Fiction and speculation about science, technology, and the future of humanity

When we’re all iPeople

Two days ago, I came across this video of Marshall Davis Jones performing his poem “Touchscreen”. It struck me powerfully, both by the vigor of his expression onstage and by the incisiveness of his message about technology. Watch it yourself before you read on:

That was in 2011—merely two years ago. Today, technology has grown even more intimate with our personal experience and interactions. Google Glass is a real thing now, smartwatches are arriving at an online store near you, and there’s worry that the family television, one of the last remaining centers of regular familial activity, will be replaced by the screens of single-user devices. We are experiencing a greater and greater chunk of our lives not directly, nor in the physical company of others, but through our ever-present gadgets.

A confession: I have friends whom I have never met. Do you? More precisely, I have “friends” whom I “met” on the internet, in a forum or social media site. One of us spotted the other’s profile or comment, we chatted, we found out we have similar interests or senses of humor, and so a “relationship” developed. I have known some of these people for years. A few of them I did meet in person later on, and when that happened, I was surprised. They were not who I thought they were. They looked different, spoke differently, and acted differently than the portrait I had built of them in my head. Strangely, that portrait was based on the data they had provided about themselves in their profiles and chat sessions. And I had interpreted it inaccurately. It was awkward, and I found I was more comfortable conversing with them online than in real life.

I know other people, a little younger than myself, who prefer to text their significant others rather than speak to them on the phone. Their explanation is that a phone call is less comfortable. What if you don’t know what to say to the other person? What if there is an awkward pause? With a text message, there is always an option to pause privately before you respond, for a minute or two. Or an hour. There’s little (if any) repercussion, and all this makes it much more comfortable to interface technologically, rather than face-to-face.

There’s a horrible irony to this. We generally assume technologies—especially our personal, internet-connected devices—are supposed to make life better by facilitating connections with other people. The intent is that they make it easier for us to meet in person, speak to one another by phone or chat, or share what we’re doing, what we’ve seen, what we like. On the surface, it looks like that is happening. Peer a little deeper, however, and you start to wonder if our gadgets are having the opposite effect. Either they separate us entirely, so that families and friends sit ignoring each other as each person pays attention to their own phone or tablet or laptop. Or, they enable connections through a device, like two people in the same room texting one another. I am hardly the first one to call attention to the strangeness of this paradox, and I won’t be the last. Plenty of people do so, and then—like me—they return to texting, chatting, and updating their Facebook timelines. We are worried, but we are not taking it seriously. Why not?

Because we like technology. We really like it. This is not only a fascination for people in developed, affluent, socially liberal societies; people in the developing world are at least as eager to acquire modern technologies as tech-savvy Westerners. Afghanistan makes a superb example of this: despite being one of the world’s poorest, most war-racked, most infrastructure-lacking nations, its people “share a delight for technology that is only matched in industrialized nations by engineers and futurists,” as this article on the Dangerous Ideas blog dips into. Afghans are adopting mobile banking at unprecedented rates. And USAID reported in May that 80% of Afghan women have access to mobile phones—in spite of a total population literacy rate of merely 28%. Everyone, it seems, recognizes the payoff of modern technology: greater efficiency of communication, and more efficient access to information. It is almost unheard of for people to not be picking up new technologies as soon as they can; wherever they are not doing so, it is usually because of either totalitarian restrictions, as in North Korea, or a deeply rooted social ethic of technological caution, such as the Amish possess. The evidence is, we like technology so much that it takes a considerable effort to keep us away from it.

