Tag Archives: Jacques Ellul

Has Morality Become a Skeuomorph?

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An early strategy for making new technology feel familiar

I was thinking this morning about two subjects that don’t usually go together, skeuomorphs and morality.

A skeuomorph is a design element applied to a product that looks as if it’s functional but really isn’t. Its real purpose is to evoke a sense of familiarity and comfort. The literary critic N. Katherine Hayles cites as an example the dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is made of synthetic plastic molded to look as if it’s stitched fabric.

Software designers use lots of skeuomorphs for their user interfaces; examples include the “pages” that seem to “turn” in e-readers and word processing programs. Hayles calls skeuomorphs “threshold devices.” They “stitch together past and future,” she says, “reassuring us that even as some things change, others persist.” (more…)

Revisiting the Clock Tower: Scaling Technology

The IBM System/360 was the clock tower of its time.

I want to spend a few hundred words today, considering the geographic dimensions of digitally augmented/mediated social action. I am not only talking about GPS-enabled smartphone apps (Foursquare, Geocaching, SeeClickFix, etc.) but also the sorts of practices and habits– the kind that most people barely notice– that make up one’s daily Internet usage. Just as there are different car cultures in different parts of the United States (and the rest of the world), are there different “Interent  Cultures” based on geographic region? Does where you connect, have any impact on how you connect? In some respects, yes– speed, availability, and stability of a connection matters; nations put up firewalls to prevent their citizens from accessing dangerous ideas; and you wouldn’t (or can’t) do the same things on your work computer that you could do on your home computer. All of this leads to a common provocation: can we utilize the properties of scale, place, and community to create radically new kinds of augmented realities.  Can communities utilize a shared Internet connection to deal with local issues? Can we deliberately work against the individualist ethic of the Internet to revitalize public life? (more…)

The Unabomber’s Favorite Philosopher (and Mine)

Jacques Ellul

Last month the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying “think tank,” plastered Ted “The Unabomber” Kaczynski’s scowling face on a series of billboards in Chicago.

I still believe in global warming,” the copy read. “Do you?

Kaczynski has long been the figurative poster boy for technophobic insanity, of course, but the Heartland Institute made it literal. The billboard campaign was quickly recognized as a miscalculation and withdrawn, but it served as a reminder of what a gift Kaczynski turned out to be for some of the very enemies he sought to destroy. It also served as a reminder of how egregiously he misused the ideas of a philosopher who is revered as a genius by many people, myself included.

I refer to Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society. Ellul died 18 years ago last month; this year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth. (more…)