Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Magic Beans

A couple of weeks ago, my cell phone died and I’ve been left deprived of an extraordinarily useful tool in navigating my day, namely, a clock. I have a busy life and have never had much luck with watches. Before I had a cell, I used to check payphones for the time when I was out. Phones have always been my sundials. But as far as the actual communication technology goes, I rarely use it.

I never bothered with a cell until I had a job that required me to carry one, and stay on call 24 hours a day. I’ve long since freed myself of that job, but not before I was habituated to my phone. It’s a curious thing about technology. We are so nonchalant about embracing new technology even though once we do, our lives tend to adapt around it and make it very difficult to let go of if we later find it is costly in some way that may outweigh the benefit.

When a city wants to open a new landfill, it commissions an environmental impact statement. You would think, in a similar way, it might be prudent to create a psychological or social impact statement before unleashing a technology. It’s a nice thought, but generally new technologies have unforeseeable consequences, what are sometimes called ‘higher order consequences’. These may take generations to evolve, and may be so many steps removed from the technology that they are difficult to trace back to it.

The term higher order consequences has such a dramatic flair to it, that I again wonder why we are not more wary. But we aren’t wary. We are impulsive and wide-eyed at most new gadgets and gizmos. “New” is often the best marketing strategy. New doesn’t tell you anything about how a gadget will affect your lifestyle, your livelihood or even whole social structures.

Sometimes it seems a technology doesn’t so much change social structure, as illustrate it. After reading a few books on primate studies, I gather that apes, when not busy gathering food, boinking or knocking each others teeth out, just like to hang out, gossip, tell jokes and strategise ways to move up the social ladder. Primates like to be amused. They play pranks. Generally they like to laugh and immerse themselves in silly pastimes. Coming full circle back to my question of whether or not to replace my phone, I have become acutely aware of how people use their phones. I see them everywhere, and usually I see people typing on them, rather than talking into them. It makes me think of the old saw about what an uncountable number of monkeys will pound out at typewriters. Well we know: Paris Hilton jokes. We are spacemonkeys and we still mostly like to horse around. We type out celebrity gossip, puns, and gags. We share funny pictures and generally immerse ourselves in silly pastimes. People ask whether television, videogames, and the internet have made us stupid. I think we were always stupid, or at least really easily distracted by amusements.

I'm being flippant here, when it could easily be argued that a lot of bad things go on in the world because people are too absorbed in mindless pastimes. Or perhaps worse, people are so aware of big slowly converging complex crises, that the resulting high anxiety pushes them into ever more stress relieving amusement retreats. That’s what monkeys do when they are nervous: they grin and try and defuse things. Or, to put it another way, what looks endearing in a tribe of fifty apes, begins to look nightmarishly cancerous in a global village of nearly 7 billion people who have consciously committed to a rejection of limits

I could mention also, there are, I think, severe personal and interpersonal consequences to shifting the bulk of social experience out of physical face to face environments and recreating them in buffered layers of communication technologies.

I do wish we were more selective about technology, or that we could put it back in the box once it started to show negative gains. Cell phones and microwave ovens largely seem to help facilitate a way of life that denigrates personal time, family, and community in favour of production, and maintaining a busy frantic pace. Cars, well the big ugly picture with cars is still rolling in. A lot of technology can be boiled down to increases in speed, efficiency and intensity when maybe that isn’t really in anyone’s best interest.

We’ve all read about the Manhattan Project scientist who casually remarked on the possibility of igniting the atmosphere with the detonation of the bomb. Now you might think someone who takes that kind of risk should have been in jail. But he was only a part of a culture that decided the best thing in life was to churn out as many different machines, as fast as possible, to play with and make money from. And this orgy has, in its use of energy, now had a higher order consequence you could describe as “igniting the atmosphere”. All that, while we retained our basic ape natures. It makes me feel that despite an awful lot of consequences, our obsessive love affair with technology hasn’t been terribly revolutionary in any meaningful way. It’s kind of sad to think how much we will keep trading for more magic beans.

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