Perhaps I sound like a neo-Luddite, but I think the time has come for a little bit of retrograde thinking when it comes to technology. We are in a bad relationship with a mistress made of silicon, and maybe it is time to break up with her.
A recent story reported on a gentleman who made a wrong turn onto train tracks, where he narrowly escaped death. Why did he drive down the train tracks? Because his GPS told him to. Donald Sterling learned that our ubiquitous smartphones can be more than that, and can be electronic archivists of our stupidity. The European Court of Justice recently found a “right to be forgotten” (for Europeans anyway). Nevertheless, having technology that gives the entirety of human knowledge to us in a device that we can hold in the palm of our hand also means that we can never be forgotten – law or no law.
Is this technology really making our lives better? I remember being a young man who spent a lot of time at the beach and not a lot of time working. AT&T had an ad campaign that said “Have you ever sent a fax from the beach? You will.” It was presented to us as a promise. It was presented to us as a gift, that we would be able to spend more time at the beach, because we could work from anywhere and we would be freed from our desks and chairs and monitors. Perhaps I was overly prescient, but I saw it them threatening me, not making me a promise. Back then, one may have never sent a fax from the beach, but by god, we all do now. Instead of enjoying my recent trip to the beach, I spent most of the time standing in the shade sending emails and monitoring the office from afar. Certainly it was better to enjoy watching my children out of the corner of my eye than not to be at the beach at all. But, with modern technology the day never ends. We send the fax from the beach, not because we can, but because we have to.
And the man who drove his car onto the train tracks because he listened to his GPS? Back before we could send faxes from the beach, if we were going somewhere we would ask someone how to get there, or we would consult a map that would give us a greater idea of where we stood in the world. Maybe sometimes we got lost. Maybe it was inefficient. Sometimes we got lost and it was a great adventure.
As I get older, I begin telling younger people to be careful what they wish for. With every bit of success comes responsibility and stress. Well now we have, as a species, succeeded in creating machine after machine and device after device that promised to make our lives “easier.” It isn’t easier. It isn’t better. Instead of human interaction, we have machine slavery. Those companies that once started in garages and dorm rooms – challenging the dominant captains of capitalism? They are now the huge behemoths, and they care nothing about you. Google’s “don’t be evil” credo is now an unpublished “lets be evil, its good for business.”
What can we do?
Can we break up with our silicon-implant mistress? Maybe just a little. Maybe just for a minute.
Today, instead of texting someone, turn your phone off and go visit them. Ride your bike or walk over to their house. If you get lost, so what? Take a bit and wonder at what’s around you. I don’t know that I can break up with mine. She blackmails me. I cannot get away from her, lest she retaliate with great force. Some people never got into that kind of a relationship, and some people are too young to have done so far. I don’t call for any banning of technology or just to “rage against the machine,” but I do ask that perhaps we consider what “progress” really means, and what it has given us. Perhaps if people had realized back in the 1990’s that AT&T wasn’t promising us anything, but rather threatening us with something, things might be different.
Knowing there isn’t much to do about it, I find myself wondering if the few souls on Pitcairn Island might have use for an American lawyer to live among them. It sounds better than sending another fax from the beach, or taking a wrong turn because a robotic voice told me to.