Say hello to my little friend: or, contra myself on reference works and conviviality

Yesterday, out walking, I saw this little guy sunning himself on the sidewalk:

Dekay's brown snake

Apologies for the poor focus: I didn’t want to get too close until I was sure it wasn’t a copperhead. But I had to get sorta close, and even then I wasn’t sure of myself. The head was wrong, the pattern was wrong, it was quite small. But it might have been a baby.

So I pulled out my phone and opened one of the few apps that I would really miss if I switched back to a flip phone: Seek by iNaturalist. Point your camera at a living thing and it will tell you, given a reasonably good view, what species you are looking at. I got it when I was hiking out in the mountains a few years ago; it’s great for identifying wildflowers and trees in unfamiliar ecosystems. But it’s also great for figuring out what’s going on in the square mile I live in.

Earlier this year, having had my front yard ripped up to lay a new sewer line and finding myself on the cusp of summer, I tossed out a couple packets of mixed flower seed and figured whatever happened, happened. Now something is happening, but I don’t know what. I think I kept the seed packets, but where? And which flower is which? Sheepishly I pulled out my phone and resorted to using an app to tell me what I was growing myself. (Answer so far: Borage, two colors of garden balsam, pot marigolds, and some sort of blanket flower.)

Really, I ought to know this stuff. I ought to know all my local trees and flowers, and I ought to know my snakes. In fact I know an awful lot of them, but I’ve had to learn the hard way, by using field guides and websites, because nobody educated me properly when I was a kid. (That was in a different part of the country anyway, but nobody educated me properly there either.) I say this in all seriousness despite twenty years of formal schooling. Half the time I don’t know what’s going on under my nose, and I need an app to figure it out. My education was bullshit.

Turns out my little friend was a Dekay’s brown snake. Because I do not automatically trust image-recognition systems, I read a few descriptions to confirm the ID myself: dots rather than banding, a light stripe down the back. As I intuited, not a copperhead. (Most snakes people think are copperheads are not copperheads. We do like to assume the worst.)

So, anyhow, I love this little app. And I offer this story in cheerful contradiction of what I wrote the other day about reference works and SCAI. Seek is basically a SCAI-enhanced reference work; it uses the same image recognition as CAPTCHA, which works on the same fundamental idea as a chatbot: based on lots and lots of examples, what is this most likely supposed to be? designed to help me understand my own ecological community, and it serves that purpose quite well. Like any reference work, it helps with knowing that rather than knowing how (see my last post for an explanation); what it offers is merely information. Some of that information might be, as I said last time, merely aesthetic—what’s this pretty flower called?—but much of it can be put directly to use, by the user of the app, here and now, in the service of myself and my community. Is this plant invasive? Is this snake going to bite my kid? It serves my own constructive and creative purposes in the world, and does not (necessarily) make me dependent. Though I don’t entirely understand how it works, I can read the descriptions offered to learn to make the identification myself, next time.

Here, then, is a reference work, indeed a SCAI-enhanced or -enabled reference work, that is almost certainly convivial, to use Illich’s term. Having said so doesn’t change anything I might say about SCAI generally; it’s the exception that proofs the rule.1 I believe that SCAI is fundamentally destructive of human-scaled ends; it is by nature and design unconvivial, because it takes creative and constructive work out of human hands, puts them in a black box, and demands that we accept their output—and yet one may still use it to create tools that are nonetheless convivial. Indeed, one probably must, given that our embrace of unconvivial technologies has destroyed most of the cultural solutions to problems that we now need those technologies to solve (e.g. is this snake going to bite my kid).

But the mere possibility of an exception does not give a free pass to the core technology! It requires wisdom to discern which uses are convivial (or beneficial, constructive, appropriate, or human-scaled, or whatever framework you want to use). If you’re thinking that it’s too much to ask for people to go through all the hand-wringing in this little essay every time they download a new app — well, you’re right. And that’s the problem I want to address next time.

A few definitions

Meanwhile, I want to circle back to a question I raised last time: whether tools were inherently convivial or unconvivial, or whether the conviviality was in the use. I could use the above to argue the former— Seek is convivial by design—or the latter, if I treat Seek as a convivial use of an unconvivial tool (SCAI). The confusion stems from some sloppiness in the use of words like tool, technology, and use. It might be helpful to distinguish them this way: SCAI is a technology, Seek is a tool that makes use of that technology, and identifying a snake is my use of the tool. Of course one might also say that SCAI is a tool that makes use of broader computing technology. It’s a bit like Matryoshka dolls; scale alone is a poor way to distinguish “technology” from “tool.” But it’s a start. It offers a framework for understanding that a tool can foster certain uses by design while embodying a technology that, by its own nature, works against those same ends, and thus preserves the idea that a tool can foster uses by design, rather than placing all the blame for misuse on the user. That’s valuable, I think.

  1. I know it’s “proves,” but that word doesn’t mean what it used to mean, while “proofs” still means “tests,” which is what the maxim was meant to convey.