Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Technology wins. You can complain about it. You can be unhappy about it, point with open-mouthed protest at whatever pleasant social dynamic seems to be melting away in the gentle glow of electronics. But it still wins. Nobody crosses the country in an ox cart anymore, which in one sense is a shame, because doing so was probably three to six of the most deeply-felt months a person could experience, between the deserts and the Comanche and the pitiless elements. Nothing bound people together like sharing an ox cart. Now we fly across the country in what, six hours? Not much time to get to know each other.
Still, it's an improvement. A big improvement. We have lots of those, really. From remote door locks on your cars to security cameras. People cling to some vestigial fear about cameras, but where's the harm? They don't lie. They're always on. They catch crooks. We worry they're the overture in some Orwellian control state, but where's the evidence of that? Maybe it's coming, true, but if you look at the past, and the present, we don't need cameras to have a police state.
Cell phones are an improvement. That sounds obvious, but I know a lot of people of my generation —the tail end of the Baby Boom — are not comfortable with the phones, or at least with the idea of them. We got 'em, in droves, but they worry us. We worry that we're always being distracted, that because of the phones, people are never really where they are, never notice who's around them, but are always off in some electronic world, playing Angry Birds or checking their stocks or tweeting their 32 followers.
We're still getting used to them. Radio was cutting edge technology, too, once upon a time, and people fretted what it would do to society.
You don't have to carry a phone. But most people do. That's their choice, right? I'm of the generation—the last generation, probably—who remembers when none of us had little pocket phone/computers. You know what? It wasn't an era of deep Bryonic feeling, high adventure and lives richly lived. You got lost more. You missed appointments. You looked out the window blankly, drew tic-tac-toe boards in the condensation on the glass. People twiddled their thumbs. They read newspapers more. That was a good thing, in my view.
Technology wins because we adapt to it. We become different people than our great-grandparents were, with different attention spans, different expectations. Thirty years ago people using cell phones were jerks. Rich jerks. The phones were new and expensive, so the public consensus was anyone using one was a show-off, to be making a phone call in public like that. Who does he think he is? Now we pull them out almost as a reflex, the way a 4-year-old on his first day of nursery school will clutch a tattered strip of beloved blue blankie. They're safety. The communicative aspect is almost secondary. It isn't like we're waiting for the Madrid office to sign off on the big deal. It's a tic. The phone is something to do with your hands, a time-filling fumble. Like a cigarette only it doesn't give you cancer.
That's good, right? Another improvement. If you were to explain it that way -- go back in time, tap one of the 48 percent of Americans who were smoking in 1965 and say, "In 50 years, half of all you smokers, instead of reaching for a cancer stick, will reach for the entire world of knowledge and communication at their fingertips in a device of startling complexity and power," most anyone would take that deal, would probably sign off on that, accept that development as an advancement, view the prospect with a pang of envy that they wouldn't be around to see it.
We are around to see it, and perhaps it's human nature to be underwhelmed by whatever actually happens. I'm glad I wasn't like that, glad that getting my first iPod make me proud to be a human being, to belong to the same race who created that device. And I still am, still delight that I can phone people from the train, listen to Mozart as I clomp around the city. And even given the tradeoffs—people whistle less, but then, they'll have all recorded music at their disposal any time of the day or night—it's a pretty good deal. That goes against the common wisdom, I know. We're supposed to be concerned about all this stuff, what it's doing to us, the idea that we might change, as if we were perfect to begin with and should have stopped developing at some point centuries ago. Stop the presses: we weren't perfect..
Worrying about technology is an empty question., as you can see if you turn around and apply it to any technological development in the past. Was the telephone a good thing? It ended the practice of paying social visits. Were antibiotics a good thing? They ended the special world of sanitariums. You can debate any development—the bicycle, the automobile, television. They're all part of a process. Autos had bad effects, sure, but they also had good effects and, ultimately, they were what happened. Technology is a process, unfolding. There's no going back for a redo. We should give ourselves more credit. It isn't so much that technology wins, as we win, embracing the change that we want, that improves our lives, in the main. Technology wins because we make it win, even though we immediately doubt and second guess and worry about what we've just done. We ought to trust our own judgment a little more.