Why it’s not always bad to be a Techno Sceptic

According to the philosopher Paul Virilio, our communications technologies have been placed our society in an accelerating state of never satisfactory speed – both physically and electronically. Such speed, he suggests, has eroded our environment – both through the destruction physically wrought by roads and cars, and so on, but also, and perhaps more importantly, be divorcing us from any direct sense of scale of that environment.

For each invention comes, so Virilio says, its other – its accident. With the ship came the invention of the ship wreck, with the car came the car crash – and one might add, of course, with the electrically linked global market came the global stock-market crash.

One might be inclined to take Virilio’s statements with a pinch of salt – after all, for those operating within the milieu of French philosophical academia, making grand statements, particularly those either damning eternity, or lauding the immanent arrival of utopia, are a necessary part of professional brinkmanship. I, however, am inclined to believe that Virilio’s point is well made yet understood by those who constantly tout the next big thing.

The endless expansion of both global and local communications has led to us being swamped by information we can neither contextualize nor process. Each moment is captured by a dizzying array of sound, image and video recorders. Each event is commented upon by a thronging gallery of bloggers, tweeters , journalists and PR agents to create a cacophony of competing streams of consciousness. At the same time there is an ever-expanding apparatus of capture working to record what is being endlessly documented. Despite this dizzying volume of stuff going on, of online archives and hubs, the intellectual inheritance of our age becomes ever more fragile.

In a thousand years time, when the light and the rest of what relies on electricity has failed many times over, or perhaps has been swept away entirely, what will be the inheritance from our age? A mass of not-yet-pulped biographies of WAGs and celebrity mediocrities, a towering pile of tax returns and corporate marketing plans?

With each “intelligent” technology, we not only enhance an existing human capacity, we also externalize and atrophy our ability to operate independently and engage with a direct form of experience. As we place all of our appointments on our PDAs, we start to lose the capacity to remember what we are doing with our lives. As we use mobile phones to maintain a last-minute bidding war on choices of what to do, so we lose our ability to act decisively and to stick to a plan.

What do we do to our children, allowing them early access to video games? Show me a child who can play with a cardboard box, and I will show you a child who can bring an entire world into being with sheer force of childish imagination. Show me a child hunched over their Nintendo DS’s aged six, and I’ll show you a child with a problem concentrating on anything else, and an ability to imagine only what is put in front of them, imagined for them by their computer and their TV.

Do I hate technology? Not at all – I think it is special, and mourn its passing into the prosaic fabric of life. As Will Self observes, it is a tragedy that air travel has become so mundane – we should be waved onto our airships by stewardesses decked out like Buck Rogers, and the pilot should hoot with delight as we get off the ground. When did anything as improbable as flying become boring? Instead, it, and every other technology, is design to fit into the background, to be as unobtrusive as possible – cosseting us from the hard realities that lie underneath – the potential accident – the plane crash.

It seems to me that much of our information technology these days is focussed on protecting us from that endless stream of stuff, is designed to help create a space in which we can find our bearings and make a space in which it is possible to think and act, to make informed choices about what we want to experience. However, we would not need such space if would could disconnect ourselves periodically of our own volition – if we could listen to the sound of life without adding an endless soundtrack from our iPods, if we could act without thinking about how it will look on video or camera, if we would spend our journeys out of touch, instead of always being attached to one or other of our digital communications umbilicus.

I fear that this reliance on technology is bad not only for us, but for our appreciation of technology itself. We forget how special what we can do is – we erode it by taking it for granted. We obsess about technology, play with the latest gadget then onto the next big thing, casting aside the last. The wheel, the hammer, language, paper – these are technologies that have defined, and continue to define us. As I type this last line I think about how short will be the life of these words – how they shall ultimately be auto-deleted, or lost as a server fails.

Maybe I should just go out for a walk…now…what should I listen to?


About jonallenby
I'm the co-founder and Technical Director of a new media agency - Lime Media. I would describe myself as having a healthy scepticism about technology - new ways of doing things are always new, but they are not necessarily better. Best to cut through the hype and think about how technology will physically change people's lives, for better or worse. I am also struggling to finish a part-time PhD in language, metaphor and philosophy at Goldsmith's College, University of London. Apart from thinking and reading, I like playing with my children, cross-country running and White Crane Kung-Fu - though usually not all at once.

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