I Hear It Also Cures The Lame

Help Desk, by Christopher B. Wright

From Kernel Panic, by yours truly.

Just a very quick note, since I’m working on a much longer, more complicated article going up on Friday: last month — July 14, to be exact — the MP3 file format officially turned ten years old.

In related news, yesterday I broke a hip while yelling at those damn kids to get off my lawn.

When landmarks like this come around, it’s tempting for people to start pontificating on the significance of the event. For example, next year, when Help Desk turns ten years old, I’ll be tempted to look back and ruminate on all the vastly important and ground-breaking work I’ve done, like…

… um…

… well, I’ll worry about it next year.

My point is that the MP3 file format turning ten is just the kind of milestone that provokes people in the know into coaxing out Deep Thoughts Concerning the Significance of the Event as it Pertains to History. And sure enough, over on CNET the technology editor for MP3.com wrote an article called “Top five ways MP3 has changed the world.”

As it stands, the article is almost entirely wrong. Not because the points he lists didn’t happen (though a few of them are… odd), but because he makes the common mistake of giving the tool all the credit.

The MP3 file format, on its down, does nothing, creates nothing, and promotes nothing. All the great changes lauded in the article were accomplished by people. The MP3 format just happened to be the tool they used to make things happen.

I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to the tendency to anthropomorphize technology, but there’s a difference between giving technology humanizing characteristics and giving it the credit for sweeping changes in a society or culture. It’s not as if MP3 was invented and then began to mysteriously transmit messages on a previoulsy unknown wavelength that caused people to start trading music. People were already trading music online. When MP3.com first opened its doors in 1997, it was patterned after MIDI download sites.

But for some perverse reason, especially where technology is concerned, we like to give the tool credit for everything… and that has a tendency to bite us on the ass, because the reverse is also to true: we like to blame the tool.

In the early days of MP3.com (before the site went public, sold stock, and made billions in 1999, got sued by the RIAA in 2000, bought by Vivendi Universal in 2001, bought again by CNET in 2003, and ultimately relaunched in its current form) the single most common tactic people used to discredit the site was to talk about music piracy. When the media would write articles about MP3.com — a site where music could be download legally — it was inevitable that piracy would be worked into the article somewhere. The journalists were incapable of separating the different ways people used the same tool, and if one group of people were using MP3’s to pirate music, well then it must follow that the musicians who were using MP3’s to legally distribute their music were somehow helping the nasty pirates!

Maybe it’s too close to the “Guns don’t kill people, I do” defense for some people’s comfort, but technology all by itself is essentially useless — and it will remain so until we develop Artificial Intelligence, upon which it will overthrow us in a bloody coup and we will become slaves to the robotic overmind. Until that day arrives, technology only does what we set it to do. For all that we may praise the GPL, it works only because people designed it and actively use it in a manner that nurtures free software. For all we may condemn Internet Explorer for whatever security flaw is uncovered this week, the fact remains that those flaws are not exploited accidentally:

“Oh, gee, er… I was just sort of messing around and all of a sudden I realize I crashed your browser, stole your passwords, and siphoned off most of your savings account. My mistake.”

Sorry, I doubt that very much.

But the thing that really gets me about this trait of ours? The icing on the cake? We don’t really mean it.

We don’t really imbue technology with mythical qualities that reshape the course of history. We might imagine that our computer is alive and that it hates us — a reasonable assumption to make at two o’clock in the morning when you just want to print what you’ve been working on so you can go to sleep — but that’s about as far as it goes. All this talk of technology single-handedly changing the world is just an oversimplification we willingly adopt in order to make it easier to communicate. It’s easier to focus on a single technology, rather than disparate groups of people, and it’s more useful to have a single point of reference when you’re painting in broad strokes.

So all those complicated and unpredictable people who are doing all sorts of interesting things in the world get ignored, and technology becomes the point of reference in their stead. We’re expected to convert that shorthand reference into its proper, messy, full-length context on our own… unfortunately, it’s all too easy to forget to convert your data into the proper format, which can lead to some unfortunate situations.

All that aside… happy birthday, MP3.

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