A Quick Rant About the Technology “Epidemic”

Today, CBC Radio did a feature on whether high-speed Internet, and worldwide connectivity, was a luxury or a necessity. Canadians were encouraged to call in to voice their thoughts on the air. Some declared that they had managed to eliminate Internet and television usage in their homes entirely – one man made it pretty clear that his youngish children were quite proud of this accomplishment and that “they actually play instruments and have conversations with people.” Others revealed that they prioritized paying their Internet bills over their monthly rent.

Earlier in the day, my father had asked me what I thought about today’s technology “epidemic.” He noted that a theatre intermission saw the orchestra light up with phone screens as soon as the overhead lights began to brighten. He threw out words like “cyberbullying” and referred to the “seduction” of video games. He mentioned the (too?) common argument that kids are now spending so much time online that they aren’t able to communicate in person.

Maybe it’s just because I recently finished reading Future Shock, but I couldn’t help but think when I was listening to the CBC broadcast and to my father that all of these arguments seem trite. These are the same concerns raised every time a new technology or fad gains momentum. People get freaked out when they don’t understand what’s going on, or what’s going to happen next.

Take, for example, the 18th-century moral panic of the growing popularity of novels:

Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels […T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mistresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemima(The Slyph, 1796, as cited by Ana Vogrinčič)

Hide yo’ kids, hide yo’ wife, y’all.

Nowadays, ladies who read novels seem to be considered “interesting” and “unique”, “with passion, wit, and dreams.” Just ask this guy:

“I want a girl who reads,” narrator Mark Grist declares. “Whose heart bleeds at the words of Graham Greene or even Heat Magazine… a girl who feeds her addiction for fiction with unusual poems and plays.” Rosemarie Urquico and Lauren Martin have similarly touted the benefits of dating girls who read, citing intelligence, wit, and worldliness as qualities that novel-reading can help develop.

Novels, once considered foolish and dangerous, therefore have new – much more positive – connotations, maybe because we’ve grown familiar with them. Maybe we should all stop what we’re doing right now and go buy Fifty Shades.

Now let’s take a newer technology: algorithmic texts. That is, texts that are produced by computers, through programmed logic, rather than by humans. The New York Times has posted a few articles about this new genre on their website, which have spurred some comments worth consideration. In the comments section for this article, for example, one L Fitzgerald writes that, while algorithms offer the benefits of speed and cost-efficiency, they are problematic in that we are now “awash in an ever-expanding heap of duplicative, faux content that we mistake for real, for independent, for genuine.” Paul Wallis, another commenter, writes that he doesn’t “feel too threatened by algorithms which simply create shopping lists of organized language… Does an algorithm have a sense of humor? How about outrage, disbelief, derision, exploration, or new logical constructions, which are what human brains do when they’re trying to work things out? Can an algorithm sneer or create nuances in multiple forms in the same sentence? I doubt it. Nice little pocket organizer, you’ve got there guys, but leave the real writing to us.”

Good points, Fitzgerald and Wallis. Valid concerns, you have. I guess.

People read algorithmic texts all the time, whether they know it or not. Some Twitter bots – Horse ebooks probably being the most well-known – are obviously algorithmically-managed; these accounts are great for entertainment. However, companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights have developed algorithms that produce readable and informative news articles for publications with massive readerships, like Forbes. Most of the time, you can’t even tell that these articles have algorithmic authors. So, I’ll admit that I don’t really understand what L Fitzgerald means when (s)he refers to the “faux content” generated by computers. This content is very real, and has proven itself quite useful.

Now seems like a good time to pull out Marshall McLuhan. Take it away, Marshall:

Ordinary human instinct causes people to recoil from these new environments and to rely on the rear-view mirror as a kind of repeat or ricorso of the preceding environment, thus insuring total disorientation at all times. It is not that there is anything wrong with the old environment, but it simply will not serve as [a] navigational guide to the new one. (Quotation stolen from here, which took it from McLuhan and Parker’s 1968 Through the Vanishing Point).

Toffler’s Future Shock borrows heavily from McLuhan’s idea that we tend to hold on to what we know, what we’re familiar and comfortable with. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling comfortable with the current technology and liking life to have a little bit of structure through routine. Heck, there’s nothing wrong with being like that man on CBC Radio who prides himself on living in an Internet- and television-free home.

However, I think that a lot of the arguments about technology’s increasing pervasiveness, about algorithmic authorship, and about children’s apparent inability to communicate with people because of increased Internet usage, stem from a general fear of the unknown. Yeah, we have a good idea of what computers and the Internet can be used for, but we’re only just beginning to discover the potential of these technologies. Case in point: who would have predicated that a flute recital in California would have such a massive UK audience? Bad example, I know, but I’m not about to turn down an opportunity to work Azeem Ward into a post.

Here’s the video of Azeem’s Senior Flute Recital, in case you missed it. Skip right to 1:24 to see some killer fluteboxing:

It’s important that we have conversations like the one on today’s radio, and like the one I had with my father. We shouldn’t just accept excessive use of the Internet or our smartphones without questioning why we feel we always need to be connected, what the social and personal implications of these technologies are, etc. At the same time, we shouldn’t necessarily be powering all of our devices off and joining communes. If history has shown us anything, it’s that technological development is what has driven us forward. Not everyone jumped on board the printing press bandwagon when that technology was new; not everyone fell head-over-heels in love with the television when it first threatened the radio.

But we live in such an exciting time. We’re constantly being exposed to new things, like algorithmic texts, that make us question our comfort zones. And our comfort zones are good things: they give us baselines. Like McLuhan says, “it is not that there is anything wrong with the old environment… it simply will not serve as [a] navigational guide to the new one.”

Maybe it’s not that kids don’t know how to communicate with other people; maybe it’s that they’re communicating using another dialect. A newer one, that’s not better or worse than the old (although there will always be traditionalists and/or Luddites), but is more in tune with today’s technological state. Maybe this is the dialect that the map to the future is or will be written in. Maybe the map to the future will be written by an algorithmic author.

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