You’ve probably noticed that one of the recurring themes in my articles here on CAPC concerns the ever-increasing presence of technology in our lives, and its potential ramifications. (If you have any doubt that this is occurring, consider this recent Pew Internet poll concerning mobile phone users which found that 44% of mobile phone users sleep next to their phones at night, and 29% described their phones as “something they can’t imagine living without.”)
This ubiquity is aided greatly by technology’s constantly growing speed, power, and capacity. It seems like every six months, some new device is released that renders all of its predecessors obsolete by virtue of its technological advancements, be they speed and performance increases, bigger and brighter screens, more powerful and ingenious applications — or something previously unforeseen.
This is obviously a good thing in many ways. I wouldn’t be publishing this piece, and you wouldn’t be reading it, if it weren’t for certain technological advances within even the last five years or so. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, if we step back and consider the countless benefits that a plethora of technologies have introduced into our lives in the last generation. Indeed, the rate at which we envision, develop, and implement new technology is one of our species’ defining, if not crowning, achievements.
Clayton Miller, a “graphic and interaction designer” from Chicago, recently bought an iPhone 5 and was wowed by its size, speed, etc. — even when compared to his previous iPhone. But those things, and the advances they entail, got him thinking about technology, and how he used to relate to it versus how he relates to it now. For example, regarding the incredible sharpness, clarity, and verisimilitude of the visuals one sees on an iPhone 5’s “Retina” display, he writes:
The history of raster-based computer displays may be seen as a single thread of increasing medium-abstraction from the technology’s earliest green-phosphor text terminals through today’s Retina displays. The experience of using the oldest screens was deeply connected to the limitations of the technology: Far from reproducing photographs in the millions of colors discernible by humans, images were limited to a single color and two intensities; even such screens’ greatest strength, text, was far removed from capturing the subtleties of centuries’ worth of typographic refinement. In the use of these technologies, the medium itself was ever-present.
As graphics technology improved over the next few decades, the technology itself began to abstract away as images could be reproduced at greater fidelity to the human eye and typography could be rendered with at least a recognizable semblance of its heritage. With high-DPI displays, the presence of the medium is all but gone — while dynamic range and depth cues may yet evade modern LCDs, the once-constant reminder that you are viewing a computer display has become so subtle as to have disappeared.
This may sound rather abstract and philosophical, but I believe Miller’s main question is this: When technology becomes so fast, powerful, and ubiquitous as to essentially become invisible to its users, what trade-offs have we (unknowingly) made? At the risk of sounding paranoid about some impending “robopocalypse”, if technology becomes so invisible that we no longer think about it, or becomes so close that we can no longer see it for what it is, are we still in control of that technology? On a macro level, yes: after all, we don’t self-perpetuating technology (yet). But on a micro, everyday life level? If technology is so invisible that we don’t mind sleeping with it, or it’s become so easily entwined with our lives that we can’t envision our lives without it, then perhaps we don’t enjoy as much control as we think we do.
As I reflected on Miller’s article, and wondered what it would look like to be more thoughtful about the technology in my life, I thought of recent food-related “movements” in which people have tried to be more thoughtful, deliberate, and intentional about what they eat. These movements have manifested themselves in numerous ways, from buying “organic” food that hasn’t been treated with growth hormones and other artificial chemicals, to the rise in CSAs and community gardens, to a growing support for local vendors. Among other things, I believe that these movements have been inspired by people’s desire to be more in control about the food that they and their families consume, to know more about it, and to be more empowered to make better decisions rather than live at the mercy of corporate supply chains and fast food franchises.
Is it possible to apply some of those same principles to our technological consumption. If so, what would that look like?
My desire here is not to make people paranoid about technology. I’m a geek myself, and I love my gadgets. But I hope that love never causes me to be blind or passive with regards to the technology that comes into my life, and the life of my family. Embracing technology in its ever-so-quickly developing forms is not inherently bad, but I want to do so with a critical, even skeptical (when warranted) eye.