As I See It: The Access Disconnect
June 28, 2004 Victor Rozek
From the very beginning, technology has been a two-edged sword. As our ancestors discovered, fire warms, but it also burns. We harnessed electrical power but lost the wonder of free flowing rivers. We enjoy the unprecedented mobility afforded by automobiles, but our air is polluted, our roads are congested, and teenagers find a handy means to increase pregnancy rates. Cell phones offer convenience but are counterbalanced by the annoyance of hearing the damn things going off in public places and the intrusive expectation that we will always be reachable.
It’s the first law of technology: we split the atom, then the atom splits us.
The paradox of technology is that it is both empowering and disabling. While the advantages of technology magnify possibility and raise expectations, they also create dependency (even motels now advertise Internet access) and a baseline for feelings of entitlement (people who think it’s okay to answer cell phones in crowded theaters). As such rudeness would attest, the core variable that determines which way the technology sword cuts is human behavior. Whether a hammer is a building tool or a weapon ultimately depends on whether the person wielding it is striking the head of a nail or the head of a neighbor.
Technology always produces a banquet of unanticipated outcomes, and therein lies much of its fascination. Consequences, foreseen and unforeseen, intended and unintended, leak out, separate and distinct from the original purpose of the technology. Like the enthusiastic announcer selling drugs on television who tells you that his product will lower your cholesterol but may cause kidney failure and rectal bleeding, technology should come with its own disclaimers.
Certainly the computer is not immune from the caprice of human nature. In our hands it, too, is full of promise and peril. A system capable of modeling huge weather systems can also be used to develop a new generation of nightmarish weapons. Computers allow us to map the genome and unravel the complexities of protein folding, but they also collect unimaginable amounts of data about our health, habits, and preferences, and in so doing threaten our privacy. Thus, the unintended consequence of pervasive computing is that it is experienced as invasive by many of the customers it’s designed to serve. Similarly, we have come to know the Internet as a realm that embodies both virtues and viruses. It brings the world to our fingertips, but also brings anonymous attacks and spam for penile enlargements, prescription drug purchases, and instant university degrees, none of which the Internet’s developers could foresee.
Computers are especially pliable in the hands of the imaginative because, unlike the hammer, their application is so broad. From moon shots to moon pies, from pharmaceuticals to pornography, the computer has been spliced to human aspiration and has become a logarithmic extension of our will. Faster than a personal assistant, more powerful than a library card, able to leap continents at a single keystroke.
In so far as the computer has become the alpha tool for achieving many of our aspirations, it should, one would think, also serve as a mirror of our values, an indicator of what is important. Just as the size and modest fuel efficiency of today’s cars reflect particular social values, so, it would be reasonable to assume, does the application of computing technology.
But if there is anything we can deduce from the use of information technology it is that our society has no dominant values or constraints. Perhaps a case can be made that commerce is the common denominator and, granted, everyone is trying to make a living. But having said that, every conceivable aspiration and agenda, both noble and foul, commercial and non-commercial, is being advanced with the help of computing. Computers and the global growth of the Internet are nothing if not monuments to diversity.
If we can say anything with certainty it is that access has become a driving social value that, for millions of people who rely daily on computers, approaches necessity. Access to information, access to software tools, access to services, access to entertainment, access to each other.
But, as with all technological good intentions, on-demand access has produced its own unintended consequences, among them isolation. The irony is that one of the byproducts of access was predicted to be interpersonal connection. It was commonly accepted that telephony, computing, and the Internet were shrinking the world and drawing us closer together. No walls, no borders, no boundaries; new opportunities for dialogue and understanding, a new way to connect. To be fair, connection of a sort is occurring. But on balance, access created the opposite result.
Information technology made it possible for us to isolate in ways that were previously unimaginable. For one thing, all of the simple interactions that previously required two people now require one person and a computer. Need information? What used to necessitate a trip to the library is now available online, and directory assistance operators have been replaced by machines. So-called “customer service” involves pressing an endless succession of buttons on your phone and listening to prerecorded instructions. In many instances it is impossible to reach a human being regardless of the nature of the problem. “Your emergency is important to us. . . .”
Today I can fill my car with gas by sliding a credit card into a machine that authorizes the sale without human involvement. Then I can drive through the Versateller at the bank and make an automatic withdrawal, again without human interaction. And I can take that money to the supermarket, pick up groceries, and go through the self-check counter, where a computer scans and weighs my purchases while an artificially eager voice walks me through the process.
The use of cell phones isolates us in crowds. Our freeways are clogged like abused arteries, but thousands of people insist on inching along, isolated in their individual vehicles. At work, networks allow us to isolate in our ergonomic cubicles while sharing information with people who may be as close as the next cubicle or as far away as the next continent. Meetings that once required “face time” are now conducted online. Living room conversations are held in virtual chat rooms. And for a growing number of people, even dating, the most social of activities, begins online. Tired of the bar scene and unable to meet suitable candidates for partnership, thousands of people hungry for connection join dating services and isolate in their homes and apartments, pointing and clicking their way through anonymous bios, wondering how much of what they’re reading is fictitious.
Which brings us to another unintended consequence of access.
Assuming we already have a relationship or manage to find one online, our exposure to ubiquitous computing technology has created a subtle but profound difference in our expectations and the way we relate to one another. The excellence and reliability of information technology, which we have come to take for granted, have trained us to expect perfection and immediacy not only in our transactions but in our relationships as well.
While perfection and immediacy are reasonable standards for computers, they are wildly unrealistic for people. Yet for those of us accustomed to having our business, information, and entertainment needs elegantly met by machines, it’s hard to understand why the same level of transparent service and tireless attention to our whims is lacking at home. How is it that our partners can be late for dinner, or forget our birthday, or fail to notice we require their full and immediate attention? For that matter, how can our partner have any needs at all; why can’t they be more like our computers and never complain? And when they do complain and carry on, why can’t we just reboot them?
We’ve become less patient, too. Poor response time is unacceptable, whether from our PC or our spouse. Computers, at least, are generally predictable and dependable, while people act more like Windows. Computers are comparatively undemanding and serve us without thought of reciprocity; but most everyone, except maybe Mother Theresa, wants something in return, and as far as I know she’s not available for dating. You can turn off computers when you tire of them; it doesn’t work that way with your partner. You can upgrade your computer; much harder to do with your spouse. Push a few keys on a computer and you can get what you want; some relationships last for decades and people never get what they want. And computers don’t care how you dress, how much you weigh, how much money you have, or what your breath smells like. Small wonder many people prefer to spend time surfing the Internet than spending time with their partners.
Let’s face it. The computer is displacing humans in our affection, and the fall of Western civilization is imminent. (You’d know that if you weren’t so isolated.) We are computerized, digitized, transistorized lemmings heading toward the relationship abyss. While we play another game of Free Cell, families are dissolving and institutions are crumbling. Couple this with the unintended consequences of liberalizing laws governing marriage, and the first union between man and machine may only be days away. Eek! The line must be drawn at silicon. A constitutional amendment is clearly in order. After all, a union between a human and a computer would produce the most distressing of all offsprings . . . a programmer.