I recently faced a personal crisis.
The big game was on and the internet at our house went down in the first quarter. I was forced to do the unthinkable. I had to leave the house and drive somewhere else to find a TV.
As I drove, anxiety swept over me. I was missing plays. This was the big game and I deserved to watch it, for free, at my own home. And I had a right to pause it any time I needed a bathroom break!!! That’s my divine right as a citizen of these United States uh ‘Murica!
Sure, I fiddled with wires and jiggled handles and wrestled with a phone robot and then pled with a real person on the phone. But all was in vain. I had to leave and watch the game elsewhere. I had to do this because I was determined to watch the game, but was helpless to make it happen without a long line of cooperative computers and screens making that possible. If just one link in that chain of machines breaks, the whole edifice comes crashing down. Then, of course, I come crashing down.
I’m dependent on my machines because I want what they offer but I don’t have the faintest clue how computers work, and in all likelihood, neither do you. We can’t fabricate our own versions at a lower cost. We can’t replicate the internet and expunge all those annoying ads. We can’t fashion our own free streaming video service to compete with Netflix or Hulu, not legally at least. You and I don’t much understand this bed of shiny devices on which our fickle souls sleep. Sure, we can submit a bit of code, plug in some wires, or click on a few buttons, but the true inner-workings of computers, or televisions, or cell phone technology might as well be magic. They are marvels of the modern age. Only a small portion of the population has the know-how to make these sorts of things “from scratch.” And even then, they’d have to retool other machines to do it. We can’t exactly create a Pentium processor chip, by hand, with scrap plastic and wires. Even the Professor from Gilligan’s Island would have a hard time fashioning an iPhone from cables and coconuts. We are largely ignorant of these machines we so desperately need for sustaining our plugged-in lives. We use them all the time and yet we hardly know them.
Still, understanding our relationship with technology is as pressing a challenge as we face in modern times. Our relationship with technology is inextricably linked to our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with nature. All of these are mediated by screen-machines.
We modern people have a complicated relationship with our technology, and screen-based technology specifically. Sometimes this relationship is positive, sometimes it’s negative, but usually our digital dance is composed of confusing new steps, and a tangle of pros and cons that prevent us from seeing who’s really leading the waltz. Are we in control of our technology, or does it control us?
Swimming in a Sea of Screens
To fully appreciate the scope of this issue, consider how many screens you will you stare at in one day. How many is it?
Right now, you must be looking at a screen on a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. You may spend hours on any combination of these before the day is done. You’ll also watch TV, perhaps in 2 or 3 different rooms.
If you are traveling, you may see a few screens at the gas station. You’ll use the card-reader screen to pay for gas and maybe a carwash. Another screen above it distracts you with concentrated, loud and rapidfire bursts of commercial messages. In your car, there’s probably an LCD screen on the radio and CD player, or perhaps a bigger video screen for navigating XM Radio, DVD’s, and a rearview camera.
If you have a doctor’s appointment, get a haircut, or take the car into the shop, there’s a TV playing talk shows, news, or sports to liven up the waiting room. You may eat at home today. There you may see screens on the coffee machine, blender, oven, microwave, perhaps a digital scale or even on the refrigerator.
Or you may stop and get fast food today. At the fast-food joint you’ll see a screen or two in the drive-through or on the front counter listing the menu and showing your order. The big menu boards behind the counter can be screens too. Some of them dance in advertising cycles, channeling jaunty little jingles that must haunt the dreams of employees. Even the fancier drink machines have screens to navigate as you blend different sodas with a bit of vanilla, light on the ice.
Naturally, if you go to a store that sells electronics, you’ll see a wall full of TV’s or a counter full of computers and phones, all baiting your amusement with their magical moving pictures. Of course, our office equipment has screens too: printers, copiers, fax machines, landline telephones. The paper shredder and water cooler might have screens as well.
If you need to go to the airport, train station, or public transit there are kiosk screens for ordering and printing tickets, as well as screens listing arrivals and departures. There are TV screens in restaurants and bars as you head to the terminal where there are more screens blaring sports and news at the waiting masses. But most people aren’t watching those screens because they are on their smart phones, tablets, or laptops cramming more digital distractions into their anxious wait time.
