Archive for September 15th, 2011

“The Problem’s Plain to see…

…too much technology
machines to save our lives, machines dehumanize”
— Styx, “Mr. Roboto” (1982)

In the nearly thirty years since Dennis DeYoung of Styx penned those lines, the growth of technology has multiplied.   In 1982 the internet was an unknown form of communication between science departments of a few large research centers.   The personal computer was on the market, but still rare and without operating systems that made use easy.   Satellite phones were rare, expensive, large and clunky.   Most people had never seen one, let alone used one.

On television cable programming was just beginning to expand.  MTV had already debuted, as had CNN.   At this point they were still experiments, no one knew if they would succeed.    There were news reports that the Japanese were developing the capacity to put music on discs that could be laser read, but if you wanted music you either had to put on a record album or cassette tape.    VCRs were the new high tech toy.   Not only could you tape your favorite shows and watch them again later, but places renting movies in VCR form were popping up, meaning you could watch an old film without commercials at your leisure.   People no longer were limited to watching what happened to be on television at the time they wanted to watch.    When you photographed people or places you took care to try to get a good shot.  Developing film was expensive, and you wouldn’t know how it turned out until you got the prints back from the camera shop.

At the time, of course, we thought we were living in a world filled with technological wonder.   The VCR is hyper-cool if you don’t know about DVDs, streaming video, or DVRs.    The Minolta SLR camera with different lenses and filters made it easier than ever to take high quality photos.   Color TVs were increasingly affordable as the old black and white sets disappeared and Sony’s new expensive “walk man” allowed you to play cassette tapes in a small portable device with headphones.   One could conceivably jog and listen to music at the same time.  How cool is that!   So much for transistor radios!   Home movies were really are (and the equipment expensive and bulky), but a few people had a screen and projector to look at slides.

Some cars even buttons to roll down windows or even lock the car.   That seemed a bit excessive — one can easily roll a window up and down (and the car didn’t have to be on) and why have a labor saving device for something as simple as pushing down a car lock!?   Pinball machines were still king, but Pac Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong and other “video games” were becoming popular.   The Atari company even put out a machine you could hook to your TV to play such favorites as “missile command.”   Video games on your television?   Wow!

One good thing about being 50 is that I got to experience first hand this remarkable era of technological advancement.  The last thirty years have seen life become fundamentally altered.    As a student in high school and college I’d go use the IBM selectric typewriter my dad’s secretary had whenever I could.  That had a button that would erase a mistake (white out the error) and it was easy to type on.    Alas, I often had to re-type whole pages thanks to a typo or margin error, and if anything was revised it would often mean retyping the whole paper.

In college researching a paper required a trip to the library.   One became adept at using card catelogs, knowing the library of congress scheme of arranging subjects, and plugging dimes into the photo copy machine to copy magazine or journal articles.    I was lucky to be a fast typist — most boys hadn’t learned to type.  I was one of only a few in my typing class back in 8th grade, wanting to someday become a sports writer.  Girls learned to type to become secretaries.   Boys, of course, would be the bosses using Dictaphones (which were already making short hand obsolete).

So while my friends tried to cajole their girl friends to type up their papers, I could just sit at my type writer and work.   Yet we were the pinnacle of technology, a TV and small refrigerator in every dorm room, and nice stereo systems – the best had components, a tuner, amp, a couple large speakers, a nice turntable and a tape deck.

My girlfriend at the time was studying computer science — learning languages like Basic, Pascal, and Cobol.   I’d go into the computer lab sometimes and try to create programs — one where the computer asked questions and then came up with a personality profile was my best.   Of course then Bill Gates would come and create an operating system that took away the need to program your computer (remember when one had to know html to write a web page in the early nineties?)

Now my kids can’t comprehend why the TV at a hotel can’t be paused or set to record shows.   They have told me we should be able to watch on demand any show on the program guide.  “In a few years,” I replied, realizing that may indeed be the case.   Students can revise papers constantly without even printing them out.   Almost any question can be answered via google, while youtube provides videos of just about anything you might want to watch.   You can do better research from a poor rural university than you used to be able to do at all but the best schools.

Music is now portable, you can have a vast array of music on demand on gadgets as small the adapters one used to have to use to play 45 RPM records on a turntable.   Everything can be downloaded, traded, and even movies and TV shows can be watched on devices one carries in ones’ pocket.    Where once we had to call each other, meet at the mall or library to hang out, or as teens cruise downtown to run into friends, now there’s facebook and texting.     We used to be able to escape our parents easily — once we were out the door, we were out of touch (and out of reach).   Now there are cell phones, tracking software, and constant contact.    The internet allows communication across cultures and contexts.

Is there too much technology?  Does all of this dehumanize us?   At one level yes.  All technology even going back thousands of years removes us a bit from the state of nature.  Yet with all due respect to Rousseau, this only means that we are able to alter what is human, perhaps even changing human nature.    It may be de-humanization compared to what we were before, but since we humans are constructing our new selves, it’s still human.    And while the computer, texting and social media are altering who and what we are, the book, telegraph and postal service did that to earlier humans.   So, though Dennis DeYoung’s lyrics are often prophetic, I don’t think there is too much technology — now or in 1982.

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