Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Technology and Wonder

Firstly, let me admit that my relationship to technology is a bit unusual. It was once said of me that I am more “Telegraphs and Fountain Pens” than “iPhones and Facebook”. While that is true, at least in an aesthetic manner, I am not above being glamoured by gadgetry. And so I have been.
I have gotten a new phone that is clearly governed by Alien Space Magic.  Among it’s many  capabilities, it makes calls (of course), takes better pictures than I have ever taken (even with a good camera), plays music, and checks my email for me. This means that never again do I have to open up the computer with trepidation wondering if this is the very moment Agent X (or Y or Agent 99) has sent me a message requesting a manuscript. I only have to wait for the angelic electronic trill to tell me.  Additionally, this object also seems to have a time traveling ability – it can play old radio programs like The Shadow or Dragnet – ones that I have never owned or downloaded. Just pulls them from the ether of time and space.
But there has been something a bit disquieting about my own behavior in regards to this. Much of my relationship with it, indeed most of my time with it, is spent…well…setting it up. There must be something else it needs to do. Like be a voice recorder. Or play a Sherlock Holmes game. Or take notes for me. There must be something better to play the music. To show the pictures. To log the calls. To make it look different. To make it look less like a phone. What Android Theme defines me as a person?
I have seen a great deal of talk lately: books, interviews on NPR (about the aforementioned books, usually), blog posts – speculating on whether Today’s Technology is making us Smarter or, conversely how it’s making us Stupid. I really think it’s neither of these things. So often we think that the problem is the object: this computer, this iPhone, this mp3 Player.  We’ve had the same ambivalent feelings about technology for centuries. (See Jonathan Kaplan’s take on Thoreau on Mail, or one of my favorites, Introducing the Book )
All too often our attitude to technology is one of either Utter Terror (Look out! The machines will rise up against us!) or Entitlement (This doesn’t anticipate my every need and work perfectly every moment of its life. *tantrum*tantrum*) . The first way is problematic, certainly. I see this a lot in libraries. This kind of black-and-white thinking. E-readers are an evil enemy sent to destroy us, or All books should be pulped and replaced with Kindles.  But those are thoughts for another time.
Perhaps we should spend more of our time in wonder and in awe of what these things can do, instead of what they can’t. Allow ourselves to wonder at them, at the Alien Space magic we hold in our hands. This is Star Trek, stuff, Readers. This is Science Fiction, sitting right next to me on the charger.
It’s an amazing thing, really. I’ll try to remember that.

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