That makes sense. Technology is made to appeal to us. Especially our 21st-century, internet-loaded, touchscreen-bearing, app-ready mobile computers: the newest, hottest, most desirable things available today. Our favorite technologies are sleek, shiny, and easy to use. They are attractive to the point where calling a computing device “sexy” doesn’t seem like a misnomer. We want to use it, because secretly it makes us feel good to use it, just as it makes us feel good to spend time in the company of a particularly attractive human being. We keep using it, because we yearn for a closer connection, for release, for completion. Marshall Jones said it well: “Ten tabs open, hopin’ my problems can be resolved with a 1600 by 1700 resolution. This is a problem with this evolution”

He is right. There is a problem here. Our biology demands that we be tool builders, but we have been seduced by our own tools. Plenty of techno-apologists would declare that this is making a mountain out of a molehill, that we know the difference between real human interaction and digital communication. Yet I wonder if we do. When I am chatting with someone online, I am of course consciously aware of how little I can perceive of their actual person. My only link to them is rows of black letters on a white screen, attached to a photo of themselves that they uploaded sometime previously (a day ago? a month? a year?). My logic tells me that I know almost nothing of this individual, but if I happen to meet them in real life, I am still surprised that they are nothing like I imagined. Somehow, “knowing that I didn’t know” made no difference. On the computer, I was fooled into thinking I was actually connecting with a person.

Instead, I was connecting with an “iPerson”, to use Marshall Jones’ term. I had tapped into the outer sphere of data and devices that surrounds and cloaks their actual identity. I fear that one’s iPerson is no longer going to be limited to our virtual interactions, but will begin to color our real-world ones as well, to a greater and greater extent, until our experiences are exclusively with iPeople. Don’t believe me? Jones’ “Touchscreen” is partially a critique of Apple, the technology company that banks the strongest on their products’ irresistibility. Check out this mission statement video that Apple played at their World Wide Developers’ Conference in June:

If that is not a vision of people experiencing the world through a cocoon of data and devices, I don’t know what is. I think we need to be worried about this, and take it very, very seriously. On one hand, we want these gadgets. On the other, they are insulating us from the very world we want them to help us experience more of.

When my phone goes off on my hip iTouch and iTouch and iTouch
because in a world
where there are voices that are only read
and laughter is never heard
oh I’m so desperate to feel
that I hope the Technologic can reverse the universe
so the screen can touch me back
and maybe it will
When our technology is advanced enough…
to make us human again.

—Marshall Davis Jones, “Touchscreen”

Thing is, I don’t know that our technology will—or can—bring us back to simple human experience. Ever. And that should give us pause.


  1. Hatshepsut

    Hi Andron

    I do agree with much of what you are saying about modern technology. Our technology–and our lives–are changing faster than at any other time. When I look back to the period of the 1990’s to the early 2000’s, it seems to me that the changes were not occurring as fast as they are today. I thought I would write about what my personal experiences have been with modern technology and communication– and about my ideas on these to elaborate, a bit, on your own very interesting points.

    Back in 2005, I had a friend who introduced me to Facebook. At that time, I didn’t like the idea of joining because I thought it would by like Myspace, and I didn’t want to socialize in that way. But then, by 2007, I finally decided to join Facebook, because I felt it offered opportunities that I didn’t have by using the old ways of communicating. For example, I could post, immediately, photos of my vacations to a number of friends who I don’t often see in person.

    Now that I have been using social media for a number of years, I do not get disappointed when I meet online friends in real life, as you claim happens to you sometimes. I have conducted a lot of friendships on Facebook, and on those occasions when I meet with the people in real life, they seem to me to come across exactly as they did on Facebook. I, myself, am a very quiet sort of person when I first start communicating with anyone, whether on social media or in real life, and then when I get to know people well, I open up more–both on social media and in real life. For me the difference between social media and real life relationships is that the former allows me to stay in contact with far-flung friends, even though (and here, maybe I am very old-fashioned) I would prefer to see people in person, because I like to see facial expressions and body language and hear the quality of voice (and I don’t always use Skype or Facetime, so I don’t always get that when using social media).

    I will admit that one good thing about social media, in addition to the ease it permits for contacting far-flung friends, is that it saves the environment. Most of the social media devices are portable and, for example, if you are a big reader (as I am) you don’t need to buy and lug around tons of books, but collect them all on something like Nook. This means–less production of physical books–which saves more trees.

