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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