Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Technology wins



     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.

13 comments:

  1. Neil,

    The concern should be for how technology is ever increasingly consuming jobs without providing alternatives that allow one to take care of oneself and family. Unless we want to wind up in some version of a sci-fi dystopia, we have to start thinking about that. We are approaching the point where you can be willing to work and yet not be able to find it.

    Change has also affected the newspaper business. You've seen the hard times brought about by increasing competition. I'm still not convinced that the so-called "new media" will ever be able to do the investigative journalism that kept our "betters" from getting too far out of line. And yet, I am thrilled to live more than a few hours away and still be able to enjoy your writing online.

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    1. I agree with David about both the jobs and the investigative journalism. It's impressive and to your credit that you have such an evolved attitude with regard to technology, Neil, given that the technology pictured has gone a long way toward destroying the industry that you've been involved with your whole career. If I were you and looked at that photo, I'd think "Damn, every one of those people on the train could be reading a Sun-Times, and many would have been, not that many years ago..."

      It's great for the consumer, but doesn't seem to have quite been worked out yet to the benefit of the Content Providers such as yourself, if it ever will be. Though I suppose I'm only looking at the monetary benefits. I'm sure that, whatever the financial implications, you're delighted that technology has made it possible for your columns and posts to be read in New York or China just as easily as they can be read in the Loop.

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    2. That B. Scribe sure has a bad temper. (Greek style)

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  2. Neil,

    Not so fast that a cell phone won't give you cancer. The NIH tries to reassure us that cell phone use probably won't cause cancer; part of the good news they offer is that texting doesn't put the phone next to one's head so it is safe. Part of the bad news is that glioma can be fatal so fast that long-range surveys asking about cell phone use and health can miss the people who are diagnosed and then die between surveys.

    The worst aspect of cell phones, though, is how parents use them to neglect their young kids, Go anywhere and you see parents pushing 4-year-olds in strollers while talking on the cell

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    1. If cell phones gave us brain cancer we'd all be dead.

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  3. The addictive nature of the cell/smart phone is a concern. People falling in rivers, getting shot over texting, driving while using is alarming. Some folks cannot put them down.

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  4. I'm actually reading the news MORE now than I did before having a SmartPhone. I now have an online subscription to both the NY Times and the Sun-Times - and would never have got home delivery on either. For a very silly/practical/OCD reason: I hated the dirty newspaper ink on my hands.

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    1. Hey, Hedy, I thought that was CLEAN newspaper ink! In old movies, they'd always lay out a newspaper if a baby was going to be born on the street. And what about serving fish and chips wrapped in the newspaper? ; )

      Point taken, though. Not to mention the hassle of dealing with 20 pounds-worth of last week's news...

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    2. @Hedy -- interestingly, given the topic, concern about getting ink on your hands from newspapers is a very old complaint. Before the New York Times' motto was "All The News That's Fit to Print," Its slogan was, "Will Not Soil the Breakfast Linens," or words to that effect.

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  5. JPF is correct. What's equally worrisome are the folks that risk their very lives -- some having lost theirs -- to retrieve a dropped cell/smart phone on a frozen lake, on the subway tracks. et al.

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  6. Trust my judgement, you say? Well my judgement says that cell phones suck! And I trust it.
    They are the reason I hardly ever go to theatre or movies anymore, and dread a long bus ride. Well, not the phones, per se. The jerks who can't stay off of them. So I revise my earlier opinion. Technology is great, as long as people don't use it to annoy me.

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  7. "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."

    . . . should have stopped developing [when Bob Greene was a teenager]. If I recall correctly, that was when things actually were perfect.

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  8. We must move forward with change.

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.