re trying to enjoy yourself), what isn’t available to you isn’t painfully obvious. This is the same with our smartphones and computers. We’re given so many options and variations on those options that we couldn’t even begin to explore all of them- the options are seemingly limitless. But it’s only what we’re given.
*Like an 8th grader playing only late at night so his mom wouldn’t take it away for being too violent
The Problem with Centralized Literacy
One issue with this is that it limits our imagination. We are confined to the box of other’s monetized creations when we consider what this new technology for others. Every new app that comes out- and every idea your buddy has for a new app that he will ultimately never even come close to doing anything about- is a variation of an existing one. “It’s like Uber, but for skateboards”. “It’s like Netflix, but for socks”*. We’re stuck in a regressive loop of ideas waiting for a new breakthrough. I believe we have not even begun to touch the surface of what simple programming can do for us in our every day lives, because we’ve only ever seen these daily improvement models if they can be monetized. We haven’t done anything ourselves. Imagine if reading and writing was limited to buying books and newspapers. Imagine if we didn’t realize that we could write down a reminder to ourselves later and leave it on the fridge.
*That’s a good one, I should write it down. Damn, there’s 13 of them already
What we face today is also a complete lack of agency in major parts of our lives, similar to how many people in the Middle Ages must have felt. There is no alternative to our system. You can’t reject technology without being seen as a luddite or someone who is too difficult to justify dealing with.
I worked with a young guy who refused to be provided a company smartphone. He insisted he be able to use a flip phone, from which he removed the battery on his way out of the door every single day. He carried around a piece of yellow legal pad paper with what looked like the scribblings of a madman on it, which turned out to be, not his account passwords, but codes to remind him of passwords for his accounts, which he changed every 30 days. This was very surprising because he was a smart, personable, outwardly social and capable person who was actually very skilled with programming and wrote a few major systems that the company used long after he was gone. He left after an argument with the company president about why he refused to get a smartphone. His concern? Privacy. It was a principle he was determined to stand by, and it literally cost him his job (he got another one, don’t worry).
I’ve had this concern with privacy before as well. I read one too many articles, listened to one too many podcasts, heard one too many arguments about how we were losing the thread on our personal privacy, handing over details of our lives for the benefit of a free email service or something similar. So I tried to reduce my use of privacy collecting sites. I changed my default search engine to DuckDuckGO*. I deleted my long dormant facebook account permanently, though I fear that they keep everything and the only way I will be able to find out is by signing back in, which would then re-activate my account. But I couldn’t leave everything and remain functional and sociable. I got rid of Facebook but kept my Instagram (so in other words, I accomplished nothing), moved my files from Google Drive to iCloud, made dummy email accounts for account verifications- what was all this for? It was a month long delusion that I could eliminate these privacy concerns. I knew in the back of my mind that this was all moot. These companies create networks of data collection, they can triangulate your identity from a number of different factors. I was functioning at a lower level than others because it would take me forever to search for something on DuckDuckGO, I’d miss events that were posted on Facebook, and all of that to make myself feel better as long as I remained delusional about reducing privacy violations. There are agencies which don’t require you to sign in to anything, or go to any website, they simply get your data location from your phone provider to see if you were in the area for a concert and then look at the history of your phone’s IP and determine your address, so they can send highly targeted physical mail advertisements about complementary shows.
*Which is terrible compared to Google. And no, I wasn’t going to Bing anything- I’m an idiot, not a masochist
So what’s the point of this little rant I’m going on about myself and my former coworker? You can’t get avoid these institutions without paying a price, and that makes gaining personal agency in this area of life- one of the most powerful and fulfilling aspects of human existence- very difficult to achieve. But this isn’t necessarily the end of the world, and I’m not even saying that breaking free of this reality is actually even achievable for regular people. Only that social momentum makes the cost of making moves away from our systems very difficult. In the Middle Ages, where peasants were lorded over by a political and social system instead of a technological one, there was no real alternative. You couldn’t decide to live outside anyone’s rule, or to reject the tenets of Catholicism without paying a price*. The people were stuck, for better or worse, in a system that they didn’t understand and had no control over.
*Source- the general history of the Jewish people
In modernity, there are many things we have little to no control over. We have to buy into these systems. For many in America there is essentially one choice for a home internet provider. There’s no such thing as open land to go settle on- if you don’t buy into or can’t keep up with the system, you’re just homeless, there’s nowhere else to go. If you didn’t buy into the feudal system of Medieval Europe, you were banished, jailed or probably executed.
Just like medieval peasants were limited in their actions regarding the most important innovations of their time- systems built on literacy-, we are limited by our lack of commercial agency in regards to the technological innovations of our time. We have product choice but they limit themselves in their use by design and oftentimes can’t even be repaired if broken. In the mid-20th century, people could fix their own cars, they would rebuild them up or have a mechanic do it without it being much of a big deal*. Now, with captive maintenance built around proprietary software, most garages are forced to plug a diagnostic tool into a car’s CPU and get a diagnostic readout delivered to them by the vehicle manufacturer. It’s like they have to send off the car’s bloodwork to get the readout of the physical. If a mechanic can’t diagnose an issue in house, what chance does a normal person have?
*It should be noted, people knew how to fix their cars because they were breaking down much more frequently than they do now. The reliability of cars has increased astronomically since the 1950’s
And then we have to deal with captive device compatibility- or the “Brand Ecosystem”. Your Apple watch will only fully work with an Apple Phone which will only fully be compatible with a MacBook which works best with a HomePod and brand name accessories, cables and other bullshit. Imagine if an axe you bought in the middle ages could only be sharpened by a whetstone sold by the same axe maker? Farmers today can’t repair their tractors without a John Deere repair center. Anything other than bodywork on my Ford has to be done by a certified Ford dealer. Not because they meet some glorious set of quality standards, but because they need to capture those service dollars.
I actually don’t want to dwell on the problems that these. I think the problems they solved are much greater than any problems they’ve created and we’re overall better for it*. However, that does not mean that I think we can be satisfied in the long run by maintaining the status quo. If any of this is particularly bad, we only let it get this bad because we’re a bunch of dummies who don’t know how to read good or do other things good too.
*At least so far. We might be downstream of some larger effects and not yet know it