Technology: @*;^%!

The 25th anniversary of the PC this past weekend fittingly coincided with a bit of technological musing. On the one hand, we have the wonders of our age, providing marvels like the rapid, decentralized, and interactive transfer of enormous amounts of information (such as this very blog) and the vast virtual terrains of state-of-the-art video games (such as Shadow of the Colossus; see below). On the other hand, we have an increasingly “monetized” (since when did that word get so common?) culture, where we pay more and more for hardware, software, and upkeep of life’s “essentials,” and are thoroughly dependent upon them functioning well.

Let me address the former first. Technologies are products of their cultures. As such, they may have (substantial) impacts, but they can’t “determine” subsequent developments out right, at least not on their own. In the case of not only the PC but (more importantly) the internet, it was the social and cultural determinations to share tools and participation, rather than close them down outright, that sparked the oft-called “revolution” in our communication and culture over the past decade or so (see James Boyle’s column today in Financial Times). Similarly, it’s been the desire to broaden the parameters of a “game” that has enabled everything from Donkey Kong to Doom to The Sims to Grand Theft Auto to Second Life; i.e., to take the same tools (essentially, lines of code) to create something different. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, the differences are fairly profound. This is an adventure game with basically no deadlines, no points, no power-ups, no mini-games. In fact, as has often been remarked in reviews, this is a game which one need not “play” in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, should you desire, your avatar (Wander) and his horse, Argo, could simply stroll around the exquisite digital landscape forever. Even if you did follow the game’s central quest (the defeat of 16 ginormous colossi), you could take your own time doing it, pausing while in battle, assessing options, even wandering off for a bit and coming back. Moreover, there’s a tone of melancholy that pervades the entire world and endeavor. Yes, you’re ostensibly saving your true love’s soul by defeating these giants, but what did they ever to do you to deserve this? They’re awesome, horrible, beautiful beasts, and dispatching them is as saddening as it is challenging. Words really can’t do this game justice.

Point two: technology is a virus, to paraphrase and reverse Agent Smith’s description of humanity in The Matrix. Think about how much media technology we had about the house in the pre-PC world. A TV or two (sans cable, most likely). A stereo that played records and possibly cassettes. A few portable radios. And that’s about it. No subscription fees. No software upgrades. No compatibility issues. No DRM. No Wi-Fi sniffing. No spyware. What’s more, in the case of TV, once you bought the hardware, you were done. Today, though, we’ve got desktop PCs, notebook PCs, cell phones, PMPs, DVRs, bluetooth this and that, and various and sundry other “networked devices,” all of which could process everything from a text message to the latest episode of The Hills. Great when it’s all working, right? Not so hot when it’s not, as I discovered this past weekend with a particularly bad piece of software I can’t extricate from my desktop PC. I must now enter a Zen-like quiet determination and basically rebuild the system from scratch. Woo-hoo. If it were gum in my hair, I’d be going bald at this point. That big-old TV with the knobs and five channels in the furniture case at Grandma’s house doesn’t look so bad any more.

Point two-B. And why must my MacBook work only with its lid open?!? Say what you will about Windows PCs and/or John Hodgman, but my Compaq’s doing about three dozen things with its “eyes shut,” while my MacBook can only snooze. Or is that the point…?

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