Technology helps make you feel important. I mean, really, I do it. For sure I do it. If I’m sitting around, like I am now, and there’s a couple of different computers going, with different shiny screens and telltales lit up, and a 1 TB network storage megadrive hooked up, and my cool-looking cell phone sitting on the desk next to my couple of flash drives, SD cards and canon digital camera, man, I just feel like all is right with the damn world and I must be some kind of success.
Technology lets us feel this way. Technology is a pet. We need to stroke its fur. There, there, little shiny technological thingy, there there. And we listen to it purr, and sometimes we have to take it to the vet, and… you get the idea.
Let’s say you’re a case worker and know some people in some pretty unfortunate places. You can picture it: in the living room, the couch has orange stuffing coming out of the seams, the carpet is stained, the bills aren’t paid, it’s cold and smells like cigarettes. But there’s a brand-new VISIO flat screen TV in the corner, you can bet! Hallelujah! And as the renter of the place stands there in jeans hanging down around his glutes, and speaks to the social worker there to check on him with a monosyllabic vocabulary that consists mainly of grunts and F-bombs, with his dirty thumb he’s molesting this giant Smartphone. This huge, shiny phone with maps of the solar system, global positioning satellite tracking, a couple hundred new-fangled apps, and the RAM and storage capacity of some of the computers they used while making Jurassic Park.
Do we need all of this jazzmatazz? No. We do not. We may tell ourselves we do, once we get hooked on the things, once we no longer know how to make plans in advance with another human being and meet them somewhere at a designated time without texting them every two minutes prior to the engagement. We say, “How did I ever live without this?” But, you did. Chances are, you used your own brain to do a lot of the things the shiny devices do for you now. Even the guy in the droopy pants with the bad language, he knew how to look something up in the phonebook, he knew how to look up when it was dark out to see what the stars looked like.
It’s fun. Mostly, technology provides us endless fun and distractions. We can convince ourselves of the essential role our devices play in our lives, but really, we’re justifying an addiction, a distraction, a bit of fun, and feeling a little more important than we normally might. To have all the powers of modern industry at your fingertips – people say that these are tools. And they are. And how they are used is a reflection of the culture. We happened to be a culture that, while a third of the world’s population fights to stay alive through famine, disaster, and warfare, we actually have a TV show called Survivor to entertain us. While Egypt uses facebook to coordinate a revolution, we use it to post about our kitty cat doing backflips, or someone slipping in dog poop. Sure, we may get political with our social media, we may tuck into our shiny devices and click madly away, just like I am doing now, and feel we are using these tools to express our voices over certain issues of the day. But after a week or so of texting a number to send relief to Haiti, or Japan, we’re right back to talking silliness. And that’s fine, that’s fine. It’s good to be free and able to talk about arts and culture and issues. Like John Adams is supposed to have said, “I must study politics and war so my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry and music.” I might add, “So their children can play video games and write posts on IMDB.”
There is no end in sight to what our sons may inherit from us in terms of technology. There are copy machines purporting to make three-dimensional objects. Speaking of 3D: while the films only came out last year, the TVs are out now, and on their heels is the 4D craze. We will never reach the apex of technology at this rate, so long as we continue to consumer upgrade after upgrade, justifying to ourselves either that it is necessary, or just plain fun. The real motivation is that none of us want to feel left behind by the herd. And we are moving so fast that it’s almost impossible to discern where to draw the line. Do you really need to be accessible by phone, text, email and global satellite 24 hours a day? Well, maybe you say “No, I don’t need to, but why not? It’s fun, and I use it how I want to.” The thing is, whether or not you believe in environmental degradation, whether you are the type to say “let them car pool in LA, let me have my damn phone,” or not, you have to admit that there’s got to be an awful lot of junk parts from antiquated technology – we’re talking new phone crazes every six months, new computers every fiscal quarter – and those junk parts are piling up.
I know it’s not a very compelling argument: “Stop upgrading to save the planet from all the junk,” especially when you could talk about recycling, you could cite companies that melt down all that old oil-based plastic casings and bits of silicon allotropes. I’m really not even here to make that argument; it would fall on deaf ears, anyway. Nobody thinks they’re doing any harm when it comes to their one life, their one little bitty shiny technologic thingy.
Instead, I’ll say this: The idea that we feel smart because of technology is both funny and a tremendous irony when you take into account what some people are predicting about the future; that the acceleration of technology is so significant that we’re rocketing towards a time in the near future when the machines we’ve created – that’s right, our shiny little technologic thingy pets that make us feel special – are going to exceed our intelligence. And what happens when our precious little devices hit that moment of true artificial intelligence, and start rapidly surpassing us in brain power? We become the second most dominant life form on the planet, not the first.
Now, no – you can stop frowning. I’m not talking about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Matrix, or any other movie or book with cyborgs walking around or supercomputers enslaving the humans. Probably the supercomputers will behave like supernerds and be more interesting in racking up the winnings on Jeopardy! than taking over our measly planet. Sure, okay, they may enslave us a little tiny bit, but it will be by forcing us to stay up all night as they annihilate us playing Trivial Pursuit.
Or maybe they figure out the meaning of life. They are given the motherlode of quartz, which is said by some to contain massive information about the history of the world, and they begin to analyze and interpret an unfathomable amount of information. Maybe they find proof of God. Either way, they’re likely to be too busy wrapped up in academic pursuits than to run around trying to fry us with their ray guns.
Still, I may be a bit silly here, but this is what we’re looking at: technology that’s literally smarter than us within the next three or four decades. You don’t have to take my word for it, either. Check our Raymond Kurzweil and his predictions, or Vernor Vinge, or mathematician I.J. Good, and you’ll see I’m not just whistling dixie. Some people much smarter than me (it doesn’t take much) are saying that at the rate we’re going, soon we’ll be the number two guy around here.
Speaking of smarts, okay, maybe the guy in the living room with the pee-stained rug is already fighting a losing battle with artificial intelligence. Maybe he’s already been passed by. And maybe a guy like me, maybe I’m not far off. But you, you’re smart. So before you get the new upgrade, or blindly endorse the next product coming down the pike, you just might want to stop and think for a minute. Think, while you remain the dominant lifeform on the planet, about spending the rest of your days forced to play Jeopardy!, or hold all the parts like a nurse assisting a surgeon as your home computer builds the inter-dimensional rocket ship its sure will find God in Outer Space, while quietly assuring you that the meaning of life will be found in this collection of nine quartz-rich crystal skulls.