Christina Rosen: Joining Cass Sustein As Modern Nannies?

Lynne Kiesling (with helpful ghostwriting from the KP Spouse)

This morning breakfast at the KP House involved listening to an NPR interview with Christina Rosen of The New Atlantis, in which she has an article titled The Age of Egocasting.

Rosen’s hypothesis is that new technologies like the remote control, TiVo, and the iPod satisfy our desire to control our entertainment consumption, but that in so doing they have unintended consequences for how we choose and consume entertainment, and how we behave in “the civic sphere”.

Hmmm, where to start … one of the claims that I found particularly galling in its naiveté was that as technology changes our control of our environment, technology also transforms the thing being consumed itself. The example she offered was how the remote control and our ability to channel-surf led TV programmers to change the nature and content of the programming. And of course, Rosen presented this evolution with a negative moral tinge; you could almost hear her arms crossed and her supercilious sniff through the radio. I encourage Ms. Rosen to consider an array of technologies over the past several centuries, communication and otherwise: Gutenberg’s moveable type, the low-pressure steam engine, the automobile, the electricity generator, the television, and the computer. Every one of these technological changes led to a consequent but unanticipated and unintended transformation in the nature and content of what was consumed (and produced, and disseminated …).

In other words, the technologies she decries are no different from other monumental human innovations. If we were to apply Rosen’s argument to these earlier inventions, would she decry them as well? Are they as bad as TiVo and the iPod? If you think about it that way you see how silly her argument truly is. This is what technology does, has always done, and it always likely to do. Get over it.

Her arguments are fallacies for two reasons. First is the assumption that whatever is happening now is better than whatever will happen with change. This is purely a resistance to change argument, resting on the specious claim that we are going to lose something in the change. Technological change is bad because it permits egoistic narcissism in how we relate to the rest of the world through media. It’s really a Luddite argument, and as such is unrealistically static and reactionary. Nope, she doesn’t like it, not one bit.

It’s also not clear that Rosen has any experience with TiVo, and makes her specious claims based on her ignorance. For example, TiVo keeps track of what you choose to watch, and using those parameters, suggests programming to you that you are not watching but that your viewing patterns suggest you might enjoy. How does that type of technology enable individuals to wallow in their firmly-set tastes?

People rave about TiVo because it allows you to time-shift very easily, much more easily than the VCR ever did. Time-shifting is the fundamental characteristic that gives TiVo and other DVRs their killer-app nature. Rosen completely misses that in her discussion.

The second foundation of her argument is her perception of the ultimate purpose of art, which is supposed to enlighten us and broaden our experience. Rosen claims that our ability to choose to consume only the media that we know we like will lead us to fetishize those fixed tastes, eschewing the intellectually broadening experience of unknown works and works in their entirety, as she imagines they were intended to be consumed by the artist/composer. One example she offered in the interview was how song sampling enables us to “listen to Mahler’s greatest hits instead of the entire Mahler Symphony No. 1”.

This argument is so unsophisticated that it’s almost ridiculous. First, what is Rosen’s model of how we form our tastes in the first place? She has an almost blank-slate unstated model underlying her argument, in which the human mind is a vessel to be filled and brings no inherent differences across individuals to that act of filling and being filled. This model of learning and taste formation is stupendously unsatisfactory, and is falsified by much of modern cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. If we are doing nothing more than narcisisstically satisfying our already existing preferences, where did those preferences come from?

Second, her model of preference formation is also unrealistically static. Are our preferences truly as fixed and unvarying as she claims? Most people’s experience of these technologies is that they are more able to find works with which they are unfamiliar (and probably wouldn’t have found as readily using the old technologies). With resources like iTunes you can preview songs, see playlist recommendations and “other people who bought this also bought …” links, and only risk 99 cents to try out something new. All of those factors mitigate against her claims. But the fundamental fact remains that we have always used whatever technology exists to find new works and try them out. Our experience with media is, like our experience with so much else in living life, one of constant and evolving experimentation. These technologies expand the potential and reach of that experimentation, make experimentation easier and cheaper, and in a dynamic sense are very likely to contribute to bringing new works into being that might not have been created in the absence of such a powerful set of experimentation technologies.