And don’t forget your wristwatch. Even if you never sprang for the “smart watch” touch screens or the digital readout fitness bands, you may still have an LCD screen readout.
We are swimming in a sea of screens. And we like it.
“Like” might not be strong enough. We love our gadgets. We know they can’t love us back, but we’ve grown so close to these convenience-machines that we can hardly imagine life without them. We can hardly imagine travel, communication, and entertainment without the benefit of screen-based technology. Only the most skilled survivalists would know how to scratch out a living without the assistance of the internet or a smart phone. The rest of us are so dependent on our handheld and desktop devices that they own us as much as we own them.
The Measure of Our Devotion
Our gadgets, oftentimes, have a sort of mastery over us. We can measure this mastery by the resources we devote to them.
We spend more time, energy, and money than we’d like to admit catering to the needs of our gadgets. Who hasn’t raced to the car or hurried home so they can recharge a cell phone or tablet? We buy add-ons to customize our computer or phone for personal use. We bump up cell-phone plans for more data and texting. And we’ve all raced through a phone call because the battery was about to die. Computer repair, cell phone repair, internet service repair—all of these are big businesses because our gadgets need upkeep.
Our cyber identity needs upkeep too. We curate our profiles on social media. We post on our blogs and feeds. We scribble all sorts of things in text messages, websites, comment sections, and online posts. All of that takes time and effort. And it might cost us money if we pay for the premium services—“commercial free” versions, for example—or if we are spending time on Facebook when we should be focused on our jobs. Our disposable income is consumed with subscriptions and service bills for our many devices.
And most all of us have proven our devotion in the social media time warp too. Haven’t you time-warped? We dive into Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, or Instagram as if entering a time-portal. We emerge from what felt like a 5-minute diversion but it’s actually 2 or 3 hours into the future.
We don’t just lose track of time. We can also lose our temper over a frozen screen, a computer crash, or the “spinning wheel of death”.
Our relationship with technology is not always healthy. The machines, all too often, lord over us. We should be the machinists presiding over our machines, but it is the machines that are pulling the strings. The roles have reversed.
Leaning on Machines
To be fair, this chilling vision of the present is probably a bit exaggerated. Not everyone in the well-to-do world fits the mold I just cast. And even fewer fit it when we consider the developing world.
Nevertheless, this hyperbole points to a core truth: we are deeply dependent on modern technology. Some of us may think we are free from its metallic grip. We may have taken real and meaningful steps to free ourselves of screen addiction or texting-while-driving. That’s good! We need self-control to anchor our humanity in this swelling sea of machines. But even these efforts don’t fully free us. We’re still dependent.
Consider, for example, low-tech pioneers, those among us who refrain from screens, read newspapers, avoid cell phones, chop wood, and bike to work. Some could be called “naturalists,” “minimalists,” or “off-the-grid.” Whatever you call it, they have found a measure of success in life while shunning many of our screen-based conveniences. Yet even these people need resources like food and money. And the moment they seek a conventional store or bank ATM, they have slipped back into “machine-assisted living.” Grocery stores, restaurants, banks, and lending agencies all depend on advanced telecommunications. They need their technology to order stock, track shipments, calculate interest, buy new carpet, read market fluctuations, sound alarms, register repairs, wire funds, and do a thousand other things.
We don’t all depend on machines equally, but we do depend on them. We are leaning on machines. The risk, of course, is that we lean so far we fall. Whatever good may be gained through machines, we risk losing ourselves instead. The wisest among us have long forewarned this fate (including the great comedy duo known as Flight of the Conchords). Behold:
Man vs. Machine
The story of man vs. machine is as old as history. Man fashions tools to aid in his survival, only to ultimately compete with the same technology for a share of the spoils and a place in the future. Mechanical advancements have always displaced aging technicians and their obsolete technology. New tech reshapes society. It changes things. Sometimes those changes dictate new cultural mandates, like a memo from our boss about cell-phone etiquette or proper public decorum when using social media. Sometimes new technology leaves us with less breathing room, fewer jobs, and a foreboding new landscape. This is the cost of living in a mechanically-enhanced world. Technological man has always competed with his own creations. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose.
