Every age is illuminated and shaped by its innovations. In my father’s time it was cars. At the turn of this century it was desktop computers. More recently it’s been mobile devices. If you were interested in innovation in any of these decades these were the technologies you got excited about.
My dad’s generation waited eagerly for the latest models of cars, learned how to take them apart and knew how carburetors and rotors and drive trains worked. I can’t believe how much I once obsessed over arcane details about desktop computers – AMD versus Intel chips, processor speeds, RAM swaps, 286 versus 386… More recently we’ve focused on phones. Hard to believe that it’s only been about six years since smartphones started to be a thing. Every new iPhone event was a big deal. Now smartphones are ordinary, ubiquitous.
Now that our phones more or less do what most of us need them to do, new models tend to be incremental and less game-changing. So there’s been a move in innovator attention.
Look at the tech blogs to see where innovation is focusing, and there are many candidates – cars (again!) and their batteries and self-driving features. Smart homes. Big Data. The Internet of Things. And 3D printing. And the “Uber of…” gig/work/resource sharing revolution. Virtual/augmented/assisted reality. Gene editing.
If I had to generalize about the animating idea behind today’s focus of innovation, I would say it’s exploring what will be our relationships between the virtual and real worlds. Earlier this week proto-blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote a long essay for New York magazine wherein he explains how his obsession with online life nearly killed him:
If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it. I got a steady workout routine, and it gave me the only relief I could measure for an hour or so a day. But over time in this pervasive virtual world, the online clamor grew louder and louder. Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time.
He describes a distractible life in which exploring ideas and feelings and relationships in any extended form became more and more difficult as constant distraction became his dopamine IV drip. So he disconnected. Gave up his successful blog (and business) and retreated to rediscover himself and the real world.
Thus he joins a growing number of one-time super-technophiles – like Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier and others – who have turned sharply critical of what technology is doing to us. They’re suspicious of the tech innovators’ claims of building a better world with our technologies. Each has his own cautionary tale – for Sullivan it’s internet-as-crack, for Morozov it’s suspicion of wildly-profitable tech over-promising what it can’t deliver, and for Lanier it’s violation of privacy for profit and a battle over who owns the new online world.
Sullivan’s description of a tech addict’s dystopia is surely only the latest in a long line. Imagine the time before books and the printing press when most information was traded orally. You could only know what you could retain in your head. Those with good memories were valuable because you could talk to them and learn things. Those who were literate – a very very tiny percent of the population mostly affiliated with the church – had a lot of power because their knowledge extended beyond the people around them. But for most people, life pre-printing press was life in the moment.
After the printing press, those who learned to read became obsessed with reading. To the non-readers around them, these louts who sat around all day with their noses in books probably seemed like a lost generation. They were no longer fully present in the moment, transported by words on pages. They were consumed by the technology.
We adapted, learning how to use the experience-extending technology of reading to improve our lives.
Our latest technologies are changing our perceptions of reality and our interactions with people and things, as well as our expectations about how the world works and our places in it. Is reality just a construct of the online world or is the online world merely an overlay on reality? Click & Tweet! Every new technological advance that extends our reach also imposes previously unnecessary decisions about how and whether to use it. We can be unconscious of a choice when it’s not yet a choice. When technology extends our grasp however, we then have to choose it or not. Having chosen it, we can be consumed if we’re not also conscious of learning when not to use it.