Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Technology is probably changing us for the worse—or so we always think

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“Consider the mental equipment of the average modern man,” he wrote. “Most of the raw material of his thought enters his mind by way of a machine of some kind … the Twentieth Century journalist can collect, print, and distribute his news with a speed and completeness wholly due to a score or more of intricate machines … For the first time, thanks to machinery, such a thing as a world-wide public opinion is becoming possible.”

Bakeless didn’t see this as an especially positive development. “Machines are so expensive that the machine-made press is necessarily controlled by a few very wealthy men, who with the very best intentions in the world are still subject to human limitation and the prejudices of their kind … Today the man or the government that controls two machines—wireless and cable—can control the ideas and passions of a continent.”

Keep away

Fifty years later, the debate had shifted more in the direction of silicon chips. In our October 1980 issue, engineering professor Thomas B. Sheridan, in “Computer Control and Human Alienation,” asked: “How can we ensure that the future computerized society will offer humanity and dignity?” A few years later, in our August/September 1987 issue, writer David Lyon felt he had the answer—we couldn’t, and wouldn’t. In “Hey You! Make Way for My Technology,” he wrote that gadgets like the telephone answering machine and the boom box merely kept other pesky humans at a safe distance: “As machines multiply our capacity to perform useful tasks, they boost our aptitude for thoughtless and self-centered action. Civilized behavior is predicated on the principle of one human being interacting with another, not a human being interacting with a mechanical or electronic extension of another person.”

By this century the subject had been taken up by a pair of celebrities, novelist Jonathan Franzen and Talking Heads lead vocalist David Byrne. In our September/October 2008 issue, Franzen suggested that cell phones had turned us into performance artists. 

In “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” he wrote: “When I’m buying those socks at the Gap and the mom in line behind me shouts ‘I love you!’ into her little phone, I am powerless not to feel that something is being performed; overperformed; publicly performed; defiantly inflicted. Yes, a lot of domestic things get shouted in public which really aren’t intended for public consumption; yes, people get carried away. But the phrase ‘I love you’ is too important and loaded, and its use as a sign-off too self-conscious, for me to believe I’m being made to hear it accidentally.”

In “Eliminating the Human,” from our September/October 2017 issue, Byrne observed that advances in the digital economy served largely to free us from dealing with other people. You could now “keep in touch” with friends without ever seeing them; buy books without interacting with a store clerk; take an online course without ever meeting the teacher or having any awareness of the other students.

“For us as a society, less contact and interaction—real interaction—would seem to lead to less tolerance and understanding of difference, as well as more envy and antagonism,” Byrne wrote. “As has been in evidence recently, social media actually increases divisions by amplifying echo effects and allowing us to live in cognitive bubbles … When interaction becomes a strange and unfamiliar thing, then we will have changed who and what we are as a species.”

Modern woes

It hasn’t stopped. Just last year our own Will Douglas Heaven’s feature on ChatGPT debunked the idea that the AI revolution will destroy children’s ability to develop critical-thinking skills.

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