Communication technologies, like writing, alphabets, and books, offer some of the clearest examples of humane technology. They create whole new spaces within which to discover ourselves, come together, clarify ideas, and strengthen our social relations. But even these important innovations put some people out of work. Most oral cultures in our history, for example, gradually surrendered their elder class of memory experts, marginalizing the once-revered wise men in favor of a couple of books.
Other technologies are more mixed. Gun-powder weapons empowered “the good guys” and the “bad guys” alike. They didn’t just heighten our destructive power in defense of liberty; they also put countless swordsmen out of work, reoriented warfare forevermore, and decimated scores of stone and iron age cultures. Gun-powder technology continues to strengthen tyrants and heroes alike.
The printing press shines much brighter in history, serving a profound humanitarian good. We can thank the printing press for bolstering education, communication, and exploration like never before. But it would be naïve to think that early printers only made educational materials. For every dictionary, political tractate, or sacred scripture printed, there were reams of pulp fiction, propaganda, and pornography. And of course, the printing press rendered thousands of scribes obsolete.
Advanced farming equipment pushed small farms out of business. Refrigerators crushed the ice industry. Telegraphs hamstrung the Pony Express. Telescopes, light bulbs, steam engines, cotton gins, radios, calculators, air-travel, televisions, telephones: all of these technological advances fundamentally challenged individuals and societies to adapt or die. Innovations forge new roads into the future, and shut down old roads from the past. New careers are pioneered while whole fields are burned to the ground.
Entering the computer age, a room-sized IBM computer rendered a whole department at NASA obsolete in the 1960’s. Rooms full of (human) computers were replaced by a single machine doing the same thing. Indeed, the very meaning of the word “computer” has changed. The term which now refers to a square-ish multitasking machine, at one time, referred to a man or woman who computes. This linguistic tweak is a perfect embodiment of the way that we are often replaced by the machines that we invent. Given the technology today at our disposal though, it would be ridiculously inefficient to commission a team of people to do a month’s worth of computational work when a cell phone app could do the same thing in a few seconds.
We are still better than computers at some things, but the list is shrinking. In 1997, chess grand champion Gary Kasparov lost to supercomputer “Deep Blue.” Later, in 2011, Jeopardy! gameshow kingpin Ken Jennings conceded defeat to Watson, another IBM supercomputer. Jennings famously quipped, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”
Who’s In Control Here?
Popular fiction loves the recurring theme of man versus machine, painting the technological future in metallic gray; more robotic than human. Occasionally, the picture is in light and pleasant tones as in Stephen Spielberg’s ,AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) or retro-future primetime cartoon, The Jetsons (1962-1963). Instead of humans competing with robots for an uncertain fate, robots aspire to be human or they pose no threat. In these stories, machines only enhance our living, and there’s no real question that humans are in control.
Often, however, the outlook is more uncertain. The metallic gray tones turn dark and cold as machines vie for authority over man, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I, Robot [1950 (book); 2004 (movie)], or Blade Runner (1982). Man and robot compete against each other, sometimes fighting, sometimes killing each other. In this tenuous coexistence, it’s not clear if mankind can maintain authority over his machines. But for now, we have the upper hand.
Still other pictures are downright depressing. The metallic gray is replaced with filthy mass graves and jet black voids. In this picture, the relationship between man and machine manifests in tragic defeat. We may destroy ourselves, like in The Book of Eli (2010) or The Postman [1985 (book); 1997 (movie)]. Or the robots may do it for us, as in The Terminator (1983), The Matrix (1999), or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Either way, the trending line prophesies human defeat. Man will be no more. Our interaction with machines is an abusive relationship capped off with a spectacular murder-suicide.
In literary history, the bleak modernist dystopias counterbalance the typically optimistic adventure tales like Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Or they critique utopian political works like Plato’s Republic (4th cent. BCE), Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516 CE), or Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848).
