It’s really easy to get excited about technology. How could we not? There are immense and seemingly unbelievable developments that might happen in the near to distant future, including but not limited to medical advances to cure disease, environmental policy paired with infrastructure, or more generally initaitives to make our world a better place. It’s interesting how many of these developments are intimately tied to advances in technology, and because of this, many of us subconsciously tie new technology to indicating a state of betterment. For example, innovation often comes by way of faster computers, more impressive scaling of services, and new or optimized algorithms. In fact, we are so blindly optimistic about technology that we often forget that technological change or “development” isn’t always necessarily a good thing.
To be fair, this is not a new idea, and I’m also not justified in saying “we” because in this thought experiment I’m largely thinking of myself. I get hugely excited about new technology, to the point of completely glazing over the social or other implications and just wanting to play with it. Over time I’ve realized that this excitement for testing is mis-attributed to thinking something larger about the technology itself.
This also explains the skepticism of some of my colleagues. For example, let’s say there is a new container technology that might be used on our cluster. I usually get fairly excited. I want to test it. I want to see if it’s better than the core technologies that I know. I might share this with my colleagues, and be met with skepticism and conservatism. I used to look at this as a sort of “debbie downer” moment but now I realize that (for the most part) they are entirely right - a very small subset of cool new and trendy tools will really endure in the long run, and there are some sure fire, simple tools that have stood the test of time. It’s hard to resist the urge to jump into the bleeding edge when it’s so alluring, and your brain has branded the tools that are familiar to you as dated and boring.
For this post, I want to talk about reasons that we might be biased to think so greatly of new technology, or rather, reasons that some of us, namely myself, feel the need to try it out. Finally, I want to run a thought experiment of summoning the reality of technology past, and discussing why some advancements possibly haven’t moved us in a better direction.
If you’re a software engineer, you worry about becoming out of date. If you are sitting in academia that is lagging behind the coolest and greatest in industry, you probably worry about some scenario of losing your job and not being employable because you haven’t kept up. This alone is incentive to try new technologies, even if your job doesn’t actively require them. If you aren’t a software engineer, you experience the same phenomena when someone in your social circle mentions an app, internet of things device, or other consumer product that they’ve learned and integrated into their lives, and well, you haven’t yet. I’d even venture to say that the infamous early adopters have this fear but at an extreme. Their fear of missing out is immense and thus early adoption ensures that not only do they not miss out, but they are the first to learn the new technology.
This isn’t to say that you (or I) shouldn’t get excited about technology, but like every unconscious bias, we should be aware of our expectations. For me, every time I think of something as “better than before” I’m going to challenge myself to think of how it’s actually making us worse off than before. To start this exercise, here are some examples from the last few decades.
Having infinite access to information and social reward is addictive, and it means that we are no longer capable of being along with ourselves, or looking to the real world and people for engagement.
You likely have to be born in the 80s or earlier to really remember life before there were cell phones. It blows my mind that younger generations are getting exposed to phones and other screens as infants, and even being given their own devices as early as middle school. My family’s first cellular phone was more of a brick in a monstrous black bag that was stored in one of my parent’s cars, and largely I remember just pushing the buttons because it felt kind of squishy and nice. It wasn’t until later in high school when my family invested in nokia phones, and I remember caring a lot about the cover that I had, but largely keeping it in the bottom of a drawer somewhere. When I wanted (or needed) to talk on the phone in my house, I still preferred to twirl the cord with my fingers, or with a portable phone, walk around in an infinite square around a large purple flowered rug in my parents’ room.
It’s hard to imagine modern day life without immediate and consistent access to what I refer to as “the little internet.” You know, when you get tired of everything on the bigger internet (your computer) the little internet has a new interface of wonder. And can you imagine if the same phone line was used for the phone, internet, and sometimes even fax? Do you remember actually needng to remember other people’s phone numbers? Yes, this was the reality of the 1990s.
The first question that is easy to answer is with respect to the devices themselves. There is a big huzzah every year or so about upgraded versions of iphones, and it begs the question, does upgrading your iphone to some newer verison that also comes with an upgraded price tag really improve your quality of life? I’m going to venture to say no. Without context of other phones, you likely wouldn’t realize that your phone is slightly slower.
But let’s discuss the larger issue - have cell phones improved quality of life? For the most part, in that they can provide immediate access to information, I’m going to say that this attribute is hugely positive. I used to need to read chapters in the Encyclopedia Britannica to learn something, and I didn’t realize that it was information produced from a small and likely biased groups of individuals. I used to regularly get lost on runs, or while driving, and largely that never happens anymore. I also have infinte access to music and podcasts to keep my brain entertained. But is this really always better?
What we’ve lost is an ability to be alone with ourselves, It’s so easy to grab a little internet and mindlessly consume content. We’ve lost an ability to sit in a chair, close our eyes, and let our minds wander. We’ve forgotten that it’s lovely to go for a run and hear quiet and nature instead of blasting music or a podcast into our ears. We’ve forgotten that when traveling or otherwise in public areas, it’s sometimes a good experience to have brief conversation with strangers. We don’t need to even try anymore, because we can put on our headphones, or otherwise immerse ourselves in the little internet to send a cleaer signal to others of “I’m busy!”
While social networks have some good qualities, they can give a false sense of belonging or reward, be used to spread false information, and create a “Keeping up with the Jonses” mentality by way of encouraging sharing effortless perfection.
