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.