Saturday, April 23, 2011

Technology Rules

The other night, we attended a play at the Actors’ Theatre. The play was “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”, by Sarah Ruhl. The play is about a woman who has to confront today’s technology through a cell phone of a man who dies next to her in a café.
As we awaited the beginning of the play, three 30-something boy magpies behind us were chattering excitedly about their coming weekend events and about their cute I-Phones, which co-located them at the theatre by name.  Wow, another I-Phone App by Apple, the company specializing in really, really cute solutions in search of a problem. As the trio of guys chatted on endlessly, sort of like a group of 8-year olds might have done, the play began and they all quieted. The play is a comedy of sorts, about dead people and technology that lives on after death. Where do all those cell phone conversations go, if not into the ether? Do they vanish, or do they keep going forever?
The same day, someone announced that Apple’s cute I-Phones all keep secret information about your whereabouts, hidden within the phone. Wow! Who’da thought Apple would keep data on its customers without telling/asking them? Amazing.
But the play and the chattering class behind us set me to thinking about today’s technology and what it is about. What troubles me is that it seems to be about less than it used to be.
My working career, after obtaining my engineering degree, began in the aerospace world—helping to build complex missile systems that could destroy whole cities in the blink of an eye—terrible things they were indeed. But they were part of that period we now refer to nostalgically as “the Cold War.”
It seemed to me that technology in the days just after dinosaurs roamed the earth, i.e., when I was young, was founded on that old saw—“necessity is the mother of invention.” That is, when we encountered some problem, sooner or later we would figure out a solution to that problem. That was the heart and soul of the industrial revolution.  At some point, maybe it was during the 1980’s, with the advent of the personal computer, that technology principle seemed to change. Technologists began inventing things for which we had no problem identified. We invented, because we could.  In short, technology began to lead needs, as in "Invention is now the mother of necessity."
Now, how does one market new technology, when the public is not even aware that it needs the technology? Well, you market it the way we market new clothing designs. With clothing, we have various Spring fashion shows, when the designers show off their latest line of clothing. The idea of the shows is to produce a “must-have” mentality among the buying public, at least that part of the buying public that cares. In technology, they have the same thing—Spring/Fall fashion shows that market the latest, coolest, hottest, tech gizmoes, along with the Apps you never realized you needed. That pretty much defines Apple, and Apple pretty much defines the world of technology.
So, now what do we have? We have millions of people, most of whom aren’t even geeks, walking around with these fashion-plate tekkie gadgets, which they consult every minute or two. We have Facebook, a pseudo-social network, where the young go to whine, or to tell us about their latest triumph. We have twitter, we have texting, we even have sexting. We have pseudo-communications gobbling up all the available space in our public airwaves, just so everyone can feel “connected”.
We can observe people sitting in restaurants, ostensibly engaged in social contact with other humans, but not quite connected with the humans in front of them. Instead, they stay pseudo-connected with all their other pseudo-friends on Facebook, all of whom are twittering/texting/sexting continuously. Everyone is walking around, driving, sitting in a permanent state of social disconnect, or perhaps semi-connected. Bodies that are almost disembodied, permanently.  Nothing is real. Everyone is connected, but nobody is connected.  Pseudo-conversations go on endlessly, with no actual information going back and forth. The ether fills up with babble, and one wonders whether all this electronic goo continues to float out into the ether, traveling on forever into some future time and place.
It is all pretty amazing stuff, and would be wonderful, I suppose, if any of the world’s current real problems somehow became solved, or even addressed. Here we have people all over the world blowing up themselves and others on a daily basis. Children go hungry, people are sick without respite, other people are dying for no good reason that anyone can articulate.  And yet, the adult 8-year olds of the world go on chattering to one another, without ever actually communicating, or seemingly caring about all the crap going on about them.
Is this a great world or not??
I wonder what our great grandchildren will make of this stuff?
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