A few weeks ago I sent a Facebook message to a friend. Three sentences. It went something like this:
Hey - do you still have that Veda Hille CD I loaned you on your iTunes? I can’t find my copy, and I need it for a podcast I’m editing. Could I come by your place and burn it onto a memory stick?
Even before hitting “send” it occurred to me that every one of those sentences contains a term that didn’t exist ten years ago. Not only that, Facebook didn’t exist then, so to “send a Facebook message” wouldn’t have been possible either.
That’s the gist of this piece - how many elements of everyday life now, in prosperous North America, would mean nothing to someone from the same country and social strata say, fifteen years ago, or even ten. Or in some cases, five. I’ll boldface any term that highlights this.
When I went to that friend’s place later that week with my memory stick, I had the wrong buzzer code. Her apartment wasn’t listed in the digital directory. I stubbornly don’t have a cell phone, so I couldn’t call her, or my girlfriend, who was inside. Eight stories up. Couldn’t throw a penny at the window. I waited out front hoping to run into a friend going in (there was a small get together that night), but no one came. I went to a nearby convenience store and logged on to one of the computers in their mini internet cafe. Couldn’t find a listing for her in the online phone book (they didn’t have a physical phone book) or a phone number for her in previous emails. I sneaked in to her building following two other people, but the elevator wouldn’t let me get to her floor because I hadn’t been buzzed in. I gave up and went home. My girlriend emailed asking where I was, I emailed back with the story. She told people at the party what had happened, having to repeat to each of them that I don’t have a cell phone. And pay phones are hard to find these days, even if I’d had a number to call.
A few days later I had a creative meeting with two guys. We’re adapting a well known blog into a stage show. We went to a meeting room on the fourth floor of the building where they work. We each pulled out our laptops. Couldn’t get a wireless signal. One guy took out his iPhone, and tethered its roaming signal to his computer. An hour later, someone from the office knocked on the door. He’d set up a wireless signal for us, and gave us the password. We logged on, and could all see the same google doc. In our previous meeting, one of the guys had had to stay home, and had skyped in.
I’d spent two hours that morning at the Apple Store’s genius bar getting my computer fixed. The external hard drive couldn’t back up my files. Turns out it didn’t have enough gigs left. Gonna have to buy another one. My iTunes library had disappeared, but the guy restored it to a previous version, and set the computer to automatically search for album artwork. iWeb - my laptop’s easy-web-design program - had been updated to a newer version and I couldn’t upload new content to my podcast site, and I needed help understanding the changes in order to post that Veda Hille podcast - and send it to the iTunes store. The guy helped me sort that out too, and figure out the new way to embed youtube clips. It’s pretty easy.
The next morning I met up with my parents at a transit stop. They were flying to Newfoundland to visit relatives. I was borrowing their car to get to Victoria to participate in the Fringe Festival there. I’d had to leave my place early to meet them on time, which meant no breakfast. I picked up a smoothie at the transit station’s smoothie bar, and drank it on the way. It felt like a legitimate meal - a thick cold soup in a cup, sucked through a straw. It was green, mostly consisting of vanilla soy milk and macha green tea powder. It came with a booster of my choice. I went with the immune booster.
After dropping off my parents at the airport, I drove to the ferry terminal, plugging my iPod into the car stereo’s adapter and listening to a concert I’d downloaded from NPR’s All Songs Considered site. I’d edited it myself using some free audio editing software in order to remove the announcer’s protracted intro and extro, and the full three minutes of audience cheering for an encore.
On the ferry I plugged my laptop into a power socket at a work station, and logged into the free wifi BC Ferries generously provides. I read and gave feedback on a draft of an essay by a fellow Beams and Struts writer (which is part of the process for our group blog). I sent off a tweet about a TED talk my girlfriend and I had watched the night before on her computer. We’d also watched two episodes of TV shows we like, streamed from various internet sources. We’d done this the night before at my place too, hooking my laptop up to my LCD projector to put the thing nice and big on my wall. One episode had a quick appearance by an actor I know from Albuquerque. I confirmed it really was him on imdb.com (his character was listed as “Schlubby Guy #1”), and wrote a line about it on his Facebook wall. Then I started writing this blog piece. The announcement came that we were nearing the terminal. I took my laptop to the car and kept writing there. I resumed working on it an hour later at a table in a Victoria cafe. There was wifi there, but I didn’t ask for the password in order to head off the temptation of frittering my time away reading my Facebook news feed, following links people posted, looking at peoples’ pictures and seeing if anyone’s commented on my latest status update.
Okay, enough boldfacing.
We live in the future now. These changes aren’t as radical as the flying cars, robot servants
and interstellar travel science fiction writers used to envision for the 21st century, but they’re notable nonetheless, especially in the way they’ve eased into the fabric of everyday life. George Carlin explores similar themes in his book Brain Droppings (1997), with a piece titled Air Pollution:
Think of how much information, in the form of radio energy, there is flying through the air, all around us, all over the world, right now and all the time. AM, FM, UHF, VHF, shortwave radio, televisions, CB radio, walkie-talkies, cell phones, cordless phones, telephone satellites, microwave relays, faxes, pagers, taxi calls, police, sheriff, hospitals, fire departments, telemetry, navigation, radar, the military, government, financial, legal, medical, the media, etc. etc. etc. Trillions and trillions and trillions and trillions of separate little bits of electronic information flying all around the world through the air at all times. Think of that. Think of how busy the air is. Now realize this: A hundred years ago there was none. None. Silence.
