Life and Tech

Life and Tech February 7, 2018

Someone said to me recently that they are not sure that we are happier with our new technology than we were decades ago playing in the dirt.

It struck me that when I was playing in the dirt as a child, I was often imagining that I had technology like what we now have.

This led me to think a little more about the state of our current lives and how technology, play, and childhood – among other things – relate to one another. I was also prompted to think about this topic by Loren Rosson’s blog post asking whether children adventure anymore these days.

Helicopter parenting is probably connected with excessive fear, driven by news stories about events that are on the one hand still relatively rare, and on the other were happening before they were widely reported on. Whatever the reason for it, we expect children to stay in regular contact. On the other hand, that at least leaves some room to allow children greater independence. If the ability to Google and access GPS means that one will be less likely to have the experience of getting lost and figuring out how to find one’s way, the fact that one can do that – and if necessary call home or even the police or an ambulance – ought to also mean that parents can allow their children to explore and venture further afield than might have been advisable without cell phones, however less common the phenomenon of helicopter parenting may have been back then.

On a related note, P. Z. Myers shared a prophetic cartoon from the 1920s predicting what life would be like if phones could be carried in one’s pocket. I agree with him that the cartoon is doubly prophetic, both in the scenarios it envisages, but also in the assumption that it would either not have an “off” button, or if it did, people would choose not to use it or forget to do so.

See also Omid Safi’s piece “The Disease of Being Busy,” which includes the role of technology but doesn’t blame it or suggest that it alone, in and of itself, is the reason for the way things are today. Here’s an excerpt:

Since the 1950s, we have had so many new technological innovations that we thought (or were promised) would make our lives easier, faster, simpler. Yet, we have no more “free” or leisurely time today than we did decades ago.

For some of us, the “privileged” ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.

Smart phones and laptops mean that there is no division between the office and home. When the kids are in bed, we are back online.

One of my own daily struggles is the avalanche of email. I often refer to it as my jihad against email. I am constantly buried under hundreds and hundreds of emails, and I have absolutely no idea how to make it stop. I’ve tried different techniques: only responding in the evenings, not responding over weekends, asking people to schedule more face-to-face time. They keep on coming, in volumes that are unfathomable: personal emails, business emails, hybrid emails. And people expect a response — right now. I, too, it turns out… am so busy…

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  • John MacDonald

    “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”

    -Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology (1954).”

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    This is a very interesting post to me. I have often thought of how technology that is now commonplace was science-fiction to my grandfather. Carrying around small tablets with the power of computers is something you saw on Star Trek.

    It’s also interesting how our current level of technology shapes our ability to fantasize about technology, both as children and as adults. When you watch older sci-fi movies, for example, it’s not uncommon for their computers to use large reels of tape. Even in many of our futuristic movies, today, you’ll still see some form of keyboard or manual manipulation of the UI. Will there come a day when even that will seem silly?

    • Chuck Johnson

      “Will there come a day when even that will seem silly?”
      That day is not that far off.

  • Chuck Johnson

    It will always be with us.
    We have to deal with the side effects of innovation.

    For billions of years, living things have had to deal with the side effects of genetic evolution.

  • arcseconds

    I realised a while ago that we (many of us, anyway) get all enthused about the latest technology coming down the pipeline, and when we get it we quickly find it boring, and start enthusing about the next bit of tech, that will surely mean we live in The Future, and that would be cool.

    I now think this is a bit of a trap, depending in part on a kind of escapism. Not satisfied with our lives now, we think tech will make things better, and all like amazing. But if you aren’t amazed, right now, at a tiny computer, more powerful than anything available to consumers 20 years ago, that fits in the palm of your hand and gives you access to a pretty large subset of the entirety of human knowledge, then everything will bore you before too long.

    Science fiction also typically imagines idealized technology. It doesn’t break down, the users don’t get monthly bills and random changes in their service, and you’ve got some benign organization like Star Fleet at the other end, not faceless corporations, people trying to sell you stuff, panhandlers, tradies (because you’re trying to renovate your kitchen and as usual it’s not going well), demanding clients and your boss.

    Plus often it’s depicted as only being available to a select few, so it bleeds a bit into the superhero genre. When everyone has it, you’re not special any more.

    We had global commnications by the end of the 19th century. It was possible, then, to buy property and build a house on the other side of the world by remote control. As far as medium-sized dry goods go, mostly what has happened is that things have sped up. I wonder whether this is really a good thing.

    Basically, we give little thought to, and have little ability to control, the exact impact technology has on our lives. If everyone got together and seriously asked themselves the question: do we want to be conducting business at the speed of thought, or would we sacrifice some speed and expectations surrounding instant responses for some peace? and were prepared to put some of society’s resources into creating technology and practices that enabled that, I don’t think we’d be opting for the status quo.

    Anyway, so I gave up on following the latest tends in technology, and tried to take more interest in what was in front of me, not what’s surely going to improve my life massively in six months time. I’ve since become quite a lot more interested in older computer technology — hence, for example, my interest in Robert Kraft’s experience with information technology and the Septuagint:

    And sometimes even older stuff. I spent a few hours reading about mechanical clock escapements, once.

    Something of more lasting interest than the ‘improvement’ a piece of tech makes to your life right now is how exactly a problem was solved using the available techniques of the time.

    I kind of see this attitude to technology connected to things buddhists say about taking care of what is in front of you right now, and also child psychologists (and others) who maintain the importance of intrinsic motivation and involvement with your current activity, rather than having your emotional investment in an imagined fantastic future.

    • Robert Kraft’s involvement in what we would now call the realm of Digital Humanities related to biblical studies and the study of ancient religion is fascinating. I remember accessing the website he maintained, joining discussion groups, and appreciating this amazing way that information was starting to flow via a Telnet connection between computers in different places…

  • Gary

    From the SciFi point of view, Falcon Heavy represents the greatest imaginable fantasy come true, and the stupidest example of extravagant waste.

    The best- The landing of Falcon Heavy boosters. I don’t know how many times I watched space ships land vertically on 50’s SciFi movies.

    The stupidest – Sending a Tesla into deep space…something along the lines of Spaceballs (Winnebago Eagle 5)…

    • Gary

      Which brings up an interesting point. If the government (NASA or the military) put a Tesla in space, there would be outrage about the waste of money. But Elon Musk is a hero and genius (which is true). But the emphasis is marketing to sell cars – even if the cars are green, the money to put space junk up, versus the benefit for using the money in a more beneficial manner, boggles the mind. Spaceballs takes priority over common sense.