Tag Archives: technology

Great Communicators

Perhaps you’ve encountered it too. You’re in a major city. You’re in a hurry. The person in front of you is plodding along, staring at the device in his or her hand and you can’t get around him or her. You’re being held up by technology. I just want to get to the Port Authority before my bus leaves. The late Jonathan Z. Smith called cell phones “an absolute abomination.” I wouldn’t go quite that far—my bus pass, after all, is on my phone, and I’ve been saved from embarrassing conversations on the desk phone in my cubicle by being able to walk away and find a quiet corner in a corridor where I can talk freely—but I do see his point. While technology has had many benefits, in real life it can slow you down.

A news source I recently read said that heavy smart phone users are more prone to psychological problems than, say, those people who live raw in the bush of southern Africa. Phones isolate as well as connect. Instead of asking somebody for directions, you can turn to your monotoned electronic friend and find out. What you lose is the nuance of human communication. On my first interview in New York City—I was still living in Wisconsin at the time—I was disoriented. Which way was Fifth Avenue? I asked a stranger on the street and learned something in the process. New Yorkers weren’t the rude people I’d been told to expect. In fact, I quite frequently see strangers asking others for directions. I’ve never seen someone refuse to help in those circumstances. Although I’m in a hurry if someone asks me “which direction is Penn Station?” I’ll stop and try to help. It’s a people thing.

One of the distorting lenses of a large city is the acceleration of time. Many of us depend on public transit in its many forms, and none of it is terribly reliable. Being late through no fault of your own is part of the territory in a city like New York. It’s become harder to stay on time because of smartphones, however. A few years back I saw it with the Pokémon Go release. Groups of phoners wandering around, slowing the flow of foot traffic on sidewalks that are somehow never wide enough. If only I could communicate with people! How does one do that when they’re riveted to the device in their hand? I wouldn’t say they’re an absolute abomination, but I agree with the dear departed Smith that there are hidden costs to being so connected that we can’t talk to one another. I would say more, but I think my phone’s ringing.

Even Thoth can’t help walking and texting.

Weather Psalm

As the northeast coast digs out from yesterday’s nor’easter at least we can thank God that no business days were lost. At least none based on the status of New York City schools. Some NYC businesses base their decision on whether an adult snow day is in effect or not on the decision of whether or not to close the public schools. If kids are expected to make it to school, well, pull your socks up, thrash through the snow, and get some work done. I was fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the event that began like a snoreaster. By the time I would’ve usually been on the bus it wasn’t snowing. Roads were wet, but it seemed like a normal day. So it continued until about 10:00 a.m. Then it really did snow.

I’ve commuted long enough to know that, as grueling as getting up early and trying to get to the city may be, the evening commute is always worse. It may seem hard to believe that there are traffic jams before 7:00 a.m. most days, but around 5:00 p.m. all bets are off. The news vendors were lamenting the fate of those who had to find their way home in a foot of snow, even as it was still coming down swiftly. Nature doesn’t abide by our work schedules. Many companies don’t care if you can’t get out—you chose to work in the city. If it takes you three hours to get home, that’s not a work problem. It’s a personal thing. On personal time. Choose wisely.

All of this makes me reflect on the way we think of work these days. Commuting into the city shouldn’t be a dangerous job like being on an Alaskan fishing boat is. Chances are the actual daily work consists of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen. Eye strain, carpal-tunnel syndrome, and boredom are the only real dangers here. Unless you’re taking the George Washington Bridge, carpool tunnel is a far more sinister threat. If you make it home in time to come back in tomorrow, then it’s all good. We do this so that we can earn money to spend, mostly online. We haven’t quite got to the point yet where we can wire our physical bodies to the internet so that we can stay at home and work 24/7. But it’s coming, just like the next nor’easter. In the meantime, I have a bus to catch.

Getting Medieval

Who doesn’t have a devil of a time keeping up with technology? My day is divided in almost Manichaean terms between having internet access and not. Once I climb on that New Jersey Transit bus—they don’t have restrooms, let alone wifi—I enter radio silence for God knows how long. Once safely ensconced at work, I once again have the net but I can only use it for work. The even longer commute home spells the end to internet access for the day, since supper and sleep await at the other end of the line. So when websites change in the course of a day or two, it’s difficult to keep up. The other day, for instance, I noticed on Wikipedia, in an article about the Devil, that the dark lord has a coat of arms. “That,” I thought, “would make an interesting blog post.”

That idea, like most of mine these days, had to be put on hold until after work. And between after work and getting ready for work again, the delay lasted a week. Maybe two. Then I went back to the page and the reference was gone. I can still remember that the coat of arms had three frogs on it—somewhat unfairly to amphibians, I felt—and I even recall precisely where on the page it was. When I finally had time to look it up, it was no longer there. Cached pages used to be easy to find, but who has time any more? There’s a reason that people of my generation still prefer print books. Yes, there are times when it’s difficult to remember where you read something, but at least the reference is still there when you open the cover again. It hasn’t vanished in a pique of editing enthusiasm. The strangeness of it all was worthy of comment—a coat of arms was a sign of medieval prestige. There’s no doubt that the Devil had his day in the Middle Ages.

