Shiny screen before my eyes, the multicolored icons there urge me to tap, swipe, and ultimately stare with the focused gaze of a scientist at a microscope.
People love technology because technology implies possibilities. Oh, I’m not suggesting for a moment that this has anything to do with high-minded erudition. Possibilities range from horny Tinder hook-ups to endless cute cat videos wherever and whenever we want. But those possibilities only exist because of what technology enables for us. People love tech the same way people love refrigerators: the devices ease acts that would otherwise be impossible in a pre-technological context. When people say technology, they’re really thinking about how they might transcend ordinary mortal limits. They’re dreaming of—and using—what would otherwise be super powers. When people say technology, they’re really thinking about ways to extend themselves beyond the boundaries of their own innate humanity.
Take paperless airplane boarding tickets. The idea is a simple one to describe: paper tickets get lost and mangled. They require passengers to keep track of yet one more item in already occupied hands. They suggest a gritty world of physical objects instead of a sleek world of information, which means they imply a measure of class distinction without even a hint of a sneer. A digitally encoded glyph emailed to your smart phone changes that equation. Since your phone is already in your hand you can get on your plane without having to manage something else. The implication that you’re connected to a powerful information network reinforces your social standing, at least to yourself, and the tiny grace note of efficiency added to an otherwise dehumanizing process of air travel makes people feel competent and cool. Technology convinces us that we’re in the know rather than behind the curve.
Shopping apps, speech-to-text dictation software, proximity controls for home lighting systems—digital technology is all about feeling like the world belongs to us, that it bends to us. The irony is that most people don’t have a clue how even the most basic aspects of their gizmos work. When the ‘net goes down, people start restarting devices in hopes that someone, somewhere figured out an automated solution to get it all up and running, no questions asked. That someone, somewhere actually knows how a system works is beside the point: most people don’t have a clue.
But tell the truth: do you have even a clue how extraordinarily perishable bananas manage to get to your local grocery store precisely two days before their moment of perfect ripeness? You probably don’t, but you put them in your grocery cart anyway. The answer relies on surprisingly sophisticated technological solutions, but most people simply want to cut ‘em up for a morning bowl of granola. It’s not even a momentary consideration to ponder how bright tropical fruit might find its way to a Minnesota breakfast table in February.
It’s a distraction to think we must all learn how our smart phones, networked traffic signals, and GPS navigated farm machinery works. That’s the great strength of modern specialization, and the reason people have been able to develop sophisticated, focused areas of expertise. We don’t know how these things work because (theoretically) we’ve become expert in other things. The real things that need to become a part of the broader cultural discussion concern two trends. On one hand technology can co-opt human interactions, while on the other hand it can disempower and desensitize our ability to revel in innate humanity. In other words, we risk not dealing with other people, and we risk devaluing those dealings when we must have them.
Those two things should go together intrinsically. They’re the backbone of the creative process. When technology becomes a cultural pursuit in and of itself, our collective humanity suffers. The tools of innovation become the ends of innovation. They become final destinations rather than the conduits for taking us to interesting places. When technology becomes its own goal it becomes the master and we become the servant. Where the invention of the wheel enabled the amplification of human and animal power in innumerable ways, the next socially networked app to appear —whatever that may be— threatens to evolve with the singular purpose of feeding itself. When better, faster, fancier 21st century technology emerges, many of its aspects will have little to do with life.
I love modern tech. I’m a geek just like you. (Consider the invisible complexity of what goes in to your effortless reception of this blog, for starters!) Tech is compelling. It makes us wonder what we might do, what we might become, how we might amplify ourselves. What the realities are, however, often devolve into endless social media scoping for high school friends sharing YOLO moments, mindless shopping for camera gear you can’t afford (and don’t really need), and quick rounds of Boom Beach. We find ourselves tap, tap, tapping little glowing icons, scrolling, swiping, downloading, posting. Shoulders hunched over our sleek boxes, the people next to us disappear and we often don’t even notice.
We may think about technology as a means of empowerment, but unless we’re paying attention to what we’re doing in the real world, out precious technology can keep each of us isolated and alone no matter how fast our connection speeds may be.