Anti-Buzz: Barbarians at the Gate

by Andrew Emmott on March 7, 2012

in Anti-Buzz

The Buzz: Technology can be faddish.
The Anti-Buzz: This is the belief those unwilling to change.

It is why Hollywood hates YouTube. It is why bibliophiles hate e-books. It is why publishers hate self-publishing. It is why used car salesmen hate that the Kelley Blue Book is online. Each one of these people looks at the new technology and sees barbarians at the gate.

My father has read a lot on the subject of fear-of-change and a consistent theme is that people feel a loss of expertise with the technology. As an example, elder court judges have spent a long time mastering the navigation of their law library. As a result, there are law libraries unable to upgrade to electronic records at the behest of these judges, the old card catalog being passed on like a misguided family tradition. To them the barbarians are the young lawyers and judges who would not have to master the skills they did if the traditional card catalog was abandoned. To them, adopting the new technology is akin to anarchy.

Book lovers with a large collection of books, or a collection of rare books, or a collection of large and beautiful books, sometimes cringe at the e-book revolution. Now books are cheaper, less decorative, easier to earn, easier to move across the country. The motivation to maintain an attractive personal library has been reduced, and worse, the most accessible books are the popular ones. Now every barbarian who reads popular fiction can fit their library in their pocket. These savages would never appreciate a good coffee table book of mid-century European photography. These savages don’t appreciate the smell of paper.

Worse, it used to be that an author would have to run the gauntlet of convincing the elite in New York that they are worthy of speaking to the world. Thanks to e-books, any barbarian can create a professional-grade book without jumping through hoops and can be heard by anyone willing to listen. Preposterous.

And I could go on, but you get the idea. New technologies tend to democratize what had previously been privilege, and so the privileged tend to react strongly, and the beneficiaries of the new technology can sometimes seem incomprehensible and overwhelmingly numerous; the swarm of Internet video stars, the legion of Facebook users, the horde of smartphone owners, (In my day, we had to sit in a chair and take our Internet at our desk).

It is joked that physicists can be annoying to other scientists because the abstract purity of their field informs them enough about all other fields that they will argue with experts in chemistry and biology as if they knew better than them. Well, the same has been happening with computer science. The ubiquity of our work has made us arrogant, and the need for all other fields to model complex data has made us indispensable both in science and in business. Suddenly biologists and others need to learn our skills. Suddenly we’re the ones who think we have the privilege of talking about all other fields. We are the barbarians at the gate. Computing technology is the horde, sweeping across our old countries. I’m being poetic, but if you think the computing revolution has done most of its work, you are mistaken.

And I’m the most offensive sort of barbarian. I’m involved in artificial intelligence. The things I study and build will one day make complex decisions for us. If you think your expertise is challenged now, wait until the new technology your are facing is an actual replacement for your actual expertise. I don’t talk much about the singularity, in part because I think its status as a buzzword has made its meaning too vague, but at the very least this century will see people grapple with the fact that learned skills can quickly become obsolete. All of us will have to adapt to change quickly, and eventually wedge ourselves into skill sets that computers can’t replicate.

So far I have been abstract and dramatic. To bring this back down to reality: we all have a misguided tendency to be dismissive of new trends. Social media is a fad. The cloud is a fad. I’ve spoken on social media recently, and I will tackle the cloud soon, but the common theme is that we are always willing to watch these new things fail. It shows a recalcitrance towards change, even among those of us who are ostensibly “with it” in regards to computing technology. Right now there is no enormous punishment for hesitating about going paperless, making a better website, buying a smartphone, or setting up a twitter account. But the stubbornness will become a liability. The rate of change is only getting faster, and the scale of the change is only getting larger. The privilege of believing in fads is a privilege the barbarians will one day take from you too.

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