Note the date on that piece: 1997. No mention of the internet. And far fewer cell phones back then. Carlin explores this theme even more eloquently in an absolutely virtuosic stand-up piece titled A Modern Man from his album Life is Worth Losing (2007)(reprinted in his book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops) that verges on performance poetry, as it hinges on terms that have come into fashion or existence in the last ten years. Here’s a short sample:
I’ve got a personal trainer,
a personal shopper,
a personal assistant
and a personal agenda
You can’t shut me up,
You can’t dumb me down
cuz I’m tireless and I’m wireless
I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers.
I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever,
laid back, but fashion forward.
Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high maintenance.
Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition,
Fast-acting, oven-ready and built to last.
I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case
and I have a love-child who sends me hate mail.
These changes in modern life are particularly remarkable to me in that I don’t consider myself a technophile at all. As mentioned, I still don’t own a cell phone. I spend a lot of time at the genius bar because I try to use my computer for more sophisticated tasks than emailing and word processing and can almost never figure out what to do. I do have an iPod, but it’s a doddering old 2004 model, which I feel no need to replace despite its measly 13.8 gigabyte capacity, occasionally eccentric behaviour, and its inability to do anything but play songs.
It also bears mentioning that there have been plenty of elements in the past few days of puttering around that would be completely familiar to people fifteen years ago, or fifty: riding a bike, going to the DMV to renew my driver’s license, eating lentil soup and three bean salad, looking at billboards, reading books, getting the battery replaced in my watch, having conversations, performing autobiographical monologues for a hundred people at a time at a Fringe festival. My parents’ car runs on plain ol’ gas - though the taxis around me are all hybrids. And very few people on the ferry were working on computers - most went straight to the cafeteria - though the menu now includes wraps, sushi, veggie burgers, and wild salmon with honey pepper glaze - a welcome expansion from the hot dogs in tin foil envelopes and ice cream scooped scrambled eggs of my youth. And the DMV lady took my picture with a digital camera. The billboards I saw almost all referenced websites. I spread the word about my fringe performances by Facebook, gather an email list to from audience members, and check for newspaper reviews online. I also communicate with the festivals exclusively electronically, and haven’t sent out a physical press release or photo since... Jesus... five years ago, maybe?
So are these changes - most of which can be described as advancements in information technology - for the good? New York Times writer Matt Richtel explores this question in a continuing series of articles on the brain’s relationship with omnipresent digital devices. One article chronicles the experiences of five neuroscientists on a week-long river rafting trip off the grid, each of them observing changes in their thoughts and reactions as they’re unable to make a phone call or check their email. In a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Richtel puts forward the analogy of technology as food. “Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too, in the twenty-first century and in modern age, we need technology. You cannot survive without the communications tools, the productivity tools are essential. And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is twinkies and some is brussel sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after, say, twenty years of glorifying all technology, as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is twinkies and some technology is brussel sprouts. And if we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects. And that is the moment in time we find ourselves in with this series [of articles] and with the way we are digesting, if you will, technology, all over the place, everywhere today.”
I’m well aware of my own capacity to lose valuable time in utterly useless surfing of websites and Facebook. But I’d be romanticizing the past if I pretended to have had a clear, constant focus back when I wrote on a typewriter and wouldn’t go near a computer. I’d say I’m more productive now than I was then. The ease of self-publishing on a blog is the biggest part of why I’ve written and revised this piece over a three week period, rather than scribbling a rudimentary version of it in a journal (never to be seen again), or simply having the thought I described in the opening of this piece, and letting it flit away. Easy sound editing software has made it possible for me to craft audio creations that would have needed an experienced sound editor well out of my price range twenty years ago - unless I’d been employed by a radio station.
In the Kosmic Consciousness interviews, Ken Wilber describes the internet as a technological medium that corresponds with our culture’s jump from the rational stage of development to pluralistic. Anyone can post on the internet. Information isn’t regulated in the top-down format of television or print journalism. But posting on the internet doesn’t mean someone’s expressing a pluralistic stage of development. They could be reinforcing mythic/membership beliefs (fundamentalist religion, jingoistic political screeds), rational beliefs (scientific inquiry) - anything at all. Our technological sophistication will serve whatever stage we’re at as individuals and as a culture. The wisdom we bring to our knowledge shapes our experience of it, and how it, in turn, shapes our elastic neurocircuitry.
Part of the wisdom I’m still struggling to incorporate into my relationship with the futuristic technological landscape I navigate daily is the need to take time away from it. In the same NPR interview, Richtel describes what those river rafting neuroscientists gleaned from taking a break from the digital world: “They walked away basically saying that people need to take breaks. They aren’t sure from a scientific perspective how long a break needs to be, but as one of them said, I thought beautifully, one of the skeptics, he said ‘We didn’t understand how aspirin worked for years even when we were prescribing it. We didn’t understand the scientific mechanism. I’m prepared to tell you, I don’t know the scientific mechanism behind vacation, but you ought to be taking one.’”
I’m guilty of checking my email and Facebook far too often, especially late at night, when I’m tired and need to sleep and I’m not finding anything interesting anyway, but I’m still hoping for what Richtel terms the “dopamine squirt” - the natural reward chemicals - my brain gives me when something good pops onto my screen. It’s important to put in regular hours redirecting at least some of my synapses to reinforce the dopamine reward of a three hour bike ride, an all day plunge into a ripping novel, or an evening-long conversation with intelligent, articulate friends.
And now it’s time to publish this blog post. I’ll create a Facebook note (tagging the maximum 30 people), tweet and send a message to my mailing list linking to it, and periodically eye the hit counter on the site’s backend for the next few days, checking to see if any comments roll in. And before long, that last sentence will seem as arcane as someone waxing enthusiastic about their Volare’s snappy new 8-Track player and CB radio.