Third, her model does not allow for individual preference heterogeneity. What if I prefer to listen to Great Works of Music in their entirety? I’m sure she’d approve of that, although she disapproves of, say, someone having the second movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusick pop up on a playlist or in their iPod shuffle next to, say, The Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” (yes, the probability of that occurring on my iPod is greater than zero). But in a society of individual liberty and open-minded inquiry, what gives her or anyone else the right to judge anyone’s choice of what art to consume, how to consume it, or how to interpret it?

Rosen makes further claims about the deleterious effects of these technologies on our participation in public and civic spaces. Again I would invoke the “what gives her or anyone else the right?” point from above. The big fallacy in this claim is that even without these technolgies, we both are and are not narcissistic, do and do not interact in public spaces, and the material consequence of the new technologies for our interaction in civic and public space is a change in the margins of are/are not narcissistic and do/do not interact. These technologies create the opportunity to choose when and how we interact; thanks to my iPod I am no longer forced to eavesdrop on my neighbors’ conversations on the el. Furthermore, I am still interacting with the public space; I am just doing so in a different manner from the traditional all-encompassing one. Maybe I get more pleasure out of wandering under Frank Geahry’s Millennium Bandshell while listening to Kurt Elling on my iPod than if I wandered through it while listening to the side conversations of other people there. Why would Rosen deprive me and others like me of that opportunity?

Furthermore, all of this is experimentation in progress. Suppose that as Bluetooth technology evolves we can listent to songs on the iPods of people around us. That would be interactive, right? Would Rosen disapprove of that?

Rosen’s arguments also fall prey to many of the criticisms of Cass Sunstein’s arguments in Republic.com. In particular, in general we will choose to engage, and the heterogeneity of our engagement is unlikely to be diminished by technological change. Saying that we will only listen to or watch what we know we like shows a profound ignorance of human nature, just as profound an ignorance as saying that we will only read news from sources we agree with. Part of the beauty of the whole “weblog phenomenon” is that there are people out there who deliberately and constructively enjoy engaging the ideas of people with whom they disasgree (a sterling example is Will Wilkinson). We are as unlikely to fetishize our cemented tastes in media as we are to fetishize our cemented tastes in news and opinion, because we have such diversity of taste and our tastes even evolve over time and experience.

Rosen’s characterization of these technologies, how we choose to use them, and how they shape our social interactions is unpersuasive and does not capture any of the rich diversity and ability to exercise conscious choice that we really are experiencing. Rosen’s argument is a rehashing of those we hear every time new techologies are changing the way we consume information. It’s a stasist argument, and the biggest problem with the argument is that we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. But she’s already staked her claim to categorizing winners and losers, using typical reactionary claims in place of sound logical arguments.


17 thoughts on “Christina Rosen: Joining Cass Sustein As Modern Nannies?

  1. Kiesling vs. Egocasting; Dissertation Assignment Desk

    Lynne Kiesling dismantles Christina Rosen’s Republic.com qualms about “egocasting.” The issue of informational fragmentation and social coherence is an issue I’m putting on the “to do” list. Hmm, I guess I really should have a bigthink “to do” list. No…

  2. She probably also doesn’t like blogs because it leads to different opinions. And an open discussion of ideas. I would never want to go back to the world of getting all of my news from my local newspaper and Walter Cronkite. The choices available for reading have transformed our reading habits. I never thought I would hear someone complain about the choices available at Amazon.

  3. If she really stopped to think about it, TiVo and iPod are not her biggist problem. Once society has printing presses, cheap paper, and widespread literacy, people have all that they need to avoid the “cultivation of taste” and instead engage in the “numbing repetition of fetish.”

    Rosen complains that “Today, an increasing number of us consume culture through mediating technologies—the camera, the recording device, the computer….” But the book was mediating access to the world well before the camera.

    Comic books, romance novels, detective stories, sci-fi, tabloid news.

