Are We in an Abusive Relationship with Our Silicon Mistress?

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.

4 Responses to Are We in an Abusive Relationship with Our Silicon Mistress?

  1. lurkingreader says:

    Fax from the beach was a great ad campaign. It hit the mark with promise of taking the office anywhere so we extended the office tethers.

    ‘Device breaks’ have replaced beach days aka ‘mental health’ day. Carting a bag phone on vacation was great till it rang incessantly.
    Now BYOD is like faxing from the beach further blurring lines between work and private life.

    Local family run shop had this sign under hours of operation “Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on ours. Have a nice day.” Great reminder that we are human beings not human doings.

  2. […] not involving four letter words, my buddy Marc Randazza gets in touch with his inner Luddite at the Legal Satyricon and has an […]

  3. Lazlo Toth says:

    I think about this a lot – I graduated from law school in 1985 and had a Toshiba 1100 laptop in 1987. It was so novel that you couldn’t work on a plane because the passenger next to you would want to talk about it.

    Ultimately, technology does make life better – but it’s difficult to keep it from running your life. Maybe because I’ve had a little more time to watch it evolve I’ve been conscious of what it replaced. I started out as a lawyer writing in longhand, handing it to a secretary to type, proofing it, sending it to a centralized word processing department, proofing the result 3-4 times, and then getting copies printed by someone else and often literally running to the Fedex truck to get the documents in their hands by the 8:30 deadline. If I had to do this on a Saturday or Sunday I was in the office. I’ve typed 85-90 words/minute since I was a teenager so this was especially frustrating. I got my first desktop computer (before the laptop) in 1986. Had I not gotten that desktop computer I may have concluded that practicing law was impossible for me.

    Today, I can sit at home, receive a revised copy from someone, review, redline, and turn the electronic copy around from home, often before my family wakes up. The freed up time compared to what I described above is enormous in just that single instance.

    Likewise with the GPS. I suspect more people have had accidents being lost and confused or trying to read hard copy maps. I have a bike GPS and I ride 50-60 miles a week in NYC – the way that I can make snap decisions about what to explore and where to go in parts of the boroughs where I’ve never been astounds me even after years of using the device. Like a chainsaw it has to be used carefully (I am reminded of this when I see the scar on my thigh from the day my chainsaw slipped and fortunately only tore my clothing and a half inch of skin – now I wear kevlar chaps when I use it – another wonderful technological adaptation). It enhances my natural senses but I can’t let it replace them or be a substitute for my own judgment.

    Obviously the other side of this is that because we can do more we are expected to do more and it’s easy to let it control you. But when I think about what the technology replaced I still prefer what I have today.

  4. dan says:

    I dont see this as a technology problem. I just see it as “just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to”. I could bring a Coleman oven and cook roasts while camping. Do I ? no. I cook over an open fire. I could get a solar fly for my tent and run my laptop all weekend. Do I? no. I leave it at home. Last weekend I was DJ at an art/music festival in nature. I could have plugged my phone into the USB on the spare deck and recharged it during my sets. Did I? no. I shut it off when I got there and only turned it on once/day to call my mom. I didnt text her :P The choice is how you use technology. Your tires may be able to pull .8g on your car. Do you?
    Probably .4g is brown shorts territory.

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