[img]7|left|Frédérik Sisa||no_popup[/img]Am I just getting old or does progress seem a little less, well, progressive? I’m not referring to politics, which is the same dizzying old nonsense repeated over and over again until much vomiting ensues, but to technology. Over the past decade alone, we have seen our lives profoundly changed by the internet, cell phones, and social networks. But are we better off for it?
Personally, I’m not often on the bleeding edge. I stay informed but don’t tend to adopt new technologies quickly. A few examples:
• Cell phones: Call me a late adopter. It took me a long time to get a cell phone and, after a few years of owning one, I still don’t use it all that much. Cyborg ear piece? No, thanks. I can’t even be bothered with a camera cell phone since I don’t feel the compulsion to take pictures of everything. (Oh, look! A piece of gum that looks like the Virgin Mary! (click!) And don’t get me started on watching TV or surfing the web on teeny-tiny screens.
• Social networking: After fiddling with that old fuddy-duddy, MySpace, I went onto Facebook and got caught up in the novelty of it – big time. Sharing pictures! Sharing links! Comments! Status updates on the hour every hour! Obsession! But however much I’ve enjoyed establishing a connection with people I might not otherwise be in touch with, Facebook has come to be merely a tool to accomplish certain social goals, not the revolutionary beating heart of my social life. I find I’m not interested in reading or sharing tidbits such as the fact that at the moment I’m typing this, I’m listening to Shubert’s Death and the Maiden (actually, as I edit this I’m listening to the 7th Guest soundtrack). If anything, for all its unquestionable good, Facebook has also served to highlight the value of actually being in the company of people instead of hanging out with avatars, profiles and status updates.
• Twitter: I haven’t found any reason to tweet, which is what you call it when twitterers do the equivalent of taking steroids and updating a Facebook status every 30 seconds, only with bad spelling. Do we really have so much vital information to share it needs to be done like a stock ticker tape on methamphetamines? While I can appreciate the speed of getting short tidbits of information out to people when there is no in-depth information available, the amount of triviality that’s creeped up on us, thanks to this weird, silly thing, has been downright hyper-real.
None of these technologies are useless, although Twitter still seems like a weird fad to me. I simply wonder if they haven’t been adopted with too much zealotry for the “latest thing,” especially when there was nothing broken about the way we did things before. In fact, as wonderful as it is that we have forged stronger connections between people and provided greater access to our shared human knowledge, the unintended cultural impact is worrying. Example: You want to hire someone. Whereas before you’d have to look over a resume, call a few references, and hold an in-person interview to test the chemistry, now you can look somebody up on the Internet. And oh, look, this person has a political outlook you don’t particularly like. What’s this? He wrote an article defending pot while writing for the college newspaper? That’s not good. Oh, and would you look at that picture? OMG! Socks most definitely do NOT belong with sandals. I’m not having that in my office.
Another example: marketing a business. Once upon a time, businesses advertised in newspapers, billboards, and word of mouth. Now, if a business doesn’t have a website, it might as well not exist. Even worse, the virus has become a dominant marketing metaphor in business. An advertising campaign in entertainment clothing, released into the wild and spread from person to person – consumer to consumer – through link-sharing, tweets, social networks and word of mouth.
And these are just the trivial examples. There’s news about websites that let you review and rate your friends and enemies, a logical yet sinister extension of websites that lets users review and rate businesses.
The point isn’t that websites are bad, or that the way we are doing business today is bad, or that technology in itself is bad. Like anything, there are pros and cons. But what if a business was happy with the way things were before websites? Suddenly, the culture changed. In order to attract and retain new customers, the business owner has to adopt new technologies. And what if you miss out on working with a wonderful person simply because other prejudices prevented you from even meeting with him or her – prejudices you might not even encounter if the Internet didn’t collection information willy-nilly like the underside of a bed collects dust bunnies? I would also ask what happens to freedom of speech when that speech can be used against you by anyone for any reason. Is the alternative not to speak at all, not to enjoy the benefits of the Internet?
The concern, then, is about this: change that happens in a way that doesn’t give people a choice in how they live their lives, whether personal or economic. Change that sweeps people up like a flood. In some instances, like civil rights, it’s the kind of radical change we need. But technology, as it always has, seems to drive change as much for its own sake as for meaningful progress. Or, rather, our culture abuses technology through consumerism and marketing spin that manufactures needs that may not have previously existed. All this, just to say I’m not getting an iPad.
Frederik invites you to discuss this week’s column at his blog (frederik-sisa.blogspot.com)