Thursday, March 7, 2013
Glass Eyes that Don't See
Black Mirror is a thought-provoking anthology show produced in the UK. The third episode of the first series (because they call them series over there and not seasons) was called The Entire History of You, and it was about a bit of tech that recorded your entire life through your eyes and gave you the ability to recall any "memory" at will.
I remember watching in horror as the episode came to its chilling end, drawing some pretty accurate conclusions about technology and our use of it. In the second episode of the same series, people lived (and worked) in these claustrophobic hotel-like rooms, riding stationary bicycles for credits, where they were bombarded constantly with advertisements which could only be silenced by paying for the privilege.
Sometimes, the future seems so far away. In the 50s, people thought they'd be driving their flying cars to work or strapping on a jetpack. I'm still waiting for my flying car, damn it!
The beauty of the types of stories Black Mirror tells is in the glimpse they give us into a future that's not too far off from our own. People in 1950s might have believed in flying cars, but they never would have imagined that human beings would spend large chunks of their day sharing the intimate details of their lives with strangers half a world away. They never would have believed that we'd be carrying computers in our pockets that we'd use to communicate to others what we had for lunch, and make funny pictures of grumpy cats.
When I first heard about it, Google Glass was an exciting technology. A wearable computer. Geeky and odd at first blush, but we spend so much time slouching through our lives, our eyes never leaving the phones in our hands, that the idea of putting the screen directly in front of our face seems brilliant and deceptively simple.
But, as I read an article in The Verge by a writer who's wearing Google Glass for a month, I realized that this technology was eerily similar to the tech from Black Mirror. It could record our lives as we live them without needing our interaction. Put them on, press record, live your life, secure in the knowledge that you won't miss a thing.
I'm not so sure.
See, I remember a time before the Internet. I remember dialing in to the Prodigy service. AOL. A time when checking your email involved making sure no one else was on the phone. When having pictures meant buying film, loading the film, taking the pictures, and then waiting a few days to have those pictures developed. I remember calling my friends. I remember when communication involved more than broadcasting the details of your life and expecting that your friends would invite themselves.
I have a contentious relationship with technology. I am no luddite. I tend to embrace new technology willingly. I earn a living working with technology.
And yet, I hate it.
These tools of convenience have erected barriers between me and the rest of humanity. The anonymity of the Internet draws out the worst in people. More and more, I find myself unable to read online articles because of the hateful comments that inevitably follow. The distance created by the internet makes people think it's okay to spew their racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic comments freely and without consequence. It turns us all into faceless, nameless entities rather than people. The technology that supposedly connects us also serves to dehumanize us.
The technology that allows us to record and share our lives keeps us from actually living them.
I've taken two European vacations. The first time I went to Italy. I was alone, and I took hundreds of pictures. When I look at the pictures now, I hardly remember the things I took pictures of. The second time, I went to London and Paris and Amsterdam. I took far fewer pictures but I remember more. I attribute the difference to the fact that I was present in a way that I wasn't in Rome. Rather than viewing my vacation through the lens of a camera, worrying about whether or not something would make a good picture, I experienced my vacation. I lived it. I was present for it.
Technology like Google Glass would have you believe that its passivity would allow you to do both. To be present in your life while still recording everything. But what's the point? Why is it necessary to relive every second of our lives? Every minute we spend watching things we've already done is a minute we're not out there doing new things.
At the same time, I can't and won't deny technology's positive impact on the world. It's ability to connect likeminded people.
I posted Amanda Palmer's TED talk, about the way she uses Twitter to connect directly to her audience in a real and human way. John Green is another person who uses the Internet to connect to his followers in a positive way. So many of my writer friends also do this.
Projects like Kickstarter and Kiva microloans use the power of the Internet to bring people together to support products and causes they love in a way that simply wasn't possible twenty or even ten years ago.
When bullying became an epidemic, the collective power of the Internet helped shine a light on it. Reddit followers are notorious for being both foul-mouthed bigots, and hugely compassionate; banding together to help each other out. Whether it's relief after a catastrophe or a lost dog, the various Internet communities frequently find ways to help.
Even the hacker groups Anonymous and those like them shine a light on the darker aspects of our government, bringing justice to those who feel above the law.
On a personal level, it's often difficult to stay connected, to see the successes and failures of people I don't hardly know, yet still compare myself to. To read the beautiful things people write about my work juxtaposed with the horrible. To share my life with the world yet always feel like I'm somehow not measuring up.
I'm spending so much time worrying about what other people think of my life that I'm missing out on so much living. I let myself get ridiculously worked up about the opinions of people I don't even know and who I'll never ever meet.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've caught myself replying to comments on different blogs I read, and thinking: nothing I say will change how this person thinks, nothing I do will make a difference here, this is a waste of my time. After which, I delete my comment, close my browser, and move on.
Even my blogs often feel like a waste. Am I saying anything worthwhile? Am I doing anything good? Is this enriching me in some way or enriching someone else? Am I writing blogs to have a history of me, or am I doing it for external validation?
These are the questions Technology begs us to ask.
Recently, I've dreamed of trashing my iPhone and picking up a cheap-ass dumb phone, canceling my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Blogger accounts. Of turning off my Internet every weekend and living in the quiet of disconnection.
Because connected, I've never felt more disconnected than I often do these days. I don't want to know what my friends are doing via Facebook updates and LiveJournal posts and Tweets that don't actually tell me shit about how they actually are. I want to hear it from them.
I have a 30 minute drive home. I use that time to talk to my mom. At least 3 times a week I call her and we chat. Aside from the time at home I get to spend with Matt, those calls are some of the best moments of my day.
Technology makes that possible too. My hands-free tech in my car and my cell phone.
It's a bitch of a double-edged sword.
Google's working on another technological wonder. The self-driving car. I expect we'll all have self-driving cars before I'm dead. I don't mind the idea of that. It would give me more time to read and write and talk to people as my car whisks me from location to location.
Because, really, I don't mind if technology takes the wheel of my car, so long as it doesn't take the wheel of my life.