Counting the cost on technology

Rebecca Solnit has a diary in a recent LRB in which she reflects on the shift in the texture of time that has taken place since the mid-90s. It would be easy to read this piece and start debating some of the generalizations she makes, though I think she steers clear of Luddite cliches. Yet for me the most salient point is that no one actively decided that our new technological era was desirable or beneficial. Or to be more precise: we all just rushed to adopt new technologies basically because they were new technologies, because they sounded cool.

I have long shared Solnit’s view on the destruction wrought by cell phones. I used to enjoy talking on the phone — in high school, I would do it for hours. On the cell phone, however, the shitty signal quality and the perpetual risk of being cut off make the whole thing feel much more tenuous. We all adopted cell phones because they were cool — and they really are cool! — and then we gradually abandoned land lines because there was no sense in paying for both… And then it turns out that we have really cool phones that barely work indoors. It’s almost as though cell phones are loading up with extra features to make up for the fact that they suck so much as, you know, actual phones.

And what have we really gained? What benefit is there to being reachable at all times? One often hears about the benefits of being reachable during an emergency, but how much is really gained even here? How long are any of us going to go between visits to regular haunts (home, work, a favorite bar) where someone can leave a message? Anecdotally, it seems like the majority of cell phone calls are expressions of impatience — where are you, why are you taking so long, etc. — which probably slow down the process and even put others in danger when the late person answers their phone in the car. This is not to say that there are no benefits related to safety — it’s great that we can call 911 at any time — but that no one really counted the cost of the safety benefits.

It’s similar with constant news updates: how is it beneficial or desirable to get up to the minute breaking news? How does it help me to be constantly receiving detailed information about events that I can’t control and that don’t affect any actual decisions I’m making in my life? In practice, it seems to produce a state of constant distraction and low-level anxiety. Now sometimes you really want to be “in it” and experience that kind of anxiety, for instance in a close presidential election where you feel like a lot is at stake. Just going to bed and reading about the winner in the morning feels somehow inadequate. But we don’t get to make that choice, or at least not easily — every news event is treated that way.

Of course, the biggest example is the automobile — a technology that was undeniably super-cool. Instead of thinking through the appropriate uses for this technology and the likely consequences of its large-scale adoption, America just collectively dove right in, building whole new types of communities centered around cars, undertaking the biggest infrastructure projects in human history to accomodate them, and literally tearing out the train lines that had previously connected our cities. The results have been catastrophic for the environment, for our urban centers, and for our social fabric as a whole. It’s not to say that there have been no benefits — it’s great that the interstate highway system connects relatively isolated places that couldn’t be effectively served by trains, and it’s great that rural people have greater mobility — but reshaping our entire society around them could only have been the product of willful blindness.

The car example also shows why it’s not just a matter of opting out if you don’t like it — the number of places where a car-free existence is halfway plausible in the US is extremely limited. It’s not as extreme with the other technologies, but I can see the possibility, for example, that someone who isn’t reachable by cell phone at all times would find that no one wants to bother reaching them. Plus one must reckon with the rarity of pay phones in the cell phone era, etc., etc.

These technologies have profound social consequences, and yet no one is really involved in making socially responsible decisions about them. It just happens as though everything is on auto-pilot: once a new technology comes along, it’s just inevitable that it will spread. It’s hard to even imagine what it would look like to do things differently — the only concrete example I can think of is the Amish, who are, to put it lightly, a little over-cautious in adopting new technologies.

Hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.

12 thoughts on “Counting the cost on technology

  1. And even still, the Amish are often taken in the form of a strawman argument. They often do have electricity, cell phones, even computers — just not within the four walls of the house. Thankfully, they have barns. Those that are dairy farmers are required by law to have electricity in their barn (for dairy production). Driving around Lancaster county (perhaps Rodkey can confirm this since he’s lived in the area), I have seen Amish folks riding their buggies while chatting on cell phones.

  2. So this is a genuine question: why the ads on this site?
    I thought this was a great post, but then the ad for some new device or another came right after your call for full communism, and it made me sit up a minute.
    Is the blog expensive to run? Are there genuine revenues to be had? Just intrigued, as I’d have thought you’d have wanted to resist them – or perhaps it’s part of being part of Perhaps you’ve answered this elsewhere.
    I’ve moved to a proper domain name with a wordpress install, and the cost is minimal. I’d have thought it worth it, as the call for full communism, followed by a randomly generated ad for some crap or another… Well, I guess it’s pretty funny, but, you know…

  3. They are part of having the free WordPress. They seem to come up more or less at random, and they never display them to me, so I never think about them. I don’t understand how an advertisement conflicts with communism more than paying a service provider does.

  4. Last week a friend of mine who teaches at UT Austin posted a picture of students gathered along a wall outside her building. Every single one of them was encased in their very own iBubble, courtesy of their smartphones. Not a single one was interacting with anyone around them. So many friendships not booting up.

  5. Kester,

    I will gladly send you a book on communism if you are confused about the concept. I’ll have to buy it and interact with others to get it and someone will have had to write it and someone else will have had to transport it and someone else will had to manufacture the physical object. But their won’t be ads in the book. Nor will it be particularly anti-communist to have bought the book. So send me your address, because this kind of ignorance is easily remedied.

  6. One topic I wanted to bring up but forgot to: assuming it was possible to get tolerably good results with a primarily online education system, why would that be desirable? Is there something bad about learning together in the same physical space? I understand that there are situations where distance learning can be advantageous, but it doesn’t seem like they would ever be the majority of situations. If anything, environmental pressures seem to dictate that we should be increasing population density rather than having people be more and more far-flung.

