Sunday, July 10, 2016

The new mantra: if it's technologically possible, it must be done

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 8.)

It’s true then. The world really has gone barking mad.

A recent Washington Post article, republished in the Dominion Post, described the writer's habit of watching films and television shows in fast-forward.

“This has become increasingly easy to do with computers and the time savings are enormous,” Jeff Gao wrote. “Four episodes of a show can fit into an hour.”

He did this, he explained, to make his life more efficient.

At first I thought it must be a spoof – a clever satire on the craze for new ways to “consume” online content.  But reading on, I realised Gao was serious.

He hailed the idea of playing videos at twice the intended speed as an example of “technology-changing story telling”.

Here the obsession with doing whatever’s technologically feasible parts company with reason. People like Gao appear to be afflicted by a strange new personality disorder for which psychiatrists have yet to coin a name.

Watching a good film or TV programme in fast-forward would be like eating your favourite food via a stomach tube that bypasses the taste buds. To put it another way, what’s the bloody point?

But Gao is just one small pointer to where the digital revolution seems to be leading us.

I see the future every week in this paper’s technology page, and I don’t mind admitting it scares the hell out of me. The pace of change is increasing at an exponential rate and no one knows where it will end.

The future of civilisation appears to be in the hands of an industry that’s obsessed with innovation and technological advance for its own sake.

Its mantra seems to be that if something is technologically possible, then it must be done. The men leading us into this brave new world (they’re almost always men) don’t appear to waste too much time thinking about the human consequences of what they do and the type of society that might be created as a result.

Technology writers continue to promote the fallacy that it’s all about making our lives easier. This collides head-on with the day-to-day reality experienced by many technology users who tear their hair out navigating unfriendly websites, familiarising themselves with ever-changing nomenclature, keeping track of a steadily expanding number of passwords (always longer and more complex than the last ones, to protect themselves from the opportunist criminals who infest the online world) and fuming helplessly over “upgrades” that they didn’t ask for and don’t want.

One of the least surprising news items of the year so far was a recent “state of the nation” survey by the Roy Morgan research company which found that 67 per cent of New Zealanders feel so overwhelmed by technology that they complain there are not enough hours in the day.

The solution’s simple, you might think. All they need do is cut back the amount of time they waste on Facebook and Twitter or watching videos on You Tube (I plead guilty to that last one).

But this works only up to a point, because even for those who scorn Facebook and Twitter, there’s no escaping the demands of the digital revolution. There’s no opt-out clause.

For all those people who thrive on newness and innovation, and who love nothing more than fiddling with a new device to find out what it can do, there are others for whom the pressure to constantly adapt to new ways of doing things becomes oppressive.

Trouble is, they’re given little choice. The world is so driven by technology that we’re all expected to fall into line.

Increasingly, people who are not computer-savvy are shut out of access to vital services, including those provided by the government. A computer-shy friend recently received a letter from the Inland Revenue Department querying her tax code and advising her to check on the department’s website – a suggestion that was about as realistic as asking her to recite the Koran from memory in the original Arabic.

The so-called digital divide, which was once merely disadvantageous to non-computer users, now threatens to marginalise and isolate them completely. This is the new reality.

Arguably the most powerful people in today’s world are those who control the giant technology companies. They have more impact on our daily lives than any politician, but unlike politicians they are not accountable to us.

We don’t get to vote for them and have no control over them. We just have to hope like hell that their vision of the future doesn’t turn out to be a dystopian nightmare. 

1 comment:

Big Dog Talking said...

Computers have been a significant influence in ordinary lives for some 30 years at a guess. While I agree the digital divide is real you really don't have a choice but to get over it because it is so established it is not going away.
The solution is the one you touched on, selectivity in what you get involved in. People don't have much trouble remembering their EFTPOS pin number or using the EFTPOS machine, because it is useful to them.
Dealing with random shopping sites and social media or standard media sites that require you to logon etc is mostly optional. You dont' have to watch TV on demand, you don't have to shop on line and if you can stand it you can still ring the IRD or visit them in person. Of course when these things become like EFTPOS to you, i.e. useful and less painful than the alternative (you can still get cash from a bank teller after all) you will find tech a blessing not a curse.
I never learned to use the slow motion on my VHS, didn't stop me watching movies.