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Now that you’re on your technology hiatus, I’m not sure when you’ll see this. I may need to start addressing my posts “To Whom It May Concern”!
Actually, the great thing about the internet is that you’ll be able to see these posts whenever you return, whether it’s a week or a month or 2 years.
This got me thinking. I’m about to make the most obvious observation since Luke Skywalker said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” (Of course you do, Luke. The Death Star can destroy planets and a psychopathic villain is your Dad. But such is the genius of Lucasfilm dialogue.)
Observation: Technology is great, but it can also suck.
I understand, and sympathize with, your desire to step away, at least temporarily. A long time ago I read the classic Neil Thompson book, Technopoly, which made a compelling case that technology always changes people and cultures, and does so in ways that are not immediately understood. And does so in ways that are often negative.
I’m not pessimistic, per se. I’m listening to the Beatles on Amazon Prime Music as I type this in Google Docs on my MacBook Air, after all. For me, the key is to take advantage of the best aspects of technology while avoiding the worst parts. But how is one to do this, especially when tech is so sneaky and pervasive?
As you noted, it’s not easy. Even those of us who are sensitive to tech overuse can find ourselves sucked into bad tech. So, I think it’s helpful to have some rules. I was thinking about this, and something amazing happened.
I went up on a mountain, and found a tablet. No, not a stone tablet. It was a Kindle Fire. And on it were the four commandments of technology.
FIRST COMMANDMENT: TECH SHALT HONOR YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY
I’ll never forget when I got my first email account. Juno. I thought: I can’t wait until my family and friends all get on email. Think, we can write to each other whenever we want! Amazing! Maybe I’ll even write to my cousins (ha).
Turns out, email did catch on. And for this, I’m grateful. We started this blog over email, and I haven’t heard your voice in years. Yes, the inbox gets full. Boo-hoo. Have you tried, lately, to send something via pony express? Not very helpful. Email is amazing!
I still have the first email I sent to my wife. It was 2005, we had just met, and I was trying to secure a date. I was trying quite subtly, almost to the point of not trying, almost to the point of being so obtuse that she ignored me. But she didn’t, and that fumbling, nearly disastrous, actually life-changing email is easily retrievable via Gmail search. Amazing.
So indeed, technology can honor our relationships.
And then there was Facebook.
The gig is up with Facebook as an online community. It’s not even an online DMV, a benign and boring utility. It’s malignant. It’s a place to show off, to send a cheap birthday greeting, to get snarky, and to spy on people you secretly dislike. Even worse, it’s turned into an outrage machine.
Guess what, FB acquaintances? I don’t care which (fake) news article you recently found interesting or intolerable. Facebook is playing you. Its engineers, behind the scenes, are selecting articles that will bring about an emotional reaction. You click, they get paid. If you don’t believe me, check out this podcast called What is Technology Doing to Us? where Sam Harris talks with Tristan Harris, former “Design Ethicist” at Google. The latter Harris explains quite clearly that we are mistaken if we think social media content is neutral. Companies need clicks, and they know how to manipulate people to get those clicks. Seriously, that podcast changed the way I think about social media.
Anyway, dear FB friends, please go back to the good old days of posting pictures of your baby, or your cat, or your baby cat.
I find it entirely reasonable to ban FB from daily usage. If someone wants to connect with me, they can email. Email is amazing! I’d probably quit FB altogether … if I didn’t want to spy on people I secretly dislike.
Bottom line: I want to use tech to connect with people, especially people who I care about and want to see in person, in real life — not a fake community of click-bait victims.
SECOND COMMANDMENT: TECH SHALT NOT KILL … THY BRAIN
The internet, increasingly, is a brain-eating monster. It serves candy, and we are obese kids looking for that next sugar high. There are even these pop culture sites (cyber candy drug pushers) called, ahem, PopSugar and Hello Giggles, that are actively trying to destroy our gray matter.
Right now, I’m pulling up Yahoo for the latest intellectually engaging headlines.