  7. Not to get all conspiratorial or anything, but for purposes of social control, wouldn’t “a state of constant distraction and low-level anxiety” be precisely the point?

  8. And of course most technologies of the last century weren’t adopted only because they seemed cool. And its not just that we adopted them uncritically because there was inadequate institutional reflection on the possible consequences. Adoption came about through massive campaigns lead by those who owned and sold the technologies.

    Its fascinating, how marketing managed to turn something as banal as the telephone – an object that throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century was a banal, hardly thought about, household wall fixture – into something that is today as fetishized as the automobile of the 1950s. New smart phone releases are practically front page news even in places like the New York Times. Its JUST a PHONE! Who cares?? Yes, today’s smart phones are more than a telephone obviously, but the marketing-induced fetishization has been going on since they actually weren’t much more than the same tool that used to just sit there – no more interesting than a frying pan – afixed to the kitchen wall.

    Also, its interesting how the old marketing staple applied to new technologies – the “labor-saving” aspect of a product – has largely disappeared (I think?). The 20th century’s exciting new technologies – sold to the public as things that would bring more leisure time to all – ended up creating the conditions under which employers could demand more productivity. “Oh, they have cars now? Well great, we can move the factory to somewhere further from the most densely populated, expensive metropolitan center, and demand that workers, instead of walking, or going half a mile on the subway, drive 30 miles to a place where its cheaper to operate the company.” Another of the major social changes the automobile brought was normalizing 90 minute commutes.

    I think 50, 60, 70 years ago (think, NY World’s Fair of the 1930s – incidentally a HUGE exercise in technology marketing) there was a general belief that technology’s benefits would be shared socially. And this is no doubt where much of the excitement came from. But its become clear that the benefits have accumulated at the top. No doubt 60 years ago, many dock workers imagined that the soon-to-come mechanization of their jobs would bring them less work and more leisure hours. This was very much the mid-20th century ideology of technology. There are countless Disney propaganda films from the 1950s/60s that imagined drudgery would soon be a thing of the past. But the benefits of maritime labor-saving technology, for example, just meant the end of unionized dock work, and the replacement of those jobs with Wal-mart work; longer, more boring hours for less pay. And so the marketing of technology has been downgraded from something of a socialized revolution of time, to a private amusement park you can carry in your pocket.

  9. Murray, I agree. I’m just curious as to why whenever this is brought up, one has to always include the caveat “not to get all conspiratorial or anything”. Why do we still need to do this? It seems that everyone I speak to, whatever their education level or commitment to leftist politics, all agree that tech seems to control us. But everyone seems to think that either there’s some “shadowy” entity that wants us controlled OR that the anxiety and time shifts brought about by tech are something that is just collectively experienced “because it’s too late to turn back”, that we all willingly participate in the new, anxiety-producing forms of tech-mediated social networks WITHOUT a centrally located higher controlling agent, that we either desire the control or we’re simply controlling ourselves collectively.

    It seems that the majority take the third position of a cynical synthesis of the former and the latter- “I know I’m being controlled by tech marketing and new virtual social networks that are constantly changing and dictating the mechanisms of my life, but I am willingly participating in this, so I have no real agency beyond just joking about it or giving it a ‘serious critique’ or just shrugging and moving along.” It seems that the background texture of all our lives is the belief that we are all victims of a “conspiracy that is not a conspiracy”. It therefore seems to me that this is the ultimate cost of technology, an unwillingness or inability to decide for ourselves the extent to which and by whom we are being controlled.

    Adam doesn’t even bring up “marketing” in his post, but within Imma Faque’s comment it seems that marketing is the sole reason that we are all slaves to tech. As a young person who has both been bombarded with marketing AND with its critique my whole life, I’m frankly sick of it being brought up as the deciding factor of control in our lives. What, beyond full communism and the free extensive education that will eventually free us from the “mind control” of marketing, could today free us from the mind control of marketing? It seems that, with marketing and its hold on our choices and identities, it is truly “too late to turn back”. Can we even imagine a world without marketing?

    Adam asks what we have gained with all this new tech. And it feels to me like what we’ve ultimately gained is just cynical attachment- cynical attachment to the tech itself AS WELL as its critique. Cynical attachments to marketing AS WELL as its critique. And primitivists and their ilk (whose influence in our culture is still shockingly strong) have gained a fetishistic dis-attachment from it. Maybe the Amish have the right idea–have it and use it, but leave that shit outside.

    Sorry if I’m talking out of my ass, but (and i mean nothing but respect to everyone here) there’s something unknown but irksome about these kinds of discourses… from everyone. Sometimes it feels like the current forms of critiques of tech and marketing (can they be separated, even?) come perilously close to capitulation in the form of a cynical attachment that is very much felt as something gained–“Well, I’ve got a new Twitter account and I’ve not only gained all these new contacts and ways of interacting but I’ve ALSO gained a new reason to be cynical and critical about my involvement with them and how I allow myself to be controlled”, or something.

    Sorry if my frustration and crappy articulation wasted space here!

  10. As well as asking what we have gained, it seems necessary to ask what others have lost so that we might enjoy/gnash our teeth over our (illusory?) gains. I’m thinking, for example, of people who live in the Congo in the midst of warfare over control of the raw ingredients of all our high tech wonders. Here at the consumer end it’s too easy to forget that all these wonders or technical ingenuity and marketing wizardry still have a material base.

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