The Moribundity Criers, How [and a guess as to why] X is Dead is the New Futurism

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Summary: Stop me if you heard this one: _______ [insert any tech, cultural idea, etc] is dead. I have. A lot. And I'm finally ranty enough about it to try and get some of my frustration with the phrase out there. By why do they keep it up? Wrong assumptions? Or an myopic view of technology? Fanboyism?

BLOT: (22 Feb 2011 - 04:15:30 PM)

The Moribundity Criers, How [and a guess as to why] X is Dead is the New Futurism

Before I get started, let's go ahead and bring up some early examples, shall we. To GOOGLE!

That took me about ten minutes, and without exception, every phrase I typed in as X is dead* (with the X's being the things you see above) came back with at least a few links making that exact claim. While a few don't use the phrase outright—Jobs, in the "reading is dead" link above, simply says the Kindle isn't competition because Americans don't read anymore, by which he probably means Americans who work in the Genius Bar...seriously, one once told me that I should plug in my "big phone cord" [he meant my cat6 cable] into my Mac—several of them do. And if they don't say that "X is dead" then what they do say is that "X is doomed" or they ask "Is X dead?" or something similar.

Why do we do it? Why do we do it so...poorly? Just look at some stats:

Is this just stupidity? Bad grasps of number? Frothing rants? Misapplications of statistics? Or does dead now have a new meaning? You have dead and then you have "dead dead"**. Combination of all of the above? Here are my guesses.

1. Problems of Scale [Meet Problems of Regionalism]. Basically, you have people reading about 500 million users on Facebook and Google billion search requests per day and Hotmails 1/3 a billion users; and when they see numbers like Livejournal's 16 million users, they think "pish-posh". It's like looking into a well lit room after staring at the sun. Take Orkut, Google's Social Network site that many American's overlooked. It has 100 million users active, and is a big deal in Brazil and India. Or ICQ, which also has about 100 million accounts (not sure of the active count), but is seemingly most popular in Northern Europe and into Russia. The Millennium Trilogy has Lisbeth Salander use it, but I wonder how many Americans got the reference?

2. Reliance on Teen-based Predictions. See the "blogs are dead" bit up above? One of their primary points is that teens don't like the longer bits. Similar complaints about email being dead is the same. The thing about Kindle being dead? Well, I'll get to that but some of the complaints are that kids don't read, which is utter BS. Still, a good number of these claims try and posit that since today's teens don't actively use something, then it doesn't have a future. Which is really one of the fallacious arguments you can have. Not only do people change habits greatly from teen to honest-to-goodness money spending adults, but a decade in technology terms is a long time. Who knows what will be around when today's seventeen year old is thirty?

3. Attempts at Negative Futurology. Remember how, in the 50s, we were going to get jetpacks and hover cars? And in the 60s, we were going to get giant computers and trips to other planets? And in the 70s, we were going to interminable wastelands and radiation poisoning? And in the 80s, I rock and Robocop? How the future was always both a change in tech, as well as a change A change in aesthetics? Futurology, predicting the outcome of today's trends on down the road, is largely a positive assertion [while futurism, the art movement, is possibly rooted in more ironic expression]. This is what will be. That kind of thing. A lot of this "X is dead" is actually negative futurology, a new futurism that paints a future that is not dynamic so much as compressed compared to our own. It is trying to say what won't be around. Why? Because it is lazier, for the most part. Because we have seen plenty of wrong guesses (I don't see any flying cars). And, to quote Fight Club: on a long enough time-line, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero. The one true thing we can be sure of is that everything will one day end. Be it as space dust or as dying bits in the scrap heap of some magnetic Armageddon. Of course, as reported on NPR: old tools never are not made. We still use UseNet [daily traffic counts on UseNet are measured in the terabytes]. New Interactive Fiction titles are still being made with improving technologies. There are even Websites about repairing 8-tracks. Negative futurology is appealing, especially to those who want to froth a bit, but it is just as bad a guess as positive variations.

4. Fanboyism. You could have a scavenger hunt that goes "Look up a Kindle-is-dead style article that doesn't a) talk about the iPad or b) talk about how books are better," and it would be hard. I'll not say impossible, but if you include comments, fairly improbable. Email and Twitter gets hated on by fans of Facebook. Facebook gets hated on by fans of privacy (*rimshot*!). Microsoft is hated on by fans of Mac and Linux. A lot of the claims that one technology or cultural notion is dead is actually a statement that someone prefers another one. We are suckers for branding, and that same instinct that made us choose Pepsi over Coke also makes us think we have to choose one thing or another. Not only causing us to confuse our own personal uses with uses at large (one time heard someone claim that the Wii was soooo far behind the XBox that it was pathetic, when in reality the Wii was far ahead in sales) but also leading us to therefore slag off other things and try and prop up our choices. Because we want people, generally, to choose what we chose so our stuff doesn't go out of business. Which leads us to...

5. A misplaced assumption that there is a very limited number of "slots". This kind of fits into #4, but is also broader. People hate on the Kindle because they seem to think that only books or only eBooks can exist. It's like Hipsters hating on one band because they have moved on to another. Guess what? Unless the operating costs and critical mass is especially high (say, if Facebook needed that half-billion people to function) then there is no small limit to the number of slots open for any given technology. People can tweet, instant message, and email without having to claim a "brand".

6. Frothing at the Mouth [to generate page views...]. Finally, there is some old school frothing going on. People like to complain, love to rant, and are freakin' married to stating opinions. Some of these are going to stick to something like blogs or newspaper articles. Some are these are going to get found, and clicks are going to come pouring in. Because these are contentious ideas, this means that half the viewers love the idea and half hate it, but it still gets double viewers and therefore gets propped up over articles that only have haters or only have lovers. Plus, you just get memes floating around (remember "Y is the new black" from about five years ago? I also riffed on that in the title of this). It is something people say. In five years, it will be something new...

The main thing to take from this is, well, very few technologies die. It just doesn't work that way. Numbers might only be in the couple of million instead of the hundred million, but we are still talking about the population of fair sized cities, of small countries. A lot of the froth on this seems to be against heterogeneity, seems to think there can only be one choice, and that's not true. In the Net and in technology: do the bit that feels best to you. There will be plenty of others that agree.

* This is not a new tradition. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche infamously quipped, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" Though, unlike gazillions of misquotes claim, he was saying nothing about God and everything about God's place in society. He didn't see one. He thought we were moving beyond religion—"What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"—and therefore future societies would look back and see the divine as only a corpse, or something within ourselves. Admittedly, I grew up in Alabama, but chances are no matter where you live there is some church, some service, some ceremony, somewhere.

** Apologies to Whoopi Goldberg.


Written by Doug Bolden

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