As I See It: Ambivalence
April 19, 2021 Victor Rozek
Former business professor Aaron Levenstein once said: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is interesting. But what they hide is vital.” Unlike the bikini wearer, however, statistics are bloodless, void of experience, and often boring. Except of course to statisticians.
Broadly speaking there are two types of statistics: the ones that make your eyes roll to the back of your head, and the ones that make your eyes pop out of your head. This is the latter, courtesy of economist Robert Reich. Reich calculated that in 2020 Jeff Bezos’ net worth rose by $2,378 every second! You read that right. Every second he works, every second he sleeps, every second he’s in the shower or sipping his morning coffee, or doing his best downward dog, the money keeps rolling in.
It’s so surreal it’s hard to know what to make of it; how to unpack what is merely interesting versus what is vital. My initial reaction was an odd combination of “good for him” and “WTF.”
On the one hand, I hate to begrudge a man his good fortune; but on the other, if you’re lucky enough to make $100,000 a year, and you’re feeling good about your earning prowess, just know that it takes old Jeff all of 42 seconds to reach that plateau.
It’s perhaps pointless to dissect a universe I will never inhabit, but my reaction to Bezos’ success is a microcosm of my ambivalence to technology in general: Yes, there are countless ways in which technology benefits us, but WTF? Somewhere between Bill Gates in the garage and Mark Zuckerberg everywhere, we’ve lost control, which is almost always the case when a powerful technology falls into the hands of people who are less intelligent than the ones who created it.
Which is why technology is often blamed for the actions of its users, and why I’m about to join the blamers and hold technology responsible for my pathetic dependence on it. (OK, that’s not a very accountable statement, but I was accountable just a couple of weeks ago and let me tell you it’s exhausting.)
The other day I left the house without my cell phone and although I’ve lived most of my life perfectly well without sprouting a cell phone appendage, suddenly I felt an odd vulnerability being out in the world without a lifeline. I imagine it feeling just a tiny bit like being untethered during a space walk, wondering if I’d be able to grab some part of the space craft as it glides by heedlessly. Without technology, I feel as if I’m no longer of the body; like a Borg without his cube.
Taking a break from technology is often correctly characterized as a good thing: Blessed silence. No pinging, no texts, no Tiks, no Toks, no Tweets, no emails to answer, no news to read, no click bait to avoid, no finding out that all your friends are having a better time than you are. But whatever the benefits, they quickly become overwhelmed by a barrage of imagined catastrophes precipitated by separation. Blessed silence invites the mind to wander.
I never think: I need my phone because Jeff Bezos may just call and offer me a job that pays $1 per second. It’s: What if my car breaks down and I have to walk? What if my wife needs to get ahold of me, can’t, and is annoyed when I get home? What if I’m hungry and want to order take out? Waah waah, waah. Technology has made me soft.
There’s also an element of resentment because I’m basically required to own a variety of devices just to navigate daily life. Every government agency, every medical provider, every airline, every retailer, every grocery store, and most restaurants now direct you to their website should you be dumb enough to try to reach them by phone. For that matter, try getting a COVID-19 vaccination appointment without wandering through the online scheduling maze.
You can live without a car, you can live without a home, but man it’s hard to live without a computer or cellphone.
I recently heard Eddie Murphy say that he never owned a computer. It sounded improbable until I realized Eddie probably has ample staff to perform his computer functions. Eddie probably doesn’t make online appointments at the DMV, or schedule COVID shots. Someone does it for him, and they do it on a computer, which he claims is not his.
Then there’s the lack of control. Once purchased, the device may reside in my home, but it effectively belongs to the people who populate it with software. Either follow a regimen of forced updates or things get slower and less compatible with the rest of the world.
Yes, technology brings empowerment but unearned empowerment comes wrapped in entitlement. Computer technology has conditioned us to feel entitled in almost every aspect of our lives: entitled to instant access to information, to products and services, to people, to entertainment. You can talk to your car, and it will talk back. A new car has more chips than a Tostitos bag. Soon it will take you where you want to go on voice command and we’ll have a generation of people who are more empowered but less capable because they never learned to drive.
Paradoxically, technology offers more freedom within a wider constraint. The world is yours – on a tiny screen. There’s hardly a problem an app won’t solve. Hardly an activity that isn’t welcome. Hardly any reason to walk away from the great enabler in my pocket.
Which is why Bezos, Gates, and Zuckerberg are all worth over $100 billion. That wields a lot of power and a lot of influence, which, like the technology they created, is also beyond our control. It is shameful that Amazon employees were reduced to complaining about insufficient PPE and dangerous working conditions, when the sum of less than an hour of Bezos’ profits could have solved many of their concerns.
Meanwhile, with each day that passes, technology becomes ever more dominant, ever more essential.
We are already using artificial intelligence on an enterprise scale. It won’t be long before it’s used on a planetary scale. Computer intelligence is evolving much quicker than human intelligence. According to IEEE Spectrum, “A quantum computer with 300 mutually entangled qubits could theoretically perform more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the visible universe.”
What could possibly go wrong?