28 May 2007

Quality & Judgment

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Like many (most?) people with e-mail, digital cameras, word processors, web browsers, digital music and more, I often face challenges with file storage, management, and retrieval. Finding things amidst years of archived information can be a complicated task, despite the fact that I try hard to be selective about what I keep and what I discard, and about how those things I save are organized for the future. (This is to say nothing of the paper files I keep, and boxes of photos and other items from moments past.) Therefore it was with much interest that I read Alec Wilkinson’s profile of technology pioneer Gordon Bell in a recent issue of The New Yorker, focused on Bell’s current work at Microsoft on something called “lifelogging.” Forget “blogging”; “lifelogging is about using technology to record digitally “everything we do in life” (as the article’s subtitle would have it), deploying a variety of recording devices to capture all in image, word, and sound.

In reading this article, it didn’t take me long to go from engaged to dispirited, disturbed at the implications of Bell’s project for the future of society (never mind what it says about Microsoft’s sense of humanity’s needs). While the libertarian in me was concerned about the privacy implications of capturing and controlling such a vast amount of daily data, I could not escape a bigger and more complicated question by the time I had finished reading: is there any value to having a log of everything? And is everything we do of value?

Around the same time, I happened across Jeff Leeds’ article in The New York Times, “Second CD By Maroon 5 Faces Great Expectations.” The title sums up the focus of the piece, about whether this pop band can follow-up its “wildly successful debut” with another big success. “Early signs suggest that the new Maroon 5 album will be a hit, though how big is hard to say,” Leeds writes. “And it is the long bet on relatively new talent that has made this deal so buzz-worthy.” Clocking in at a little over 1300 words, Leeds details the shift in ownership of the band’s label, whether this might affect the success of the album, and what it all means in an environment of declining music sales.

And that’s when I realized what was missing from both Gordon Bell’s “lifelogging” vision for the future and Leeds’ article about Maroon 5: quality. Neither article does much to recognize explicitly the value of (aesthetic) judgment. Bell may be a genius who is helping to invent amazing new “recording” devices that cover every aspect of life – from what we see, to what we read, to our childhood memories – but to what good purpose, we must ask. I suspect that most of us are already swimming in more information than we can manage. Anyone who has ever made a scrapbook or a photo album, or spent time going through their notebooks from high school, will surely understand the importance of quality and judgment in decision-making. Yes, sure, we can save everything (shove all the photos into a shoe box, let’s say) and some of us do. Mostly, though, we don’t save everything, every newspaper read, every bus map interpreted, every TV ad consumed, every poop taken; and we don’t want to do so, either.

We don’t save everything not only because it is (for most of us, even in digital form) impractical, but because it is completely unnecessary. We want the parts of life that matter, or that matter to us, or that we think matter; we make judgments about what objects connect to which memories, good or ill, and decide what to keep because of how they make us feel. Ultimately, we are better off with those qualitative decisions, because if we weighed our lives in relation to what we did with each second – as opposed to what matters to us about what we have done – we would likely minimize our own impact on the world. Focusing on every moment will not implicitly make each moment more valuable.

Likewise, it is an odd reflection of where we are as a society that the word “quality” appeared in Leeds’ article just once, in a reference by Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of music label Interscope, to the importance of “the quality of your roster” of bands in determining a label’s success. Nothing else in the article even suggests that the success of Maroon 5’s new album might have something to do with whether it’s any good or actually worth hearing. It must be said that Leeds was not writing a review of the album, but rather exploring industry expectations for its success; yet the idea that even those expectations can be discussed without reference to the quality of the music reinforces the sense that we are, as a society, held rather hostage by the marketing muscle of our corporations. Clearly, we could choose not to buy the album because it might be terrible, but no one expects that reaction; we’re expected to buy it even if it is bad, and it’s just a matter of how many of us can be cajoled into playing along.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday to remember the citizen soldiers who gave their lives for our country. Perhaps it seems an odd jump from a criticism of “lifelogging” and music industry reportage, but I think the themes are strongly connected: the terrible situation the U.S. is in stems from a lack of critical judgment, from the failures of our theoretically-vibrant citizenry to engage fully with ideas and facts, and not just ideologies or dreams. Just as we should be saying to ourselves “don’t believe the hype” about Maroon 5 or the latest tech gizmo, we should be saying the same about the news we read, how we act, and how we vote. Perhaps for Gordon Bell we are simply what we do each day. To me, we are what we decide to do, for better or worse, and with consequences with which we must live.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home