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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Defining Moments

A recent invention is threatening to become even more personal than Google. As The Independent reported, Wolfram Alpha promises access to a world designed uniquely to oneself: It “will understand questions and give specific, tailored answers in a way that the web has never managed before. Alpha, in other words, delivers what humans always sought: immediate, accurate answers.

This era is an era of looping, endless mass production and mass consumption. Products proliferate and advertisements abound. For many, this can be jarring as it can be disorienting – too much is also too little. Which precisely is why the future is increasingly shaping to be a war to reclaim individual identity. The strides for individuality brims like never before.

Take workplace changes. For companies, formal titles and dressing often convey professionalism and unity of purpose. These promote a sense of togetherness and focus toward corporate objectives. It is collective and distinctive by its sameness.

Yet that culture is evolving. In industries reliant on creative impulses especially, adopted are more casual dress codes; some tech companies even allow employees to name their own titles. For one reason, hierarchies seemingly impose levels and corporatism; these fail to humanize. By forsaking these attitudes, subordination is displaced by independent and organic values. They glorify individualism.

Popular culture is also affected. Marketers are appealing to the desire for individualism by discarding utility for prestige and purpose. Rather than portraying products as attractive commodities, they advertise emergent external product experiences: the iconic Haagen Daaz ad of a lady sumptuously enjoying a slice, the Toyota ad illustrating a commitment to environment. Absent in these are any mentions of business transactions. Instead, present is impressions of pleasure.

Similarly, Internet 2.0 is not about the dissemination of information. Instead they strive to empower users. New business models such as FML, Twitter, Facebook and digg.com thrive exactly because users can control their direction. Users discuss their daily lives and others respond. They post and calibrate individual information, others observing and listening. It is all for the individual feeling.

What are the consequences? Manifold.

The first noticeable change is the way of interaction. Efficiency is now king. In cable news and papers, presentations must be condensed into immediate, comprehensible fragments. Complex sentence infrastructures are curtailed. Speed of understanding trumps artistry. Everything must be fast. Individuals, not issues, take priority.

Pleasure has also become mechanized. Theme parks imitate real beaches and forests while gaming is becoming Wii-fied. Actual substantive experiences are transformed into replicated similar experiences. Technology mimics traditionalism, the surreal becomes the reality and the artificial becomes the authentic. Everything is geared toward individual pleasure.

At a time when prior institutions and ways of life are under assault, one sees what one had previously with a special clarity and realizes the expensive price of modernization. And it is steep: The loss of meaning creates disillusionment and existential crises at the endless, same products. But humanity is retaliating in attempt to regain individual freedom and identity, which is why Wolfram Alpha is probably going to be the next dominant thing.


ZACH HAN is excited about Wolfram Alpha, expecting to instantly find a delivered e-mail at zklhan@ucdavis.edu when he submits a query. Prove him wrong!


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