    But there are other problems connected to social media–or, at least, there are problems for me because I am a bit old-fashioned. One is that the very nature of writing is changing as social media users adopt this awful abbreviated form of wording. People now write things like “r” for “are” or “Idl” for “I don’t like”. Most posts on Facebook, and Twitter and texting are too short and over-simplified. Since I really love the depth of thought and the beauty of words in traditional writing, and I like talking about the many complexities of life, I really do miss this in social media–even though I can still get it from good books. I really love the way, in so many 19th century novels, people are depicted communicating with one another in letter-writing. Sadly, I think most people today don’t have the time for such aesthetic letter-writing. And worse–this abbreviated way of writing is even affecting the way many people now speak in real life!

    Another big problem in real life connected to the use of social media is the breakdown of traditional etiquette. When it comes to texting or using the laptop at the dinner table–we often find an etiquette disaster (by traditional standards of etiquette). Using social media at the dinner table is not a polite thing to do–it shows that you would rather not be at the dinner table. The dinner table is a place to talk to your family and catch up on things–especially as family members don’t usually see one another throughout the day. Those texts can wait until later.

    Well–I do agree that the world we used to know will not be the same again. There is an exciting aspect to all this–what does the future hold? I look forward to the future with great interest–but I hope we maintain some responsibilities of the sort we had in the past. In the meantime, I (and everyone else) has to deal with the confounding fact–which we have always had to deal with in human life, only now in a new way–that there are pros and cons in whatever you do in life.

    Thanks for raising this interesting topic, which is one that is often on my mind, too
    (By the way–are you aware that sociologists are now studying the topic of accelerating change in human life?–see:

    • Andron Ocean

      Wow! Thank you for your extensive and thoughtful comment! I enjoyed reading it.

      I was a latecomer to Facebook. I held out until a couple years ago, out of deep misgivings about social media in general, and the design and policies of Facebook in particular. I finally signed up in order to, like yourself, “stay in contact with far-flung friends”, and in that regard it has been decidedly valuable. Since then, I’ve come around a lot on social media, although Facebook still annoys me with its “boxiness”.

      I think there can be real value in technologies that allow us a new method of communication. There is an impression that social media provides this—I am guilty of thinking so on occasion—but I wonder how accurate that is. It sometimes appears that, rather than being a new form of communication, social media and its brethren are supplanting other forms (letter-writing, telephone calls, even face-to-face meetings for some), and doing so in an abbreviated and more superficial way. Part of this, of course, is because we are limited in our time, and fascinated with shiny new things, therefore we neglect established modes for fresh, apparently more efficient ones. That is an easy excuse to make. Perhaps too easy. I’m concerned that we might be losing out more than we realize in the end.

      The environmental argument is an interesting one. You’re absolutely right that an e-reader (for example) is a more efficient consumer of energy for a certain number of books, over its lifetime, than the same number of books in print. Our society definitely values environmental frugality, and we use it to advocate digitization of everything. But it’s not the only value we should have, and there’s a case to be made for conserving OURSELVES via a more cautious use of technology, even if the environmental impact is a bit higher. Where is that line? It’s something no one is talking about, and I think we need to start.

      I don’t think we can possibly go back to the past. And the future is exciting, as is how it will change us. You mentioned etiquette, which hasn’t even begun to adapt to the technological invasion of our lives over the past two decades. That’s going to be a fascinating evolution, and I hope it leads to a code of conduct where we give more respect to people (maybe even things) that are physically present, rather than those that we are only virtually connected to at any given moment. One thing I’ll be doing on this blog on an ongoing basis is examining a variety of different threads the future could follow, from many different angles. Hopefully you and others will follow along for the ride.

      Fascinating thoughts. Thanks for the link to that interview, too! I hadn’t seen it, and it gives me some notions…

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