Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Medium v. The Message v. Reality and Fiction 

I just came across a comment left by one Mark Miller to a post on "Paul Murphy's" ZDNet blog that poked my mind on a couple of levels. Murph's post (go read it if you haven't read him recently) is a reaction to a New York Post article written as an "undercover" first-person observation of how Wal-Mart operates at the grass-roots level. Murph's interest is in how Wal-Mart's use of technology fits together with their corporate culture to allow floor-level clerks to make ordering and pricing commitments for their store based on direct customer interaction. That decision-making process (and culture) is enabled and driven by the use of IT to put an amazing amount of proprietary information literally into the clerk's hand, along with the authority to order and/or re-price an item in response to customer demand without going through any bureaucracy.

Mr. Miller's comment started off by paraphrasing the (second) well-known Marshall McLuhan quote, "We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." He then goes on to talk about his view on the cultural differences between Windows and other systems from a cultural perspective, generally agreeing with Murph's original assertion about a system in which change (being inherently risky due to unknowable side-effects) is actively discouraged, vs. the other system that, being inherently stable and flexible, empowers all sorts of customer-centric behaviour that the first group would find suicidally risky - "we don't let our users think for themselves," in effect.

That was interesting enough in itself, but the other thing that popped into my mind was more of a free-association thing. I've spent the last week or so catching up on the last half of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica (yes, I know, but here, Season 3 starts next week). For both of you reading this who aren't familiar with the (remade) series, it's about the last human survivors of a genocidal attack. The attack was carried out - and the survivors pursued by - sentient artificial life forms deried from robots ("Cylons") originally created by humans as "soldiers and slaves." (One of the early tag-lines for the series was "Never create what you can't control."

The series has been gaining enthusiastic reviews and accolades since it started. As with other notable series before it, it uses a science-fiction metaphor to comment on our own current events, our own humanity, and what may be going wrong (or right) with either.

The point is... I'd bet the rent that if you asked any of the people professionally involved with the show, especially the writers, what they thought of the "we shape our tools..." quote -- they might or might not recognise or properly attribute the saying, but they would have to agree that that statement is at least half of what BSG is all about. (The other half, "don't push your responsibilities off onto others", comes through after some reflection; if people hadn't created machines to be their "soldiers and slaves" in the first place, several billion (fictional) people wouldn't have been incinerated; a point I haven't seen explicitly addressed yet.)

Yes, it's a slow day...

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