    We can decry the use to which other people put their time, this is a widespread, time-honored human activity, and not without redeeming qualities. Rosen’s argument is certainly among the more literate examples of the practice, and more to my taste than, say, the preachings of politicians or the latest encyclical from the Pope.

    But once people started to read the Bible for themselves, the world changed.

  4. Lynne takes on Sunstein and NPR … All During Breakfast!

    Lynne Kiesling tilts against the neo-Luddites. It is a fine post, though I must admit that I am suspicious of that much intellectual zest that early in the morning (Matt is a patient man, clearly). She is welcome to subscribe…

  5. Lynne takes on Sunstein and NPR … All During Breakfast!

    Lynne Kiesling tilts against the neo-Luddites. It is a fine post, though I must admit that I am suspicious of that much intellectual zest that early in the morning (Matt is a patient man, clearly). She is welcome to subscribe…

  6. Lynne takes on Sunstein and NPR … All During Breakfast!

    Lynne Kiesling tilts against the neo-Luddites. It is a fine post, though I must admit that I am suspicious of that much intellectual zest that early in the morning (Matt is a patient man, clearly). She is welcome to subscribe…

  7. Lynne takes on Sunstein and NPR … All During Breakfast!

    Lynne Kiesling tilts against the neo-Luddites. It is a fine post, though I must admit that I am suspicious of that much intellectual zest that early in the morning (Matt is a patient man, clearly). She is welcome to subscribe…

  8. In this disturbingly fascinating article, Rosen writes, “Our pleasure at exercising control over what we hear, what we see, and what we read is not intrinsically dangerous. But an unwillingness to recognize the potential excesses of this power—egocasting, fetishization, a vast cultural impatience, and the triumph of individual choice over all critical standards—is perilous indeed.”

    Wow. This article left me stunned, not because of the resistance to change it advocates, but because of the the supreme arrogance of her arguments. Is sitting straight through a two hour opera somehow “better” for me than listening to the separate movements at separate times? I can’t buy Rosen’s argument that taking it straight up with no pause button will somehow give me more patience.

    I think that Rosen isn’t so much afraid of a nation of slackjawed couch potatoes with lightning-quick thumbs. I think she is afraid of losing the dominance of the cultural upper class that gets to decide those “critical standards” that our individual choices are threatening to overwhelm.

  9. Also, why does the wishes of the artist get so much weight? I’m no longer allowed to listen to just the fourth movement of Bethoven’s Ninth at double speed? And classical music is infamous for gluing together dissimilar music into a single piece.

  10. Bruce,

    I think you’re right about the cultural “upper class”. There’s a certain power in being able to determine what is upper culture and what isn’t. When people can access the meat of upper culture without having to pay proper deference, then it cripples the whole reason to be in this social class.

  11. Technopuritanism

    Lynne Kiesling takes apart Christina Rosen’s silly statements about the supposedly negative consequences of modern technology. Rosen’s is the latest in a flurrly of recent arguments that say that having choices and being able to satisfy our unique i…

  12. Technopuritanism

    Lynne Kiesling takes apart Christina Rosen’s silly statements about the supposedly negative consequences of modern technology. Rosen’s is the latest in a flurrly of recent arguments that say that having choices and being able to satisfy our unique i…

  13. Zounds! you hit the nail on the head here. I was listening to Rosen on NPR while driving through rural Iowa the other morning, and I found myself shouting at the radio. Her sheer snootiness and arrogance nearly made me wrench my Ford pickup truck off the interstate. She sounds exactly like a liberal academic bemoaning the fact that the proles are able to afford to buy Trace Adkins CDs and get tickets to NASCAR races.

  14. Pot? Kettle? My NPR affiliate is WNIU, which frequently plays single movements from longer works to fit the time slots.

    On the other hand, it’s been a while since I’ve spun Mahler’s First. Perhaps as background for Saturday’s posts?

  15. Pot? Kettle? My NPR affiliate is WNIU, which frequently plays single movements from longer works to fit the time slots.

    On the other hand, it’s been a while since I’ve spun Mahler’s First. Perhaps as background for Saturday’s posts?

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