A Most Irritating Affectation

The most irritating affectation of the modern intellectual is to pretend to be technically incompetent. I exaggerate, of course, but I hope you catch my drift. Especially if you’ve encountered the specimen of humanity that I have in mind. (Mostly on social media, but often in person too.)

The type is clearly identified: a clearly intellectually accomplished individual–perhaps by dint of academic pedigree, perhaps by a body of public work, or just plain old clearly visible ‘smarts’–claims that they are incompetent in modern technology, that they simply cannot master it, that their puny minds cannot wrap their heads around the tools that so many of their friends and colleagues seem to have so effortlessly mastered. (‘Oh, I have no idea how to print double-sided’; ‘Oh, I have no idea what you mean by hypertext’). They are just a little too busy, you see, with their reading–good ol’ dead-tree books, no Kindles or Nooks here!–and writing–well, not on typewriters sadly, but word processors, for some change really cannot be resisted. Rest assured though, that they have to call for help every time they need to change the margins or fonts or underline some text.

This absorption in old-fashioned methodologies and materials of learning thus marks them as gloriously archaic holdovers from an era which we all know to have been characterized by a greater intellectual rectitude than ours. While the rest of us are slaves to fashion, scurrying around after technology, desperately trying to keep up with the technical Joneses, our hero is occupied with the life of the mind. So noble; such a pristine life, marked by utter devotion to the intellect and free of grubby mucking around with mere craft.

Why do I find this claim of incompetence to be an irritating affectation? My suspicion is easily provoked because I do find posturing in all too many places–as I did above in expressions of faux modesty, sometimes called humblebrags in the modern vernacular, but here, I think, is the rub. Those who profess such incompetence merely outsource the work of learning the tools we all learn to do our work to us. They are unwilling to put in the time to learn; they are too busy with their important work; we are not for we have, after all, shown that we have time to spare to learn. We should help–it is now our duty to aid their intellectual adventures.

A claim to incompetence should not be occasion for cheer, but it is. We are, after all, ambivalent about the technology that so dominates, regulates, and permeates our life; we are, all too often, willing to cheer on evidence that not all is well in this picture of utter and complete absorption in technique. We applaud this disdain; we wish we were so serene, so securely devoted to our pursuit of knowledge. We are also, of course, clapping wildly for a rebellion of sorts, a push-back against the creeping march of technology into every corner of our lives.

I think we can find better heroes.

Note: I’m willing to make some concessions for those over the age of fifty, but anyone younger than that bragging about their technical klutziness needs a rhetorical kneecapping.

Bill Keller and Some Elementary Confusions About Technology and Privacy

Bill Keller argues for a national identification card, urging Americans to ‘get over’ their fears about its abuse:

You might start with the Social Security card. You would issue a plastic version, and in it you would embed a chip containing biometric information: a fingerprint, an eye scan or a digital photo. The employer would swipe the card and match it to the real you. Unlike your present Social Security card, the new version would be useless to a thief because it would contain your unique identifier. The information would not need to go into a database….This will not satisfy those who fear that any such mandate is potentially “a tool for social control,” as Chris Calabrese of the A.C.L.U. put it. But the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world is to burn your documents, throw away your cellphone, cancel your Internet service and live off the grid.

Er. First, ‘the information would not need to go into a database’ does not mean the information will not go into a database. On this matter, I’d defer to the man quoted by Keller himself, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who points out that,

The one thing we know with certainty about databases is that they grow….[The official urge to amass and use information] takes on a life of its own.

When storage is cheap and ubiquitous, and so is data collection and analysis, searchable, analyzable data banks are an obvious consequence. These databases, whose primary outputs are analytical reports, then lend themselves to precisely the clumsy, pernicious, ‘social control’ worried about by their opponents.

Second, Keller slides all too quickly into ‘the only way to completely eliminate the risks of a connected world.’ But who ever said anything about completely eliminating those risks? Thus, the fallacy of the false dichotomy raises its head again, as it does all too often in debates about technology’s ambiguous blessings. The general format of these disputes is as follows. In response to the claim that ‘Technology X has possible problematic outcome Y,’ our interlocutor supplies ‘Good luck trying to live without technology today.’  Bingo. You’re an impractical Luddite.

There is another rhetorical template visible in Keller’s piece: the incomplete noting of the ambivalent attitude that most people appear to have toward their privacy:

But on the subject of privacy, we are an ambivalent nation. Americans — especially younger Americans, who swim in a sea of shared information — are casual to the point of recklessness about what we put online.

So in response to the claim that ‘privacy should be protected in domain X‘ our interlocutor says ‘But look at Facebook!’ The problem, of course, is that Facebook is a space designed in its interface and its user affordances to encourage and facilitate privacy-destructive behavior. Exhibit Numero Uno: the Wall, which lets users make their formerly private emails public.

It’s going to take better arguments than the ones offered by Keller to diminish the CQ–the Creepiness Quotient–of national identification cards.