#104: After the Gold Rush

A quick reminder that I’m leading an online reading group about the internet, architecture, and the built environment (familiar Kneeling Bus topics) that will start Monday 11/4 and meet for four weekly sessions through the rest of November. It’s going to be a lot of fun. You can still enroll if you’re interested! Sign up here (discount for Kneeling Bus readers).

This week I published an essay in Real Life about technological bundling and unbundling. If you’ve been subscribed here for a while you’ll recognize this as a perennial thread I like to tug on. One reason unbundling fascinates me is that it seems closely aligned with the belief that technological progress gradually makes everything better for everyone, in general. To me, that’s an obvious fallacy (and probably a straw man), as is the inverse attitude—that technological progress slowly makes everything worse. But unbundling represents a notion that much of the utility and value in the world is locked up in veins of ore that must be mined, freeing it from the worthless rock in which it’s trapped. The mentality of any gold rush contains this same hope that what’s being unearthed will be a panacea—will make life exponentially better—and in the best cases that actually turns out to be true. More commonly, however, those gains are confined to the few who found the gold and got there first. Rebundling, meanwhile, marks the end of the utopian dream and the reassertion of reality: Few unbundled things can survive alone, and a new monetization strategy is needed, perhaps no better than the original.

In 1950, Norbert Wiener offered a more nuanced and useful idea of how technological progress works: “There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.” This is why bundling and unbundling are important concepts: Most of the good and bad in the world is incredibly resilient—technology isn’t creating or destroying it but reshuffling it. Community, collective joy, and creative play as well as propaganda, envy, and harassment have existed forever in various forms. Whenever someone complains about fake news or kids zoning out on their phones, the lazy rebuttal is that “this is nothing new.” And while that’s correct, technological change—particularly unbundling and rebundling—determine where that good and bad exists, who experiences it, and how it’s packaged. The texture and distribution of the good and bad change constantly, and technology certainly drives that.

So, the position that the aggregate human experience remains fairly stable and that there is almost nothing new under the sun is broadly correct (or “directionally correct”), which could be a license to stop trying to do anything because lol nothing matters. But this affirms Wiener’s emphasis on entropy rather than progress: Maybe we’re not all advancing together toward an objectively brighter future, but just eternally trying to hold it together? Regardless of which one it is, there are definitely pockets of the world that are experiencing real, absolute progress, even as entropy increases all around them (San Francisco being one striking physical manifestation of this contrast). In our eagerness to unbundle and rebundle the world—a cycle that is probably inevitable—this perspective might help. Instead of thinking about which problems we’re permanently solving, we can consider the islands of decreasing entropy that new technology is helping to create, and who gets to inhabit them.