I hear about people being bored in retirement. I’m so busy, though, that I’m going to have to request a desk in the afterlife. Not that retirement’s anywhere within sight, but I have so many projects going that I don’t know when I’ll ever have time to finish them all. Even a holiday weekend’s too short to make much of a dent. I don’t need another technologically driven mystery to occupy any more of my waking hours. Looking for a Wikipedia factoid that was deleted doesn’t make it any easier. They say the Devil’s in the details, but that presumes you can find the details where you left them. And if you happen find the reference, can you please also keep an eye out for my car keys?

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Ned Ludd and Company

I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Maybe in the movies, or on a newsreel, or maybe on a filmstrip in school. I’m referring to those scenes, usually in some foreign location, where bicycles, ox-carts, cars, buses, and pedestrians all crowd the same streets in a holy confusion of conflicting human intentions. Some can afford no transportation at all beyond their own feet. Others can own, and use, automobiles. On a scale like this I’d put myself around either the bicycle or ox-cart-driver level. I’m referring to technology, of course, and not actual transportation. At a recent family discussion I was left completely in the dust and exhaust fumes of new technology, trying hard to comprehend the words that other family members were speaking so fluently. Software names, devices that do things I can’t divine, and what is a dongle anyway? I’ve fallen behind not only on my movies and books, but on technology as well.

Tech develops quickly despite how slowly the rest of the world moves. Some members of my family don’t have computers or use the internet. Others have devices so advanced that they might’ve been salvaged from Roswell, and I wonder how all this happened when I thought I was paying attention. I’m a late joiner when it comes to tech. Although I’d been warned, I made it through my Master’s degree having barely touched a computer. When I took a decidedly low-tech job teaching at a medievalizing seminary, we couldn’t afford television service and we haven’t really watched TV since. Now I hear that you don’t need to pay for the privilege. If you have the time, black boxes, sticks, and even software downloadable on your phone can be your television. I look at our flatscreen at home and wonder where the on/off switch might be. How have I fallen so far behind the times?

The real problem, from the view on my bicycle seat, is that in order to maintain some level of expertise in my field of study, I have to dedicate quite a bit of time to it. While others tickle their devices on the bus, I’m reading my books made of genuine paper. I’m thinking such activities will make me better informed. Most of these books address the past. If I want to upgrade from to an ox-cart, however, I have to learn a whole new language and the nouns that accompany pieces of hardware that look an awful lot alike to these antique eyes. Perhaps we have become cyborgs after all, and I just missed the introductory session. I wouldn’t know; I’m too busy trying to keep this bicycle out of the path of that speeding lorry.

The Consequences of Being Smart

A few years ago my wife bought me a smart phone. Being lifelong Mac users, the iPhone was the model of choice. I don’t have the intense connectivity issues of the young, I guess, so I don’t use it for texting or surfing the net. It’s great for holding bus tickets, though, and navigating in unfamiliar places. I’ve grown quite used to the convenience of having the internet in my pocket. Such a smart device. Naturally, one smart device in a family will breed others. We all have iPhones now. Like most Apple products they’re hermetically sealed and have few moving parts. The user need not know what goes on inside. It’s the very definition of a black box.

Then my wife’s phone went rogue. Suddenly it stopped picking up 3G signals (these are older models, after all). Now, you can’t just open up a black box and look inside. Even if you could I’d have no idea what I would be looking at. So I called tech support. My wife keeps music and photos on her phone, so we didn’t want to lose anything. Little did I realize that I’d just committed two-and-a-half hours of my life to phone repair. Before I was done, I would come to know six discrete people at differing levels of intimacy as we worked together to figure out what might make a black box tick. I spoke to Apple support and our service carrier. They put us back through to Apple support, and they had to call us back because the process was a lengthy one. In the end, it worked. The phone was restored to its former glory, but I had lost one of the very brief evenings I have.

One of the typical sci-fi, or apocalyptic, scenarios is the person or civilization that builds something s/he it can’t control. Like a biblical plague, we’ve unleashed a technology that makes our lives oh so much easier but ever so much more complicated. In addition to our professional expertise, we all need to understand, to some degree, technology. Technology and deity have begun to share blurred lines. It’s as if many believe it will save us. At the end of the day, however, we have to assert that it is here to serve us. We are the gods and technology represents the lowly beings we’ve created to do our bidding. Then again, those who read ancient stories know what happens when the gods create a servant race. I’m lucky that all it cost me was two-and-a-half hours, and not some even greater sacrifice.