Archive | June, 2012

Wired and worried: Why we’re anxious about our technology

18 Jun

In my previous post, I wrote about a stream of critiques that are asking serious questions about the new technological world we’re inventing and investing in: Where is all this leading? Maybe it’s some kind of Rorschach test, but there’s a pattern to these articles and books–at least a half-dozen connected anxieties that keep emerging, at least the ones I see. You might recognize more. If you do, chime in with your comments.

1. We’re connected, but are we really detached? We have all sorts of digital ways to “network,” but what about the face-to-face connections? Can a Facebook friend ever be like a flesh-and-blood friend? Are cyber-communities real communities?

2. The Internet might want to be free, but are we actually trapping ourselves? All so-called developed nations–and more and more of the developing societies–depend on electronic and digital technologies just to keep our basic services functioning. Have we wired ourselves into a corner? The nightmare scenario, of course, is that, by accident or intent, our energy grids, water supplies, and transportation systems fail, bringing on a new dark age of catastrophe and chaos. Security experts are working overtime on preventing cyber-attacks that could paralyze us.

3. We invent and use technology to gain unprecedented power, but will our technology one day take control?  This corollary to No. 2 is a staple of the sci-fi canon: What happens when our machinery gets smart and powerful enough to take over? Think HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sinister rabbit-hole world of The Matrix, the rebellion in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. But we don’t need some fictitious future. The potential is as close as Google. As Nicholas Carr noted in 2008,

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.”

4. Is our technology changing us from being citizens to being merely consumers? As much as I like George Orwell, he got it wrong in his famous dystopian tale, 1984, in which an all-powerful, all-seeing government runs people’s lives.

No, it’s looking more corporate all the time. As Neil Postman pointed out a generation ago, we’re closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than to Orwell’s vision. (For another take on the same idea, check out David Mitchell’s excellent mind-bending novel, Cloud Atlas.) To quote Carr again:

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

5. We can dive into the world from our TVs and desktops, but are we just swimming in the shallows? So much information, so little depth. You name it: Relationships, knowledge base, attention spans. We have more information at our finger tips than ever before, but it’s not clear that we’re better educated or more perceptive thinkers. (I haven’t read it yet, but I wonder if Thomas Bergler’s new book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, excerpted in June’s Christianity Today, strikes a similar chord. Anyone?) Wisdom? There’s not an app for that.

6. We have more portals to humanity than ever, but are we becoming less human? The answer to this question depends on how we define “human,” of course. But whether it’s in how we experience the world around us, in how we relate to other people, in how we think, in what we value as a culture and, more and more, how much technology will literally get under our skin and become part of us, the unsettling question is: What are we doing to ourselves as people? (The Matrix, again, anyone?)

So what to do? Diane Ackerman, writing in her New York Times blog, offers a couple of suggestions, and they’re not a bad place to begin: “I wish schools would teach the value of cultivating presence. … One solution is to spend a few minutes every day just paying close attention to some facet of nature.”

What we can’t do is pretend this stuff doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, or that we can somehow go back to the days before … when, exactly? Not that I want to. I like most of these tools and toys. I’m writing this on a Mac that’s wirelessly connected to the Internet, for heaven’s sake, and I’ve been able to almost instantly connect to books and articles published all over the globe. My cell phone just buzzed with another text. On Saturday I carried on a real-time conversation with friends in Egypt, and we could see each other. Later I got to watch a soccer match, live from Poland.

But that’s not to say these things are unalloyed, all good and no bad. There are always trade-offs and we have valid reasons to ask questions.

Just getting in the habit of thinking about these questions is a start. That’s got to be better than handing ourselves over to research labs or the marketing departments of Silicon Valley.

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Digital civilization and its discontents

13 Jun

A funny thing is happening on the way to digital paradise, and I’m not talking about the Facebook stock dive or the LinkedIn password hacking.

Intelligent, inquiring minds want to know: What is all our technology and connectivity doing to us? We may not be downloading the devil, but some voices are asking what hath Google and Facebook wrought.

Technology angst isn’t new. Some folks in the 1400s predicted cultural and theological catastrophe when Gutenberg re-invented the printing press. We might just be updating old anxieties—Technophobia 2.0–but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and several writers are. A select list:

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) Maybe not making us exactly stupid, he concludes, but something else: turning us into “pancake people,” borrowing a phrase from playwright Richard Foreman, people who are “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Last month, Stephen Marche asked a companion question in the same magazine: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Based on new research, Marche says the answer is, roughly, yes. More narcissistic too.

Journalist Maggie Jackson wrote on similar themes in book length a few years ago in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009).

The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conception of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. … We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.

And then this week, science writer Diane Ackerman asks in the New York Times, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” She’s not a Luddite, but she frets that we are cutting ourselves off from the world, even as we try to “experience” more of it online:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I can see at least a half-dozen interconnected anxieties that keep surfacing in these various critiques. I’ll save those for the next post. (This is a blog, after all, and so this post should stay fairly brief. Irony? You betcha.)

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about the impact of our new technology. What do you make of these concerns and questions? Please add a comment to the blog and get in the conversation.

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(I found the photo illustration here, but I could not find information about who created it, permissions, etc.)

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