I had an opportunity this week to speak on a panel to some newly elected members of Congress about technology policy, and it was an interesting and positive experience.
I won’t go into all the things we discussed (although not difficult to imagine) since it was off the record, but I started off by quoting David Foster Wallace in a commencement address at Kenyon College some years ago. Starts off with a joke:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
I started that way to make this point: technology isn’t a tool or something we use to get a job done anymore. It’s the actual water we are swimming in.It’s the way we talk. It’s the way we work. It’s the way we think.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman figured it out ages ago. The medium is the message, &c.
But the degree to which it’s true now is, I think, is more extreme than ever, and it’s been sneaking up on us for awhile. Facebook & Twitter, Snapchat & Instagram — they’ve all changed the way we think and work. And this will sound insane, but to a significant degree, I think we really don’t understand most of the implications.
In fact, most of the time we don’t even really totally grok that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about these particular communication patterns at all. They’re constructs that flow from how the technology works, and they have strengths and weaknesses just like any other medium does.
Anyway, my more prosaic point was just this: there really isn’t any “technology policy” anymore. It’s all just policy. Technology is so foundational to how we work and how we think that it always has to be considered as part of a broader fabric.
If you have time, go back and read that speech by Wallace. It’s one of the most thoughtful and self aware speeches I’ve ever come across, and I read it myself often. It seems relevant in many, many ways as we gratefully and nervously draw a close to 2016.
I read it just to remind myself:
This is water, this is water.