Image © Josh Neuman.
For those of us who feel a sense of unease about the exponential pace of technological change, the relentless pressure to absorb the flood of blinking information, to respond to the plugged-in socializing, there is a question as to whether some quieter aspects of life from the past are being irretrievably lost. One of my friends recently commented on people who are old enough to remember life before the Tech Revolution hit full force, which is the common experience of anyone belonging to Generation X or older. He remarked that life before technology hit in earnest had a certain tempo and mood, and computers came along like two uninvited guests at the end of a dinner party, who spoil the dynamic. He said that some people who remember the way things were before computers hit have 'drunk the Kool Aid' and are now hardcore tech enthusiasts; they seem to have forgotten the completely different pace and quality of life that once existed. Knowledge, even about things like pop culture, was once hard won and required real dedication. Even now, topics that require deep, quiet and focussed contemplation over time in order for their truths to come to light are swamped by a daily ocean of shallow facts that take up a lot of our time, concentration and energy. Are our simian brains even able to engage in addictive, repetitive behaviour like this - indulging in these elaborate proxies for living - over long periods without sustaining damage?
I notice that the more authority people have in organizations, the less plugged in they are. They have people hired to answer their e-mails, carry and answer their smartphones, manage their Web presence and their data, and if necessary, conduct research or surf the Web for them to dig up the latest trends and other interesting tidbits of information. The new élites are either tech free, or at least unburdened by tech. The marketing of gadgetry is as much a factor in the speed of change as the pace of research and development. Is tech enslaving us?
This got me thinking - are there others who are feeling similarly embattled by the hectic pace of technological change and the way it has utterly transformed people's priorities and sensibilities, as well as they way they socialize, think and feel? Is there going to be a point where some people say, "Stop the world, I want to get off?" Is anyone else worried about the physical and moral costs that we will pay by becoming totally immersed in virtual realities and online connections? Will our governments and societies, contrary to the initial hopes that the Internet would be a bastion of freedom, evolve into dictatorial mass technocracies? On that subject, see Jaron Lanier's essay on 'Digital Maoism,' here.
I'm not saying some things haven't improved because of the Tech Revolution, or that it isn't useful. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a blog. This isn't to say that 'everything was better back then.' Rather, many things were different. For example, privacy was not a vanishing concept. Before we reach the stage of quantum computing, we have got to get our priorities straight, and know what we want from technology. In contemplating these issues, I was curious to see if there is an anti-tech backlash on the horizon, whether, contrary to predictions, the Anti-Singularity will become the order of the day in twenty years. This is a theme that pops up fairly often over at i09, a site seemingly devoted to the Tech Revolution and its impact. Steampunk is a sign that people are resisting the tech push. Most Cyberpunk, as was evident in the Matrix films, has strong historical and nostalgic themes.
There are Neo-Luddite movements appearing, with supporters who do not claim to be technophobes. Leading names in that regard are Nicholas Carr and Jaron Lanier. In the technophobe category we have the former Berkeley prof and Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. His deadly bombings from 1978 to 1995 were the first really high-profile violence directed against technological change. His manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future (online at Wiki here), was a factor in his eventual arrest. Out of his violent response to the Tech Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of three people and injuries of twenty-three people, he has inspired heated debate among various brands of anarchists, especially Anarcho-Primitivists. In 2010, Kaczynski published an updated tract entitled Technological Slavery.
The Unabomber's cabin, Montana. The cabin was removed and placed on exhibition in Washington at the Newseum. Image: Wiki.
Carr is the author of the 2008 Atlantic article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains (here). He also has a 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which expands his argument. Lanier, who was the Virtual Reality pioneer, rejects 'cybernetic totalism' in a famous 2000 article entitled One Half A Manifesto, which you can read here. In 2010, he published the book, You are Not a Gadget (see his Website comments on the book here). The question remains whether anti-technological attitudes could move beyond these commentaries to gaining support among a significant portion of the plugged-in population. Will people give in totally to the wash of technology, will they unplug and move to cabins in the mountains, or will they find a third way?