Completely Different and Exactly the Same

I was flattered to see Nicholas Carr picking up on a blog entry I wrote about the Cartesian dualism underlying most thinking about the Singularity. I was equally pleased to read this comment on Carr’s post from CS Clark, who is otherwise unknown to me:

I’m reminded that many tech/law debates depend on the new tech being completely different from old tech right up till the difference is a problem in which case the new tech is now exactly the same as the old tech. Ebooks are great because you can make infinite copies of them, and they’re also great because you must be able to share them with your friends in exactly the same way you can share a physical book. Google has changed nothing so let’s listen to them/Google has changed everything so don’t worry. Talk about syzygy. Talk about doublethink.

This happens all the time. Consider this exchange:

I think the first comment is wrong, because it isn’t just Google Glass or Google itself at all–it’s the widespread distribution of camera technologies and, most critically, the technologies that allow the uploading and archiving of these images in publicly-available fora that makes this so disturbing. It seems to me that if we have rights to privacy at all, even if the government has a right to observe us in public spaces, we have the right not to have our images displayed without our consent by third parties in public fora (Flickr, Instagram, Facebook) about which we may or may not have any knowledge. This is a profound and deeply troubling issue and it is especially pointed when we consider the rights of minors: what in the world gives Sergey Brin, or anyone else, the right to videotape or photograph a child without their parents’ permission and to put those images online? I can’t actually come up with a good legal basis for asserting that right in such a form that it trumps the right to privacy (and what some European countries refer to as the “right of publicity“).

But to return to my main point: Jarvis’s response is exactly the one mentioned by CS Clark, very oddly and tellingly used to describe a technology that deserves the adjective “new” if anything does. Yes, Google Glass is in part a camera. But it’s not the kind of camera that requires you to sit for two hours to get any exposure, or the kind whose film needs professional developing, or the kind that makes one print that develops in your hand, or even the kind that other people notice when you use it to take their picture. It’s a new kind of camera, built in part out of old bits of camera technology. Yet to Jarvis it’s “fear-mongering” to consider these new features as new, even as he and other engage in ecstatic reverie over what this new stuff enables.

This deserves expansion and further reflection. The logic is evident everywhere today, and it’s mostly aligned with power. It connects to the “Borg complex” described by L M Sacasas, with certain debates in Digital Humanities, with the advent of MOOCs, and much else. It’s not a phenomenon of which I’m aware there being a discussion in the critical literature. It deserves more attention. It deserves a name. Ideas? I’m working on it.

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  1. Posted March 6, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see this “completely different/exactly the same” argument getting greater scrutiny. Last year I wrote a blog post that was partly about that:

    “Another favorite strategy of apologists of technological change is to simultaneously claim that everything is changing and nothing is changing.”

  2. Posted March 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    And I’m flattered by your link to the “Borg Complex.” Thanks for that. I do think there is a connection to the kind of argument you’ve identified and what I’ve called a Borg Complex. I recently tried to get at it a little bit here:

    I think you’ve highlighted the Janus-faced nature of this rhetoric more pointedly than I did. I haven’t got a good name for it yet either, perhaps the continuity fallacy, but that’s not quite catchy. Need a name that captures the motivated blurring of distinctions.

  3. Posted March 7, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    […] with us.” Like many other things in the digital world, DH ends up asserting both that it is “completely new and exactly the same“ as other forms of English […]

  4. Posted March 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    […] Thing’ calls this the Borg complex, David Golumbia points out the double think aspect in completely different and exactly the same, while Evgeny Morozov calls it technological […]

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  • By Code Is Not Speech on April 13, 2016 at 8:27 am

    […] digital revolution is characterized by fallacious arguments that take the form “completely different and exactly the same”: a phenomenon is exactly the same as some existing phenomenon X, so critical objection to it is […]

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