I don’t think that this increasingly anti-social society is entirely the fault of the little internet, but rather, what’s on it. The social media feeds that are offered by the little internet are truly addictive. You start scrolling and you can’t stop. They are designed so that your attention is captured and prisoner. Who is responsible for those feeds? Companies that run social networks, of course. One might argue that it’s the responsibility of the user to figure out how to manage their attention, but (I think from personal experience) we can all attest to how challenging this is.
While some interaction is good, social networks are arguably responsible for this abuse of the attention economy. Clicking likes, or having superficial interactions with others is a rewarding experience to our brains, and we can’t really tell that it’s not the same thing as interacting with real people. Do you remember a world where there weren’t social networks? In this world we used to resort to books, playing outside, interacting with other people, or in the evenings (because daytime television was terrible), watching something on TV. I used to take bike rides in my neighborhood frequently, play outside in the garden, or on the driveway with chalk, or with toys inside.
I really miss this simpler world. Checking social networks is now a part of my evening routine, because I have a fear of missing out, and as a remote person it’s a pathetic way to find connection with others. I don’t have a solution, because I’m not one to stop using them all together. I do, however, hope that social networks can figure out how to use technology to foster or encourage us to have interactions that are more meaningful than clicking a little heart or star by a post.
In that computers have empowered us to communicate, do better science, and enjoy any kind of media that we can imagine, the extent to which they have a negative influence depends on an individual’s ability to keep usage balanced with social and other real life activities.
Now we can discuss the big internet. It’s really no different, but (depending on who you are) it might be easier to regulate yourself. For example, since I associate my computer with programming and work, I typically don’t browse social media during the day while I’m working. I’m guilty of bringing out the little internet if I take a quick break, but if you were to take that away from me, the experience of clicking through some social media platform isn’t as addictive as it is on a portable device. This of course is a personal experience. I am guilty of blasting music all day, because it somehow helps me to get into a focused mindset. In that computers (and largely the internet) have hugely improved an individual’s ability to learn, given freedom to remote workers, and empowered us to build what we dream using just our fingers, I would have a hard time saying that this particular technological innovation has been largely bad. I am, of course, hugely biased.
A large part of the big internet is streaming video. You can also consume this content on your little internets, but for the most part, if I settle down in the evening and want to watch something, I’d rather use my computer screen that is larger. I would suspect most folks use the equivalent of this but on a much larger screen (a television). What have we lost in having this technological innovation? We no longer have trips to Blockbuster. Do you remember Blockbuster? It was a store with walls of typically white shelves with movie cover boxes. and the entire wall of the movie you wanted doesn’t have any VHS tapes left
This is a hugely big category that I won’t do justice for, but I want to briefly touch on my own personal experiences. I was severely addicted to MMORPG games in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and even to some extent through college. Ironically, I’d say that I really delved into these games in college because I was hugely lonely, and was looking for ways to connect with people. I don’t play a lot of games anymore so I can’t comment on the current gaming community, but generally it feels like a positive development to me. I will, however, say that I greatly miss playing computer games direct connect with my brother. There literally was a cord that we used to connect the two computers, and we’d play Duke Nukem 3d, Descent or Descent II, or some early flavor of Warcraft or Doom.
Now let’s think about music. Before the days of your cell phone offering every entry point to any music provider you could imagine, you had to also buy a separate device to listen to music. When I was small, I remember having a portable radio that I could play and record casette tapes. It had a little microphone and I could sing, talk to myself, or otherwise act as a little kid would.
When technology had progressed beyond casette tapes, there were CDs. I remember having a huge discman (later in high school, a beautiful white device that was made by Sony that was stolen at the high school track) and after that having a ipod, an ipod shuffle, and several derivations of that. I remember how my world felt hugely improved when I didn’t need to choose a single disc but rather could bring a slew of songs on one of these devices. But I’ll always have the memory of carrying around some kind of portable radio, discman, walkman to listen to the radio or music.
Digital photography is now a preferred medium to document events. Since we are visual creatures, photos take much more of our attention than they ever did. They are used as social capital, and although their generation might benefit some (e.g., social media “influences”) they largely promote an illusion of effortless perfection and have strong implications for our privacy (or lack of it).
If you also remember the 80s and 90s, people used to own cameras. That’s right - there were devices that are separate from phones with an in-built camera, and the earlier versions used to hold film, produce a picture immediately, and the later versions were advanced and digital and would have a way to connect with your computer. The way that we take pictures also has fundamentally changed. If I look at photos that I took on elementary school trips, they largely were of random places and things. There were several blurry or otherwise funny pictures - cameras and too good these days to allow for uninentional blurry photos. I remember distinctly being in the Boston Commons swan boats and taking a picture of a small island to my right. I remember that my father scolded me because I didn’t ask the girl sitting next to me to look at the camera. The unspoken social rules for taking pictures wasn’t established yet. Are they established now? I think so - I typically know that I’m expected to smile for pictures, although you’ll see me dead before you see me make a duck face or otherwise pose.
I suspect that most people hold some unconscious bias that technology means a better world. This has probably served more as a walk down memory lane for me than anything else, but I hope that others do a similar exercise, or at least think of attributes of life that were encouraged by way of not having some technology that we have today, and thinking about how to bring back those experiences.