Technology’s Impact on Narrative and Culture



“Artificial Intelligence (AI) agents will pull information for us on the basis of parameters we establish and control. They will deliver it to the social networks that exist inside our own data network. Web 3.0 is the true era of conversation, where the real dialogue begins.”

I wrote those words here in 2007. Was I wrong! And late to the game; the hype started in 2004. Facebook was just at the beginning of what would become a long string of betrayals al the altar of the algorithm. Web 2.0 became disappointing quickly, offering the same 'exchange value' model in new “shiny” words.

The tech was different,

but not the intent.

It's still early days for Web3 (in a clever marketing move, the zero dropped), but it already feels like what Jonathan Cook called “a reliable grift used by digital hucksters who profit by selling a revolution that's perpetually just around the corner, offering the hype of the #metaverse and #blockchain without ever delivering something that works.”

To me, this is a classic technology play to ingest energy and get attention. While it figures how to make money behind the scenes. Money, once again, being the sole focus. It reminds me of a classic quote by Enzo Ferrari “Aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines.”


Examining value

Aerodynamics is the attempt to accelerate often an existing situation through cosmetics. Engines are prime movers, where the natural compounding and transfer of value occurs. Under this definition, culture and law are engines. And there are more.

“From the perspective of value in use,” says Peter Tunjic, “technologies (such as corporations, #web3 and #metaverse ) are prime movers. Incorporeal engines that principally exist to transform things (physical and otherwise) into both value in use and value in exchange.”

He says, the advanced science of 'value in exchange' promotes all technologies intended to produce value in exchange blindly. There's a need for an equivalent science of value in use to understand whether the same new technologies increase the capacity of society to produce socially beneficial change.

Because the alternative is getting much less for the more than goes into it. Business anthropologist Grant McCracken calls Web3 “a zone of displaced meaning,” a beloved ideal that's perpetually around the corner, just enough out of reach, never able to disappoint us by having to actually work. Or take responsibilities.

Prime moves generate value in use from existing stores of capital. However, prime movers are not a universal resource. If the output can do less work than the input, you have a sink. Said another way, trade something with a long gradual gradient of value in use for something with a short, steep one, and you have less value over time.

There are always tradeoffs. Neil Postman listed bureaucracy, IQ tests, statistics, polls, management, and language among invisible technologies. Polling, for example, from a value in use perspective, should take into account a few variables:

  • how you ask the question—yes/no formats provide answers to unexamined questions. Polling hides this.
  • how you treat opinion—a verb, a process of thinking you shape by acquiring knowledge through questioning, discussing, and debating. Polling hides the process.
  • how you take into account (or not) what people know about the thing you're asking—imagine splitting a poll into what people 'believe' and what they 'know' about a subject.
  • how shifting the locus of responsibility from leaders to their constituents shifts responsibility—before polling, leaders were judged on their capacity to make decisions based on the wisdom they possess

Postman said this tradeoff of the polling created “information trivia.” But not all information is at an equal level. Yet, the language, another invisible technology, obscures motive. Like polls, it often hides a narrative with an agenda at odds with what it promises.


Making the invisible visible

The language of technology is often a cloak. It obscures narratives that don't further human practice.

Examining the language of Web3, Cook says “the emotional narrative of revolution promises that this time, things will be different. There have been frustrations, yes, but this time, we’re told, Gadget X will break all the rules, and make all our dreams come true. This is the language of a compulsive gambler.”

What Technology Wants, according to Kevin Kelly, is to create things of value in a free copy world. How does it generate this value? Kelly says people will pay for immediacy, personalization, authenticity, attention, interpretation, accessibility, embodiment, and findability.

I think it's important to underscore how the results are mixed. Not all technology, not all the time. Search finds as much as it obscures via popular vote and commercial interest, for example. Immediacy reduces friction, but sometimes friction is valuable. How do you reconcile authenticity with the ease of producing fake?

So much of the narrative of revolution throws away the human. And this is patently a failure of language, of reducing everything to data or bits, of trying to simplify what we don't yet understand. I'm with Rebecca Solnit, in that our words are not helping us describe the complexity and subtlety of what is happening.

The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.

It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism.

Ultimately the destruction of the earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.

The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favor of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.

The propensity for reducing everything to a dichotomy is backfiring. Production and consumption don't describe what's going on accurately. Value doesn't end when the thing is produced. Nor can you merely consume it. Instead, value moves.

We need a new vocabulary to make the invisible visible. One that expresses value in 'generatives.' Ironically, that's where you find embodiment—with the transferring, transforming, and converting.


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