Utopian futures are also the stock and trade of most religions—be it the Hebrew Messiah of Judaism, Maitreya in Buddhism, the tenth incarnation of Vishnu in Hinduism, or the second coming of Christ for Christianity. And if the Bahai are right, all of the above are coming to bring peace on Earth.
Our relationship with machines, it would seem, cannot be properly understood without indulging in the hope of utopia or dreading the threat of dystopia. Both the optimistic and pessimistic outlooks can help inform our understanding of technology. Advanced technology can empower our humanity by multiplying crops, distributing resources, curing diseases, helping us solve crimes, conveying stories that inspire us, opening doors to new information and discoveries, and connecting us to one another. But machines can also dehumanize and destroy us, whether in a quick apocalypse, or a slow atrophy. There is no guarantee that machines will help us to be any more human than we already are but there is plenty of evidence of their power to ruin us.
Themes of dystopia and utopia are strung across the gulf of human history. They act like a wobbling tension bridge. Ambition may have strung the bridge, but only the cautious can cross it into a livable future. Perhaps with the lessons we learn from both our bleakest and brightest foresights, we can advance with technology into the future without losing our humanity in the process.
The Big Game
Most of the time however, we live in the “small story.” We have no great expectations or sinking fears for our machines, even if we deeply depend on them. We aren’t thinking of dystopia or utopia. We are thinking about a YouTube video, a Facebook post, a text message, a TV show, or a football game.
You’ve already heard how my life was turned upside down by a malfunctioning machine. When the big game was on, I was determined to watch it. I was frantic when deprived of that viewing pleasure, yet I was merely missing an event that most people in the world would never witness, that most people in human history had never seen, that no one but the teams, coaches, and referees must witness by actual necessity. My beliefs about technology had instilled in me a sense of entitlement. But that entitlement to watch the big game wouldn’t even make sense if I didn’t own a TV. My sense entitlement is itself driven by machines.
Deep down, I know better. TV and internet are privileges, not rights. And watching the big game is a leisure activity, not a necessity. But for one night, I needed my TV like an addict needs his fix. I know nothing of how this technology works, nor do I care. I wanted what it offered, even if it cost a bit of myself to get it. Quite likely, you’ve been where I was. You’ve desperately needed some machine to work, a magical piece of hardware whose inner-workings you and I haven’t the faintest clue about. We relate with our screens in desperate, but ignorant, dependence.
Fortunately, the machines don’t “know” us any better than we know them. It’s questionable whether machines can “know” anything but we’ll save that debate (over artificial intelligence) for another day. Computers aren’t people…not yet at least.
How do I need Thee?
Since computers aren’t people, then our relationship with them isn’t person-to-person. Computers aren’t friends or family. We relate to computers as person-to-object.
Degree of Dependency
The depth of this relationship can be (partly) measured in degrees of dependency. For some people, screen-based technology is a mere novelty, an occasionally entertaining entity, sometimes important for filing taxes or filling out applications. To those people, technology is akin to a healthy snack, or a dessert. It’s mildly beneficial and pleasant, but there’s no great dependency there. The need is external, a mere additive easily disposed at will.
Others treat technology more like a drug. They have a chemical dependency in which they are either addicted to technology or through technology. They need their tech “fix” just to feel normal. This degree of dependency spells an unhealthy and unnecessary reliance on an external object.
Degree of Health
Besides the depth of dependency, we can factor in the degree of health. Drug addicts are deeply dependent but not very healthy. For other people, the need is just as strong but it’s not so bleak. Their dependency is healthy, like an injured person needs a crutch, or an astronomer needs a telescope. We can have reasonably healthy needs and expectations in modern society which can be met only through screen-based technology. The journalist’s laptop, the executive’s cell phone, or the programmer’s desktop computer—all of these can be safe and responsible tools, in the right hands.
Of course, endless degrees can be found in between the extremes. For example, a school teacher may use technology in many great and healthy ways, but sometimes depends on videos too much, or is too naïve about laptops in the classroom. It’s safe to say that most of us relate to different technologies differently, some in healthy ways, others . . . not so much.