Well … that’s a surprise. My name on it? How can I not click on this? Apparently, I should “stick to the basics but accessorize with just one statement piece. Selena knows how it’s done – she rocked her cropped denim with a white t-shirt, slip-on sneakers, and finally, an embroidered choker.”
The embroidered choker doesn’t really sound like me, but maybe I should try it.
Now consider this smart gem of a headline from Hello Giggles: There’s a video of a real life hippogriff and we’re freaking out because Hogwarts must be real
That one was filed via Yahoo News (until clicked on, and then mysteriously shifted to Yahoo Style). Neither News nor Style fits a hippogriff.
This trend of saying “You” and “We” in headlines is insidious. Creepy. Subliminally destructive. The implication is that everyone, or anyone who’s anyone, cares. I know there are Harry Potter lovers who might care, but it’s the wording that bothers me. There’s an undercurrent of mass persuasion and groupthink that is far more dangerous than it seems.
Sometimes it takes the form of “the internet is freaking out” or “Twitter went wild.” But who, exactly, is “we”? Must I freak out, as a human? And in what way can Hogwarts be real, other than in a world where no one knows anything about reality?
I used some funny examples, but I’m not really joking. I’m starting to see this collective phrasing in articles that make more serious claims. Such as: Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich, a recent article in the NYT. “You” know who “you” are, Rich guy, and “we” are tired of “your” pretending. I may write a more fulsome response to this particular piece of non-reality.
So there’s this powerful trend toward nonsense and empty calories within internet news. Surfing the net aimlessly can be hazardous to the brain. But are there any brain-enhancing trends?
Certainly. Podcasts are getting better, and some are downright brilliant. Smart news and high quality writing — The Economist, New Yorker, Longform.org, Penny And Rich — are easily accessible. Apps and tools can teach languages. I’ve been playing chess online, that’s certainly a win for my brain.
I’m increasingly convinced that social and cultural and economic forces are exacerbating inequality. Some of this is a function of technology, because tech is a force multiplier. If a person is smart, tech can help them become really smart. Just think if I listened to Italian radio online every day for a year. Or a science podcast. But then, tech can also help a person become really dumb. Think if I read PopSugar and Hello Giggles every day for a year. I’d be dressing like Selena Gomez and freaking out about hippogriffs.
Bottom line: Tech can kill my brain — not to mention civilization — if I’m not careful, but intentional usage can be a force multiplier to brilliance.
THIRD COMMANDMENT: TECH SHALT SAVE TIME AND MONEY
Amazon, in my opinion, is the best thing since sliced bread and grated cheese (now available from Whole Foods via Amazon Fresh Now delivery in less than one hour!). For a busy professional, Amazon saves me soooooo much time.
We really discovered this after having kids. We were at Target every day for something, each trip was an hour that we didn’t have to spare. Now we don’t go to any stores, ever. We order on Amazon. And we get 5% cash back with the Amazon Prime credit card.
Wait, there’s more. We’re moving soon. In the past I’ve spent $400 for someone to professionally mount my TV on the wall. I just don’t trust myself to do it well. Amazon now offers Home Services, where you can actually schedule the TV mounting guy (it’s usually a guy) via the Amazon site. For around $100. Score!
Bottom line: If it’s a technology that saves me time and money, I like it.
FOURTH COMMANDMENT: TECH SHALT TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS AND PLEASURE
Finally, while I understand that some people might feel trapped by tech at work, I’m glad I work in a computer-aided environment. Sure, I’m tied to a computer sometimes. But … I grew up on a farm. You know what’s worse than being tied to a computer? Doing manual labor for 30 years until your back gives out.
And then there’s pleasure. TV is great, but cutting the cord is even better. C’mon. Amazing. Remember those CD/DVD towers? I don’t miss ‘em. Now I bring my Roku when I travel and watch any movie I want. Via Amazon, of course. And my kids get games and movies on long airplane rides. Everybody wins.
Bottom line: Tech ensures we can live past 50 and take our kids on airplanes.
So, Penny, enjoy your time away from tech. It will be here when you return. Let me know if you discover any new commandments during your technology fast.