There are days when I don’t think I can face the highly intrusive pace of change anymore. And then The Economist (usually a right of center magazine) places a parody of Rodin’s thinker sitting on a toilet seat on its cover suggesting that “Modern science has failed to make anything with such a powerful impact, and that is why a growing band of thinkers claim that the pace of innovation has slowed.” I only wish this were true.1
The day has started with my mobile ringing just as I was opening the morning flood of Yahoo emails. Then the land-line rings and while I am pleased to hear breathing at the other end, the incoming tide of communications, like the pace of daily life, is overwhelming. I cannot be alone in worrying how this on-line flood will affect billions of people around the world.
The editors of the Economist seriously under-estimate the scale of the computer revolution. Not only is it changing our ways of payment and banking, of sending information, and of shopping, but it also is deeply affecting our daily lives. Our personal privacy is diminishing, our free time is being infringed upon, and our imaginations are being corrupted. All this is happening without any genuine public or political discourse. The all-powerful corporate world propagates the belief that the technological advances pushed by market forces are both inevitable and benign.
The daunting question arises: how much longer can we keep up this pace of ever faster and more invasive and intrusive communications? The challenge is enormous because the impact is already taking its toll and the long-term effects are not only unknown, but are not even seriously considered.2
Who is responsible for the avalanche of verbal messages to my brain? Not the government. Not some subversive brain-washing group. One cannot place all the blame on Network Orange or Yahoo, Wikipedia, Facebook, Linked-in or Twitter. All companies not even in existence a few years ago. And now I am even launching my own blog. Am I abetting this electronic tsunami of technology? What surge of new devices and apps will come next?3 I hate even to think about it.
More important than the yet unstudied effects of the internet is the concern that this new technology is undermining our mental processes, such as memory, imagination and attention spans. The internet is also making dramatic intrusions into our personal lives, diminishing our traditional forms of communication — like eye-to-eye contacts and — yes — smell.
While the introduction of computers, mobiles, texting, the internet and global communications are all changing the daily lives of adults at an unprecedented pace, the new formats are accepted as normal by the younger generation. An emerging teenager cannot even recognize that the nature of her or his friendships are changing. The visual introduction of sexuality is coming at ever earlier stages. 10- and 12-year-olds are ‘sexting’ and transmitting images of their genitals to each other.
Social relations for those who are now in their twenties and thirties are equally disrupted by the ease with which new relationships can be entered through thousands of contact sites. Making new acquaintances in pubs or parks or museums is becoming distinctly unfashionable.
And the pace (or should I say “threat”} of change is far from diminishing: we may soon be faced with another radical industrial revolution with unknown consequences, namely nanotechnology. This will use molecules as our building blocks and create computers the size of a blood vessel. The implications of the immense potential for military, medical and commercial applications are staggering.
Indeed, nanotechnology may eventually overwhelm the next stage of civilization. However, this will be at a microscopic level and will not create any new employment opportunities. Some may come to see it as a chance to insert truly micro-devices into our brains.
As it is, I find the excess of information being produced for consumption alarming. There is no way I can keep up. Much of this material can swiftly be classified as “rubbish” but I see it as gradually overwhelming our human capacity to think with clarity and perspective. There will be little space for the development of wisdom — not to mention insight or the establishment of priorities. Might trying to pass on wisdom on the internet become something of an oxymoron?4
We are rapidly moving further and further away from the natural world of which we used to be a part. We are now in almost constant touch with the mechanical world at our fingertips.5 Even if we were to stand still in terms of further technological breakthroughs we can only guess how long it would take future generations to acclimatize to the social changes brought about by the mobile electronic communications of the past thirty years?6
How can we slow down the advance of ever more intrusive technology? Canute could not stop the waves; mass protests on the streets could not affect the speed of the impending advances in technology.
A decisive global slow-down could come from a shift away from capitalism towards a less money/profit driven economic system. But alas, a less greedy, less commercialized, less unequal, less competitive and also less environmentally polluting economy is not being seriously contemplated.
I tried to present such an option with an alternative I named the “Incentive Economy” in my book, Dollars or Democracy. However, this more cooperative and less corporate controlled system has yet to be considered by the hordes of micro-economists and election-focused politicians.
Change also could come through any number of possible catastrophes: Like an accidental nuclear war, an unstoppable pneumonic plague, or a major flare coming from the sun which would down all our electrical appliances. But when I see quite another form of communication in trouble, namely the endemic congestion on our roads, I feel there may be different natural ways in which advances in technology might “slow down.” Perhaps the congestion of the various forms of electronic communication could eventually overwhelm our internet and its storage capacity as well. Luddites please take note.
1The Economist, January 12, 2013
2“Where’s IT Going?” Ian Pearson & Chris Winter
4“Digital Revolution” The Observer, March 10,2013, p.40
5“Scanning The Future,” (1997) Edited by Yorick Blumenfeld
6Towards the Millennium, Optimistic Visions for Change,(1996) Yorick Blumenfeld