April 10, 2009

Technology, community, and genuine experience

Posted in Musings, Personal at 11:58 am by The Lizard Queen

A friend of mine recently wrote something that I just had to respond to, so this is another of those started-out-as-a-comment-but-got-too-long posts. His post may well have been a sort of rhetorical exercise, and I know I probably took it too personally and made it All About Me, but this is an argument that crops up fairly often in various places, from folks as disparate as conservative Christians and back-to-the-Earth liberal hippy-types, and while I appreciate some of the argument, for the most part it rubs me the wrong way. (In this case, of course, it’s “I disagree and would like to debate this point with you,” rather than “ZOMG I’m so offended!” Just so Luaphacim knows. 🙂 ) Anyway, here goes:

While I suspect that final question (and indeed, perhaps much of this post) is meant to be rhetorical, I can’t help but feel like you’re creating a false dilemma here. In what way does my appreciation of my refrigerator and my climate-controlled house prevent me from appreciating the sound of the wind in the trees, birds chirping, and porch swings? Is not suffering from food poisoning due to a lack of refrigeration truly “missing out on the ‘genuine’”? 

Furthermore, in re technologies like cell phones and the internet, one encounters arguments against such things (…often on the internet…) fairly frequently, from people who fall all over the political and social spectra. They destroy community. They distract us from the real world. And indeed, I get frustrated with them myself on a regular basis: kids these days, texting in class, at work, during band rehearsal. However, I maintain that one can be frustrated with a basic lack of etiquette when it comes to the use of technology without wishing such technology gone, or fearing an apocalyptic outcome because of it.

Last night I watched my alma mater’s men’s ice hockey team win an important game via satellite television. I glimpsed one of my closest friends in the arena during the broadcast. Via Facebook, I chatted with that friend’s brother in Australia, and kept him up on the game. I also celebrated the victory with my friends back in New England through status updates and notes on one another’s virtual walls. Maybe it wasn’t community in the traditional sense, but it felt like community all the same.

Given my nomadic tendencies (I’ve had driver’s licenses in five different states!), it would be significantly more difficult to keep in touch with my loved ones without the internet and my cell phone. Of course, I appreciate that were it not for modern technology (not to mention feminism, I’d say), I wouldn’t have the problem of wanting to be able to keep in touch with people in such a wide variety of locations in the first place. Nevertheless, I bristle at the implication that my experiences are less genuine for being technologically rich.



  1. gye nyame said,

    bristle, eh?
    nice post, 🙂
    I may be about to chime in with a reply of my own shortly…

  2. Evil Bender said,

    Well said. I only have a couple of things to add:

    1) I’ve come to feel that debates about whether technology is “good” or “bad” not particularly productive (to be clear, I don’t think that sort of debate is going on here, I just want to draw a contrast). As the Luddites found out, new technology doesn’t go away, so we’d best figure out how to integrate it into healthy lives.

    2) Philosophical queries (even tongue-in-cheek ones like luaphacim’s) about the potential damage of these things are generally well intentioned, but I’d prefer we ask a more narrow question: how can we best ensure that technology is put in the service of positive social outcomes and avoid the potential pitfalls of technology?

    So we might ask, just as an example, how can we use the internet to encourage citizen engagement while limiting the problems of social isolation and privacy violation?

  3. DavidD said,

    Of course technology is worth it. Whoever wants to do without it is free to experiment with its costs and benefits by going without these infernal machines. I did that involuntarily in 2007 for over a week when the fires took out my electricity. That wasn’t what I would call a “genuine” experience, just relatively powerless (still had cell phones and even a little TV that runs on 10 “C” batteries) and simple. Sometimes simplicity is good, but more often it’s fairly sterile. If power, knowledge and love all come to me more with technology than without it, I’ll take artificial over genuine every time. That’s not just me.

    Even the recent past would have been better for me with 21st century technology. I regularly think of how cell phones would have made events in my past better. April 13, 1979 would have been more serene for me if I had today’s cell phones then, to track down a certain wayward person. There was nothing good about my not being able to do that then. Then there’s all the 21st century science and medicine yet to come. People can be afraid of that all they want – I think that’s just human nature fighting against our growing up even more. We need to be pulled into being what we will be against our fears that we’re losing something meaningful in the process. That’s what evangelical Christians are fighting, among many other groups. I’d rather be a butterfly for just a few months than be left thinking that only being a caterpillar is genuine. Puberty is so overwhelming that few want to fight it, but not all transitions we face are as well programmed as that one. Biological evolution has been road-tested a lot more than cultural evolution, but none of us can successfully fight either one. Maybe that’s one reason they scare people. When in the movies do the invincible alien invaders or runaway technology stay invincible? What audience wants to fact that?

    BTW, in the sixties, it was always “hippie”. Then there were “yippies”. Then much later there were “yuppies”. Today a lot of people prefer “y”, like “puppy”? “guppy”? It is a tipoff about who was actually there, who’s “genuine”. Personally I’d trade being genuine for having grown up at some point in the future. The question is how long is long enough, 100 years, 500 years? I don’t know. If I’m wrong and 1954 was the peak of human civilization, I’ll have to rethink a lot of things, even the nasty things I have said about social conservatives wanting to return to the fifties. 10,000 BC definitely wasn’t the peak. You should see how rough life was on skeletons from that time. Materially deprived people don’t have time to soak in their genuineness. They’re too busy just surviving, eventually failing even at that. That’s still true today. Only those who aren’t materially deprived would see it differently.

    Those with few needs might be doing better at life than those with many needs, but even those few needs can be met better with the right technology than without it. Otherwise technology wouldn’t exist.

  4. luaphacim said,

    Wow – I didn’t know my post was so well-read! 🙂

    Your initial suspicion was correct; this was mostly just a rhetorical exercise to try to loosen up the muscles of my lateral blogulum. And I agree with EB’s comments above — any flavor of Luddism is more or less doomed to failure, and technology cannot be inherently evil.

    But my question still stands, I think (even if it is less relevant than EB’s question of how to use technology wisely). What are the costs of all this technological witchcraft? Take the question of food poisoning, for example. Now I am no refrigerator-hater (say that out loud; it sounds funny), but I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t some cost commensurate to the benefit of refrigeration.

    Perhaps our immune systems are becoming weaker and weaker through lack of exposure to bacteria. Yes, sickness is being prevented, but our resistance to it is also being limited, thereby potentially setting the stage for us to be wracked by stronger strains of bacteria at some point in the future. So I guess the answer is yes — food poisoning might be part of my mythical “genuine” human experience, and our efforts to avoid it may very well have significant long-term costs for us.

    I think that, for me, Wells’s The Time Machine sums up technological tradeoffs in a very interesting way. In the future that the narrator visits, the Eloi are a carefree, idyllic people who do nothing except the most pleasant things all day long. Through the process of becoming increasingly carefree, however, they lose the ability to think critically. Their existence is made possible by the diabolically clever Morlocks, who dwell beneath the surface, coming up only occasionally to harvest a juicy Eloi for dinner.

    While I know that Wells was writing more about class than technology in this novel, I think the same principles may apply to us with our ever-increasing development of — and reliance on — technologies. A century down the road, what happens if our technological Morlocks are crippled by a solar flare? Or, even worse, what if they develop rogue sentience and go batspit insane, a la Ellison’s crazy computer in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”?

    Hehe — I know these speculations are much less practical than, say, questions of how to help people use technology in beneficial ways, but I have always believed that everything has a cost associated with it, so this is my effort to explore that idea. I know I’m probably not right, but it’s got me thinking, anyway. So I guess I haven’t quite reached the Eloi stage yet. 🙂

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