Degree of Internalization
Along with dependency, and health, we could also include the degree of internalization. We can relate to technology as something “out there” or as something “in here.” It could be extrinsic or intrinsic, depending on how it interweaves within our identity and functionality as whole people.
Instead of needing technology like an addict needs a “fix,” or a disabled person needs a crutch, a person may need technology like an amputee needs a prosthetic limb, or a heart-patient needs a pacemaker. Here, the relation to technology is like that of a cyborg—man and machine are a blurred unity. This category promises to blur even further as neuroscientists have discovered how to use neural scans to read minds and prosthetic engineers have created artificial limbs that respond to brain waves.
Indeed, it’s quite common to hear man described as a sort of organic machine, or the brain as a “wet computer.” The complex inter-workings of the human body have long been described in mechanical terms. So, it’s not surprising to see us relate with literal machines in ways that blur the boundary between man and machine.
If you are like me, then you interact so seamlessly and unconsciously with a panoply of technologies every day that they are virtually invisible to you. You take them for granted. Screen-based technology is like a window for you. You don’t see screens so much as you see through them. They are convenience-machines that help you reach farther, socialize in a wider circle, and experience more than you could on your own. You might have a pace-maker, an artificial knee, or a fitness tracker, aiding your health. You need your GPS in your car or else you’d get lost on the next road trip. We cannot honestly say we are independent of our machines. We recognize some of the dangers and pitfalls, but still we need our machines. While that’s not necessarily a good thing, it’s not an inherently bad thing either.
Right now, as I’m typing on a keyboard, I’m interacting with my own ideas like a conversation. I’m processing ideas, doing spot-research, skimming potential sources and references that might help improve this article, and I have several of these writing projects “open” at the same time. I can peer-review my work by brainstorming, fact-checking, and proofreading with people by email, text, or video-chat. I can learn from articles, blog posts, links and tweets following chains of breaking news and cutting-edge research.
And I can do all of it in my pajamas. Technology can help me be a better writer, and perhaps with a bit of skill and self-discipline, technology can help me discover myself a little better, or even allow me to glean insights into human nature that can make me a better writer.
Clive Thompson explores these uplifting themes in his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better (2013). Computer technology has expanded most every horizon of human capability ranging from memory storage and number-crunching to lie-detection and social networking. Thompson’s point is that in spite of the potential pitfalls that come with technological advance, it is more often used positively to help us be better people. Have you ever used an alarm on your phone to remind you of a meeting? Or crowd-sourced your brainstorming by posting an open question on Facebook? Or fact-checked a story online? Or used a healthy recipe or home remedy you found on YouTube? If so, you’ve experienced some of the benefits of rightly-guided technology.
When we exercise moral mastery over the tools of technology, those devices can refine our wisdom and energize our intentions. The problem, of course, is that our intentions aren’t always good. Our tools can become our master. And even when we have good intentions . . . well, the road to hell is paved with these.
Another way to say all of this is that our relationship to technology is often one of submission…willful submission…a willful and delightfully ignorant submission.
It is a willful submission because we are consenting adults. Even when we embarrass ourselves with screen addiction or texting-while-driving, we adults can and should know better.
Our submission is also delightfully ignorant because even as we stare bemused at sparkling lights dancing across the screen, we have nary a thought for what we sacrifice in return. We don’t usually think of how these screens rewire our brain, shape our expectations, redefine our relationships, and sometimes enslave us.
One cautionary tale comes from Nicholas Carr. His New York Times bestseller, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010) is a partly biographical warning about how we risk letting the internet rewire, weaken, and redefine us, if we aren’t careful. He mourns the loss of “deep reading,” the rise of screen addiction, and the swelling flood of distractions.
