Grey Goo

“Gray goo (also spelled grey goo) is a hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario involving molecular nanotechnology in which out-of-control self-replicating robots consume all matter on Earth while building more of themselves.” – Wikipedia

Or perhaps it’s looking at Spotify or the Kindle and realising that there’s so much digital stuff with less and less to differentiate it that you can’t be bothered to look for anything new. Maybe it’s even finding something new and listening to it once or just reading the first few pages.

I even have stuff favourited and downloaded that I can’t be bothered to listen to or read once. The grey screen of my Kindle has become its own grey goo. I’m not being eaten alive by self-replicating robots; I’m just losing the will to open books. And when I lose the will to engage with art, culture and information then the grey goo has won.

The fault doesn’t lie with digital technology, it’s just that I’m not connecting personally, deeply with the things that I once would have. The act of going into a shop and buying a book or a CD requires investment. It takes effort and time. So I work at it. I make sure I read the book. I listen to the CD a few times (even if I don’t like it at first).

How do we replicate this personal investment for the digital age? How do we enter into that contract with the things that other people have created? It’s not a social issue, it’s a personal one. And I’m not sure we have the mechanisms for it yet.

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10 comments
  1. Alastair Somerville said:

    We’ve made culture too personal. Digital technology hides what we, and others, are doing – in Kindles, on iPods & on Home Cinema. The fight is with Grey Goo because we have eliminated the human and social aspects of art, music and literature. We no longer know show or share what we are appreciating with others.

    • Good point. The intangibility of digital products removes a level of human interaction from the sharing process. I still remember lending cassettes to people at school…

  2. You know your problem, Simon? You’re not consuming enough. You’re just acquiring metadata, more and more pointers. (Don’t feel embarrased, the NSA does it too.)

    I’m looking around my dining room and I can see four or five kinds of food that I bought for Christmas. And then ten days in a row I decided not to eat them. Consumption has had a bad rap over the last few years; we’ve been told it’s passive, but it’s actually very fulfilling. The music we listen to, the books we read and the food we eat are the ones that actually change us in some way.

    It’s good to have access to stuff; engaging with it is another matter. Engagement is the thing. But apart from when I was fifteen and spent way too much money on a new release by some achingly hip band, I soon got out of the habit of feeling I had to finish one thing before I started the next.

    Now if you don’t mind, there’s a mixtape on SoundCloud I need to neglect.

    • I’m great at engaging with food but everything else is an effort. I agree that there’s no need to finish something (or at least give it some proper time) before moving on, but the logical conclusion of all this is that we give no time to anything. Including blog comments.

  3. Annemcx said:

    What’s the answer? Maybe there’s a link to that I can favourite. We’re experiencing existential angst and whole hard drives of meaninglessness. Meaninglessness also comes just before a breakthrough. This is the nature of the human condition.

    • The problem with breakthroughs is that people need to make them happen. So what if nobody gives anything attention long enough to make the breakthrough?

  4. Thanks for capturing this, Simon. Maybe it relates to our need to cultivate digital literacies, an issue described, at least in a social media context, by Howard Rheingold here: http://rheingold.com/netsmart/. Or, at least, I believe that it is; I haven’t read it yet 😉 However, I have seen him speak on the subject.

    Interestingly his emphasis is less on identifying valuable things to do/read/watch/hear, and more on “crap detection”, which is the inverse: finely tuning our processes of filtering what not to spend our attention on.

    Another of his points is that, as the quantity of available material has increased, our obligations have changed. It is not a queue of items to be handled, it is a flow to be sampled. This may be reiterating what Gordon has said about not needing to finish one thing before starting another.

    Overall, it seems to me that, digital communication has given us far more than it has taken away because there is so much more to choose from, but we do need to learn to be more selective. As the saying goes: “take it easy,… but take it!”

    • Thanks for the comment, and the link (I’ve saved it to Pocket. :)). I agree that filtering is an issue, and that we’re dealing with a flow. Digital communication has given us a huge amount but I think our own systems for dealing with the exponential growth in information may still be some way behind the curve. And we’re only a fraction of the way towards being able to take full advantage of everything it offers.

  5. Love this, Simon. Love. It.

    Digital is wonderful for speed and rabbit hole consumption, but the very things which make it awesome make it harder for us to engage fully with the content.

    Remixing, reusing, rethinking those things which we hit with the onetime Like/click is so difficult, because there’s more piling in all of the time.

    So, perhaps we need to look at this from other angle.

    It’s not what the technology does for us, but what we do for the technology.

    Do we gift ourselves the time to go back and read what we thought was interesting? Do we set aside a couple of hours of sorting and reflection time to make the best use of what we’ve discovered?

    Or do we pile ahead and accumulate more pixel junk along the way.

    Perhaps the speed of the tech isn’t the issue, it’s our own ever increasing dive forward which needs to be arrested…

    • Thanks for the comment. Setting aside time is a difficult thing. I mean to do it but it rarely happens. What it ultimately comes down to is how we reward this attention. How do we learn to value the allocation of time to things that have passed when we’re constantly looking out for the new thing?

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