This week we read and discussed the article A fish can’t judge the water by Femke Snelting written in 2006.
The title reminded me of a parable a UC Davis Professor, Simon Sadler recounted in a lecture on late stage capitalism to discuss how Americans are unware that they are immersed in a failing system. Snelting uses the parable in the same manner but in her case she uses it to point out the prevalence of ubiquitous software and computer systems. She posits that people are unaware of the impact of these systems and the impact of technology in general on daily life. She also briefly discusses the politically non-neutral nature of software.
The original parable is by the redoubtable David Foster Wallace and served as the opening to the only public talk Wallace ever gave at the 2005 Kenyon College commencement. “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?”
- David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.
In Wallace’s original version, the age of the various fish matters and he was using the inferred wisdom of the older fish as a mechanism to reach young graduating students. As he progresses in his speech, age is removed from the message. “This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre…but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.”
In 2006, Wallace’s address would have still been fresh in the minds of academics, artists, and designers. Snelting refers to the address really only in her title but the moral of banal platitude remains – in this case used to provide context for her attitudes towards technology. She writes that “our daily operations with software help to make sense of our environment. … We practice software until we in-corporate its choreography. We make it disappear in the background. A seamless experience. We become one with our extensions.” We no longer question how technology is implemented and do not ask if it is serving us in the best capacity. There seems to be a societal complacency and reliance on something we personally did not build and most definitely do not understand.
One example is that Digital Rights Management is not required for non-software based consumer products. No one cares what you do with your stock pot but the purchase and use of any software demands we sign lengthy contracts full of rules and regulations. Snelting is a proponent of open source software which is created by a collective and given away for free and unrestricted use.
Snelting posits that software is affecting our work in ways we do not realize because when work is produced with software, the designers and coders of that software become ingrained in the result. Perhaps I lack a more critical perspective but I can accept and in some ways greatly appreciate that involvement. Without spell-check this post would be more true to my voice perhaps but it would be potentially illegible.
I view software as a means to an end and as a tool to create. If that tool slightly affects the result of my work, I am happy to make that trade-off in order to produce any work at all. I do not have the time or knowledge to create my own presentation software for example. That does not mean I should be ignorant about the tools I employ or the implications of using a particular software, but for the most part I will use whatever is needed to achieve the desired result.
Towards the end of his address, Wallace says, “it is unimaginably hard ..to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” Femke Snelting's A fish can’t judge the water attempts to awaken the reader from complacency and provokes the reader to question the ways these systems choreograph our lives. Maybe one day we will get angry enough to change them.
One way in which a software-based system choreographs my life:
I am constantly digging around for one card or another – mostly my Oyster card, the keycard to my building, and my Goldsmiths ID. Sometimes having to have these cards handy even dictates what I wear. A jacket with pockets serves to quickly offer up a required card. Jackets can’t be worn everyday however.
When I have my handbag, negotiating which card I need at specific time is facilitated due to the nature of a shoulder bag and the abundance of easily accessible pockets. As a student however, I carry a pack back which needs to be removed to access the contents. As a relatively new transplant, I have so far decided to carry the oyster card in my hand when travelling. When I arrive at Goldsmiths, I take off the bag, put away the Oyster card and get my school ID out. When I leave for the day, I put the school ID away and get out the Oyster card and keycard. I vigilantly try not to drop any of these small plastic valuable cards.
I have been observing others to see how they deal with this issue but have yet to identify a solution. I occasionally see people digging around in their bags at the station too. I suppose it was the same when we used cash or tokens but our keys would have been on a keyring which is easier to find in a bag and harder to lose.
Read the transcript of David Foster Wallace's address here.