The vulgar underbelly of digital comforts
Yeah, I know, objects can’t be evil – I’m exaggerating for effect. For reasons that are best described as research (I’m figuring out how to create eBooks), I recently purchased a Kindle. It’s an elegant device, providing seamless access to a universe of books, and it may be one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.
Some context – I’ve made my living in the technology field for over twenty years, I like technology, I’m not an early adopter but I’m no Luddite either. And I’m not unique in the concerns I’ll voice, I’ve heard them from journalists and comedians, but unfortunately not much from the rank and file. I love change, I embrace change but like moving from coal fire to nuclear sometimes it doesn’t hurt to weigh the pros and cons.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve noodled on this pretty hard, and the upside of the digital revolution can’t be overstated:
- No more fights over stupid trivia now easily verified
- Instant access to roughly the sum total of human knowledge
- Near certainty you know where you’re going in a car
- The equivalent computing power of NASA’s moon mission on your phone – to name a few.
I can watch news programs from London, Moscow, Tokyo and Qatar. The hegemony of broadcast times eliminated by DVR’s, when I can’t think of anything to watch Netflix tells me, when I want something to read Amazon will beam it into my hands. Choices are fed to me like strained peas to a baby.
So what’s my beef?
Man is a hunter-gatherer, we’re built to not only find what we look for, but what we didn’t. That’s the essence of discovery, it’s what makes us grow, it’s what makes thing INTERESTING! All these friggin’ algorithms on Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix and particularly on Google “tailor your experience” – they give you what you want…not necessarily what you need.
Breeds confirmation bias: On social media I’ve seen people I once genuinely respected devolve into ass-hats having become trapped in the echo chamber. Left, right, center – everybody has talking points now, and they don’t even know it, they actually think they’re consuming “news”. God knows they’re willing to regurgitate it like their original thought, and defend it like it means something. Confirmation bias is a problem under the best of circumstances, our modern media injection tubes makes it feel normal.
Fakes Curiosity: You get presented enough “choices” and you can delude yourself into thinking you’re making decisions when you pick one of them. I don’t care if it’s news stories, “inspired by your shopping trends”, or any other “recommendation” – if a machine has already winnowed your choices are you really making a decision? Curiosity is key to us as humans, it’s amplified by exploring the unknown. The less we have of it, the less alive we are.
Too Easy: It’s a thin line between too hard and too easy, too much hard and you don’t have much of a life, but paradoxically I think the same goes for too easy. There’s a film by Mike Judge called “Idiocracy“, the film itself is too uneven to recommend, but the distopian future it shows of ascendant crude, dumb, violent knuckle-draggers feels more plausible with each passing day. We need to push ourselves, to try new things, to think new thoughts – and that’s not helped by a world hellbent on “giving us what we want”.
When I was a young man, I was dragged to a theater in Georgetown (DC) to see Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” by a tragically beautiful woman. I had about as much interest in going to an art house to watch a three-hour Japanese movie as having my nose pierced. What transpired was magic, I’ll never forget her scent, the commingling of the beautiful images on screen and her lips, the whole experience rocked me. And we sat through the film twice.
Nothing about the experience would have happened today (except the lips part, that’s eternal). Art house cinema is pretty much dead, the gym where I met the woman probably too small to compete, we may have wound up on a couch in front of a big screen tv streaming the flick (“you might also like ‘Rashomon'”) which is always available removing any urgency to see it.
Okay, so maybe I like being able to have any book I want in less than a minute. Maybe I like being able to watch both the British and American “House of Cards” in a days long bender. I like a lot of things. Doesn’t mean they’re good for me. Something of real quality is being lost, digging through stacks of books, or boxes of old comics. Or perhaps – like the boutique resurgence of vinyl records – the book store, news stand and old movie house will come back.