Carr makes his case by first admitting his own internet dependency. He might have never mourned this fact except that one day he realized that his screen addiction was making it hard to read a good book, hard to think deeply, hard to sit down undistracted and contemplate. As a professional author, those are big problems for Carr. He was losing the ability to write, research, and relate. These skills had been pushed aside by a flood of internet distractions. Besides the shows, and games, and movies, and blogs, and videos, every node of the internet is littered with diversions: alerts, beeps, blinks, banners, pop-ups, pings, and tweets. It takes money to run this global network, and that means advertising. As long as we want these space-age conveniences for free, that means we have to put up with banners and sidebars marketing their wares.
Carr’s tale is a hopeful one though. He finished the book…obviously. After digging into the psychology and neurology behind the good and bad effects of the internet, he casts an inspirational vision where people treat their screen time like a rationed diet. They treat distracting alerts and popups like mosquitoes. And they face the technological horizon like pioneers who raise their families only by subduing and mastering their terrain.
Most of us, however, aren’t so stoic. We aren’t exactly “subduing” our technological terrain. We are submissive. If dystopia casts that submissive relationship as an abusive codependence, utopia casts it in terms of cooperation, with mutual submission and shared benefits. The cynic in me fears that we tend mostly towards adolescent addiction. We may have been together with our tech toys for a long time, but we’re no wiser or more mature than before. We’ve grown chronic and desperate in our affections. The relationship isn’t healthy but, if Carr is right, it might be corrected with some maturity on our part.
Perhaps we can “love” technology without loving technology.
Who do you Love?
“Love” is a strong word. It’s used to describe the most intimate of personal relationships. From the odd-ball to the most traditional relationships, people have sought to legitimize their relations with the ubiquitous phrase, “We’re in love.” But love isn’t always a steamy romance, or even a committed devotion like marriage and family. “Love” can also describe innocent and lighthearted associations: liking, enjoyment, friendship, and fun. Most all of us love our screen-based technology in these innocent ways.
We tend to “love” our gadgets in the same way we enjoy a board game, a well-stocked library, a sports team, or pleasant weather. Screens offer convenience, entertainment, comfort, and empowerment. We love them for it. We don’t typically love our gadgets romantically. But even that is changing. “Sex robots” are the latest thing in robotics. Plastic blow-up dolls might be cheaper, but they aren’t automated. Other kinky toys may be inexpensive and automated but they don’t look human. Sex robots, however, look human, and with advances in artificial intelligence, they can act and sound human too. The price-tag is between $5,000 and $10,000 so, in reality, only the most committed technophiles can afford to explore that terrain.
More often, people feed their appetites for cheap or free online. When it comes to our romantic desires, we don’t “love” technology, per se, we just use technology en route to the things we love. In this way, screens can become windows to a fantasy world. DVD’s, Blu-Ray discs, streaming video, and online “adult” sites serve up a steady diet of “mature” content for anyone who wants it. They can tantalize us with romantic comedies, epic love stories, steamy dramas, and, of course, the harder stuff. Most of us still hold on to our real-world partners, love-interests, and spouses. But it’s a growing trend for people to lose themselves in a cyberworld of romantic and sexual fantasies.
Setting aside the aberrant stuff, we still love our gadgets. We know they can’t love us back so we reserve our romantic interests for people, not things. At our best, we see through screens to the people on the other side.
Somewhere on the healthy range of the spectrum, we can use our devices without being mastered by them. On the pathological side of the spectrum, these things use us. Like Golem and the Ring of Power, we are always holding our phones and tablets, fiddling with them, caressing their touch screens, talking to them by name (Siri, Alexa, or Cortana). We might as well nickname our devices, “My precious.” These gadgets offer infinite distraction and one-way affection.
Used well, technology opens up social avenues where we can reconnect with old friends or spark a romance. But we can equally use those avenues to troll their message boards, post conspiracy theories, parrot junk science, or bully and harass people we don’t like, all thanks to technology.
Machines don’t make us more human, or less human, per se. We are still humans either way. Our technologies aren’t exactly neutral, but they don’t determine our fate either. Machines just empower us. What we do with that power is up to us. We may do good or evil, make a big beautiful impact, or settle into ugly little addictions. Whatever we already are, screen-based technology magnifies us.