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The Man With X-Ray Eyes August 20, 2007

Posted by malthusio in Uncategorized.

I remember watching a movie years ago about a man with x-ray vision. at first, he could use this ability selectively, and had fun with it. but over time, his power grew. eventually, he couldn’t not use it, and it overpowered and devoured him. he couldn’t sleep because even if he closed his eyes, it was the same as leaving them open. he became a constant unwilling witness to the universe. everywhere he looked there was no relief, and no respite. It would have been like staring at the sun until your eyes burned out, but he was denied even this, because his x-ray vision would only get better and better. Finally, he receives the answer to his problems as a bible quote from a fortune teller. “If thine eye offends thee, then pluck it out”(Mathew 18:9). Thrilled at the simplicity and obviousness of this solution he then proceeds to gleefully gouge out his eyeballs.

Prophetic as always, McLuhan made repeated allusions to electronic media (specifically TV in this case. incidentally, McLuhan also repeatedly referred to the “X-ray generation”. I’m not sure if he ever explicitly used the term “generation X”, but to me the connection is fairly obvious. I also think this is a much more appropriate genesis than Douglas Coupland’s telling of it as “the lost generation”) as having X-Ray like properties, both literally and figuratively.

I think this was also an indirect comment on information density. By shining through and not on, the X-ray provides information at arbitrary levels of depth, which leaves us in the same unenviable position as the man with x-ray eyes. Just like him, we may be unable to turn our penetrating vision off, unless we gouge out our eyes. In some (not uncertain) sense, McLuhan’s interpretation of the myth of Narcissus may be just that. He also talked about information overload, and the numbing effects of the technological extension of our capabilities.

Paradoxically, more information generates less meaning. The requirement of depth encourages surface readings (or maybe not. McLuhan didn’t say this, just me.). So what does this mean in terms of the increased immediacy enabled by the Internet? I don’t think it’s by any means clear. Two simplistic readings are:

  1. That that it enriches interaction by making it easier over arbitrary distances, and out of sync with time. It provides an additional channel (probably counts as multiple channels, but oh well) over which we can interact.
  2. By bombarding us with information we lose the ability to discern what is important. we go into information overload and shock. As a result we are forced to amputate, and detach ourselves from the world.

McLuhan might have said it was both (and possibly other things besides). Extended capability is a double edged sword. Every solution creates problems of its own that are difficult to foresee. Ironically, the increased connectivity and connect-ability enabled by extensions such as the Internet, cell phones, and convergence on all levels also necessitates a certain level of detachment. Otherwise the connection will burn out, and this provides an analogy to electronics that can be drawn.

In electronics, there are 3 fundamental quantities any electrical device (the simplest devices being things like wires and insulators) has (and 2 properties of electricity):

  1. Resistance – slows the flow of current through the device.
  2. Inductance – slows a change in the amount of current flowing through the device.
  3. Capacitance – slows a change in the amount of voltage dropped between the input and output of a device.
  4. Current – the amount of electrons flowing through a device in a unit of time.
  5. Voltage – the amount of force pushing at the electrons.

Ohms Law can written as I = V/R, where I is current, V is voltage, and R is resistance. If V is non-zero, I approaches ∞ as R approaches zero.  If we replace the word “current” with the word “information”, “resistance” with “slowness”, and “voltage” with “stickiness” (I can’t really think of a clear analog for voltage, but this one is somewhat apt), we have a parallel equation for socio-informatics (a made up word. I’m going to define it as “what McLuhan actually meant when he said ‘information theory'”). So as the slowness of a medium approaches zero, information levels approach ∞ so long as there is any force pushing or generating it.

The equation for power dissipation in a circuit is related to Ohms Law, and can be expressed as P = V2/R, so again, as R approaches zero, power dissipation approaches ∞. Since this is power dissipation we are talking about, this means it has to go somewhere. In electronic devices, power is dissipated as heat. So in the current example where R approaches zero, the device will get very hot then burn out and cease functioning. In the analogy I’m making, as the “slowness” of a media approaches zero, information levels approach ∞, and we burn out and cease functioning. This isn’t really a new idea, just a different spin on the old idea of “information overload”. What may be new is that information overload is a function of “sticky-squared” (as if that makes any sense).

If exponentially accelerating rates of change are inevitable as Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” suggests, then our only chance for survival is to come of with the socio-informatic analog of superconductivity. I have no idea what this means, but it does seem to suggest a transition to posthumanity might be in order.  Otherwise, we might be stuck with gouging out our eyes as the only alternative.

See also “π



1. π « … - August 20, 2007

[…] divine knowledge, and like the Promethean gift of fire, it has burned him (again). Just like the man with X-Ray eyes, he is overwhelmed by the information that his discovery gives him access to. Everything is […]

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