Efficiency for Efficiency’s Sake?

We sometimes think technological developments are aimed at improving human life. My reading of Paul Virillo (and Jean-François Lyotard, to some extent) is that we develop technology, ultimately, so that we can develop technology. We make jokes about this idea many ways: “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”; “We go to work today so that we can go to work tomorrow.” We make light of the circular nature of our lifestyle and our society. Some argue- and perhaps with some merit- that the story of technology today is the same sort of circular story. Faster computers with more RAM and disk space allow us to conduct the science that will allow us to build still faster computers with more RAM and disk space. I define efficiency as the ratio between a resource and an output—and we usually consider time and money our resources. However, we sometimes care about our output because it affects our pool of resources. My reading of the postmodernists leaves me at least with this question: Have we made efficiency circular (and therefore meaningless)?

I think it’s worth backing up a little bit- at least back to the part about making faster computers so that we can go on to make faster computers. It is true that we increase the capacities and efficiency of our computers (generally, “digital technology”) with each generation. (See also: Moore’s Law.) However, I think the misstep is to gloss over the other reasons we improve our technology. While better technology enables even better technology, it also serves the other purposes for which we use technology. We store our music, movies, photos, and literature on the larger storage spaces. We play our games and communicate through the faster speeds. The concern should not ignore these features of our relationship with technology. We should rephrase that concern as: “Have we lost sight of the purpose for our technology, now serving it instead of it serving us?”

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Is Post Modernism a Cynical Reaction to Shattered Dreams?

Post-Modernism takes as axiomatic the death of the grand narrative. Prior to the 20th century, the story goes, humans lived under “grand narratives” about God, justice, truth, morality, power structures, nature, assurances about eventual rightness, and so forth.  At the start of the 21st century, few[er] people in the Western world take governments, economies, corporate leaders, monetary systems, treaties, political speeches, religious belief, natural law, etc. seriously or literally. I wonder: is PoMo an attempt to describe how Western Civilization moved from the former to the latter?

PoMo is often characterized as a radical rejection of the fundamentals of metaphysics and epistemology, to the point of a total disengagement from the reality of the chairs in which we sit. Thus understood, it is rightly mocked as both pretentious and worthless. However, it may be that this school of thought is mean to describe a loss of faith in power and authority and a rejection of social institutions. The more extreme, hard PoMo might be about not thinking that the objects in a room are “real,” either because words have no meaning or objects are constructs of our minds; the softer approach is to see PoMo as asserting that there is no “justice” in a law because a legislative (or judicial, or executive) body may be subject to error or corruption (from selfishness, lobbying, or outright bribery and graft), or that there is no settled “truth” in a society which learns through sources which often conflict. It is undoubtly easier to swallow that the “objects” which may not be “real” are the objects of our social world, not of our physical world. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but it’s hard to keep an analysis of Post Modernism down to approx. 500 words.)

Baseball might be my least favorite sport (at least cricket has funny Anglophonic accents), but there’s a useful analogy to tie together legal realism and this “soft PoMo” idea in the act of a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes. One umpire, when asked about whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, boldly asserted, “They ain’t nothin’ til I calls ‘em.” Some schools of legal theory feel there is a fact about laws and justice, and it is the work of judges and lawyers to find that fact—just as scientists experiment on objects to find their mass, density, specific heat, and other qualities. Through the 20th century, a competing school of thought posited that there was no fact about law (or maybe even Justice, abstractly), and so there was no such science-like experimentation to be done. On this view, the law is like calling balls and strikes: and the law is nothing until it has been judged (and even then, the judgment may be judged).

This view of PoMo makes the movement sound more disaffected and bitter than radical and delusional. Perhaps the great manifesto of this view is President Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. (text: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/carter-crisis/ )His description of a loss of hope and trust in government, both in policies and persons, (and I would extend that to at least news media), could be read as a eulogy (or the Last Rites?) for thee grand narratives of authority, justice, and progress.

So, what does this mean for IP law, specifically? For one thing, it bears on whether patents and copyrights are matters of doing just and right things for inventors and authors, or whether they are merely functional tools to serve consumers. Further along this line, accepting PoMo may make it easier to accept media piracy because there is (on this view) no absolute truth about the wrongfulness of copyright violation. But it might shed light on why we might be inclined to reject such absolute truths: the story of America in the 20th century might be the story of 4 generations learning not to trust authority figures and not to believe in the ideals and morals born under the Grand Narratives of ages past.

Happiness in a Structurally Unhappy Culture

Modern media continually inject us with two anathemas: news and advertising. I will address the latter, which hinges essentially on a message of the form: YOU NEED X. This is what David Cross called “an existence based on manufactured necessity.” (Alan Watts has spoken somewhat on this subject from the Zen Buddhist perspective; without recommending him per se, I recommend reflection on his commentary.)

Individual notions of happiness are subjective, and so ideas of unhappiness are, too. I focus on one issue: does something about the capitalist model nudge us towards something we are prone to find unsatisfactory? I think so, and I think advertising is the connection between a business’ need to make profits and the idea that we lack (or “want”) something. It does not seem likely that we will make as many purchases if we do not feel we need or want anything. Markets are created as people discover a lack—and so there is an interest in manufacturing those lacks (“wants”). A common response to wanting something is some kind of unhappiness. The argument, then, is this: Capitalism emphasizes markets to create profits for businesses. Businesses use advertising to create and expand markets to generate more profits (for the business). Advertising often tells consumers that they lack something in their lives— that something is wrong, insufficient, or missing—and that the business can resolve it. The effect is twofold: 1) we feel our lives are constantly amiss, 2) we feel a continual need to “fix” our “broken” selves/lives/identities/being—and this requires that we work to get enough money to pay for these products and services throughout our lives.

If this line of thought has anything to it, then it is simplistic to think of the problem as strictly being money or power systems or economic structures. One of the fundamental assumptions of this argument is that our happiness is at odds with feeling that something is wrong with our personal state of affairs (whatever we may call “our lives”). This gives us a different notion of what the problem is and how it might be resolved (or what attempted solutions might not work). It seems that mere changes in external systems (especially economic structures) won’t be sufficient if we remain under the belief that our lives are ineffective and in need of constant aid. The corollary is the question: Can we then recover some of this happiness within the current system? If no economic or political system can make us happy so long as it imposes a continual feeling of our own inadequacy and insufficiency, can we achieve feelings of worth and sufficient value within a system that attempts to convince us of our continual want? The answer is crucial in helping us decide whether the next great revolution must be an internal or external one.