Thursday, March 5, 2009

Technology as Tyranny

Have you ever considered how many gizmos and gadgets there are in our life that were completely unknown even fifty years ago? From cell phones and computers to digital video recorders and text message devices, we're surrounded by electronic helpers that go way beyond grandma's innovations of automatic dishwasher and washing machine.

But as useful as each new thing can be, there's always the potential of overuse. That cell phone which helps us stay in touch when we're out running errands can be an annoyance when a peaceful family outing is interrupted with business calls; that dvr we use to record our favorite shows can create a backlog of unwatched programming that we don't have time to view.

And both the computer and the text message device can connect us to news, information, friends, and family; or they can become a source of frustration as we try to juggle a hundred different demands on our time.

I thought this article was a thoughtful look at the downside of some of our connectivity:
E-fatigue: It's that mild, gnawing nausea that sets in once the marvels of a technology have worn off.

More and more, people are worn out by all the newfangled interpersonal communications inventions. The onslaught is relentless: Facebook, Twitter, iPhone applications, FriendFeed, Qik and on and on. Dub it download overload, innovation enervation, neoteric terror.

Karl Douglas Humm, 20, felt it earlier this school year. A sophomore at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Humm says he signed up for Facebook as a senior in high school. Eventually he had about 560 friends, and he was spending a lot of time on the site. "At the beginning of last semester," he says, "I got really sick of it. It was annoying to have something to always check besides e-mail when I went online. I deactivated my account."

The maneuver succeeded. He enjoyed life — online and offline — more than he had in a while, he says. "I could concentrate on work more," says Humm. "I didn't procrastinate. It was something not to worry about."[...]

"The promise of a new technology," says Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human, "is freedom from the tyranny of the old ways of doing things. When it turns out to be just a different form of tyranny, people are disappointed. It's a bait and switch."

A different form of tyranny. I really like that phrase.

Is the dishwasher freedom from the old drudgery of washing dishes, or a new drudgery where there always seems to be a load of clean dishes waiting to be put away and another load of dirty ones cluttering up the sink? Is the microwave a friend or a foe? Did wall-to-wall carpeting and vacuum cleaners make life easier than careworn wooden floors and good stiff brooms, or did they just replace one kind of cleaning with another?

And these questions apply to our virtual activities, too. Is it easier to stay in touch with friends and family via Facebook and Twitter--or do we just end up posting public details of our lives in a format where people we barely know can read our breathtaking insights into...what we're fixing for dinner, or which child has a cough? Is online shopping a time-saver--or a money pit? Is reading the news of the day on the Internet more efficient than subscribing to newspapers or magazines--or does any efficiency we might gain vanish when we linger to post our opinions in the comment boxes?

You might think it's ironic to be reading this on a blog; but then, I think the key to keeping technology from being a master instead of a servant is to examine all of these things, to welcome the technology you find useful and get rid of the tech you don't.

For instance, when I stopped drinking coffee we eventually got rid of our coffee maker. It took up a lot of space on the counter, and Thad so rarely drank a cup at that point that it wasn't worth keeping a large, clunky machine just for making coffee for guests.

Instead, we bought a couple of these. And when we saw this on sale at a local store, we snatched it up, too--now we can make coffee for company quite easily, but we still don't need a large electric appliance parked on the kitchen counter to do so. (And I have to tell you, coffee made this way is really, really, really good.)

The same principle can be used to weed out our "e-fatigue" problem. Those types of technological interactions that work for us, that we find valuable and rewarding, get to stay. But anything that's becoming an unpleasant chore or a dreary hassle can be jettisoned. We can prune our daily reads list, consider carefully before signing up on forums and email lists, examine the value of the social networking sites we may belong to, and eliminate any that are, or have become, more trouble than they're worth.

Our culture usually sends the message that anybody who is anybody is participating in all of these things, reading the latest blogs or websites, sending messages via the latest gadgets, absorbing all the tech news to know what the next hot new great thing is going to be. But nobody can do all of it, and nobody should feel the pressure to try; there's no harm in walking away from things that have become a hindrance, a distraction, an annoyance, or even an occasion of sin (in fact, that last is pretty mandatory; we should walk away from occasions of sin).

Technology may seem like a benevolent tyrant--but no tyrant is better than even a benevolent one. So long as we retain the power to disconnct, log out, shut off, turn down, and tune out, then we're still in charge. But staying in charge means staying on top of the situation, and not letting the technology we use get to the point where it feels as though the technology is using us.


Dawn said...

Yes, good post. I'm currently off bulletin boards and facebook. Only doing blogs and email. It's just so freeing to not feel the obligation. I get online only in the evening. Again, freeing.

j. christian said...

One of the best books I've read on this subject is Technopoly by Neil Postman. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. He's not a Luddite, but he carefully makes a case for viewing the introduction of new technologies with a healthy dose of skepticism -- for exactly those reasons you cite. There are always tradeoffs, and the proponents of new technologies always trumpet the benefits without considering the costs. It's a very thought-provoking, eye-opening kind of book.

Another good person to read, especially regarding biotech, is Leon Kass. His book interpreting the book of Genesis as a work of deep philosophical wisdom is excellent.

freddy said...

Very good. Sometimes it's fun to go through the house and look at each piece of tech in terms of what I really *need*. Some stuff I'd miss til it was replaced; other stuff, only for a little while.

We have a big family and none of the teens are on the social networking sites. But boy, I do love reading Catholic blogs!

LarryD said...

Good post, Red. Blogging and email is enough for me on the personal side; cell phone is vital in my business. I've avoided Facebook and Twitter because I know my tendencies to become "enslaved".

I doubt that hard work and daily chores have ever been considered tyrrany, unless they infringe on one's time playing with the technogadgets. The routine of "old-fashioned" methods can be considered antidotes to temptation, as in "idle hands are the devil's tools". The freeing up of one's time can become occasions of sin, whereas in bygone days, there didn't seem to be enough time or opportunity to become ensnared.