If we say technology makes us better, while facts show that many of the changes caused by technology includes among them things which are not good, then what things in life have become better due to technology?
Setting aside for the moment information technology–as defined by the Writer–in general when we speak of technology it will involve humans and technological manifestations — whether as direct users or as non-users who are also affected by it. But does this apply for all of us in general and specifically in relation to each our specialized fields, including among them the artists?
Technology Makes Us Better; Our Oldest Computer, Upgraded
by John Tierney
Published: September 28, 1997
When the Sojourner’s tiny wheels rolled over the Martian surface on July 5, it was in some ways a bigger leap for mankind than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. You may not have realized that if you were watching network television, which gave the Mars landing relatively short shrift. But that was the beauty of this extraterrestrial event: you didn’t need a television to follow it.
Anyone in the world with a computer and an Internet connection could see pictures from the spacecraft. You could study Martian sunsets or put on cardboard 3-D glasses to take in a 360-degree view of the landscape. With a few clicks of the mouse, you could read a treatise on Martian geology, check out the latest weather conditions on the planet, sit in on a news conference or watch scientists issuing commands from the mission-control room. One Web site provided a recipe for throwing a Mars Madness Celebration — red and brown M & M’s were recommended — and gave directions to dozens of such gatherings across America. Other sites let you participate in on-line chats with planetary scientists as well as religious fundamentalists convinced that the mission was a hoax being staged in the Arizona desert. During the week of the landing, the various Mars Web sites were visited more than 200 million times.
It was easily the most popular event in the history of the Internet, proof at last that humanity could use this new medium for something loftier than viewing pictures of a naked Pamela Anderson Lee. The Moon landing was the apotheosis of the old technological order: a big-budget achievement of central planning, a cold-war triumph of the military-industrial complex packaged by politicians and presented to the masses by the media establishment. The Mars visit was a low-budget operation with a charming quirkiness to it, a peaceful scientific exercise instead of a propaganda victory over an enemy nation. In 1969, Communist authorities suppressed coverage of the Moon landing; this year, Russians followed the Mars mission on the World Wide Web, using the very machines that helped end the cold war.
Is this a better world? Has technology made us better? Tools can’t change human nature, but they can encourage or suppress certain qualities, and most people would probably agree on what constitutes ”better”: wiser, happier, kinder, more equitable and cooperative, less duplicitous and belligerent. The tricky part is defining ”us.”
In the two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, individuals reaped enormous personal benefits that were accompanied by some social liabilities. As people abandoned farms and small towns, they lost communal bonds; as personal incomes rose, public air and water got dirtier; as power became concentrated in capital cities, elites controlled new tools of mass communication and mass destruction. Indoor plumbing and washing machines freed women of onerous work, but there was less socializing at wells. Trains and cars enabled workers to move away from industrial neighborhoods, but these suburbanites spent more time alone in their cars and backyards, lapping up the wisdom of distant publishers and broadcasters instead of chatting with relatives and neighbors. Although new technology is often described as a Faustian bargain, historically it has involved a trade-off not between materialism and spirituality — lugging water from the well was not a spiritually uplifting exercise for most people, no matter how much it might appeal to the Unabomber — but between individual freedom and social virtue.
Today’s technologies offer a better deal for everyone. Individuals are acquiring more control over their lives, their minds and their bodies, even their genes, thanks to the transformations in medicine, communications, transportation and industry. At the same time, these technologies are providing social benefits and undoing some of the damage of the past. Technology helps to conserve natural resources and diminish pollution. Today’s farmers are so efficient that unneeded cropland is reverting to forests and parks; the most high-tech countries have the cleanest air and water. The Information Revolution, besides enabling people to visit Mars at will, is fostering peaceful cooperation on Earth by decentralizing power. Political tyrants and demagogic warmongers are losing control now that their subjects have tools to communicate directly with one another. People are using the tools to do their jobs without leaving their families. They’re forming new communities in cyberspace and forming new bonds with their neighbors in real space. Technology has the potential to increase individual freedom and strengthen community — even though at the moment, so many people complain it does neither.
Technology’s victims have become familiar images in the media: on-line addicts who don’t know their next-door neighbors; satellite- dish owners who have stopped reading; computer users overwhelmed by E-mail, infuriated by software glitches and baffled by incomprehensible manuals; workers displaced by machines or forced to put in longer hours; frazzled parents, especially working mothers, too exhausted and busy to spend time with their children. We contrast these pathetic figures with images of a happier past, of families quietly relaxing in a pre-machine age when people still had time to read, contemplate the meaning of life, visit with their relatives and neighbors.
But when exactly were those halcyon days? If pre-machine means before the Industrial Revolution, the average person then was short-lived, illiterate and oblivious to most culture beyond the village. Women’s lives were consumed with domestic chores and continual pregnancies, and women were especially unlikely to be educated. Marriage records from a region of 1750’s England, then one of the world’s most literate societies, show that two-thirds of the bridegrooms could sign their names, but only one-third of the brides could. It would be hard to call that a better world.
Living conditions and educational opportunities certainly improved after the Industrial Revolution, but people still didn’t have much time to sit around discussing the classics or communing with nature. In the middle of the last century, the typical man in Britain worked more than 60 hours a week, with no annual vacation, from age 10 until he died at about 50. That left him with about 90,000 hours of free time over the course of his adult life — barely a third of the free time enjoyed by today’s workers. This trend shows no sign of abating, says Jesse H. Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University. He projects that by the middle of the next century, the average workweek in America will be shorter than 28 hours.
Since 1965, Americans have gained an average of almost one hour of leisure each day, according to social scientists at the University of Maryland who have been studying people’s ”time diaries” over the past three decades. Americans are now spending a little more time reading books and magazines, exercising, pursuing hobbies and attending adult-education courses. Evidence from the diaries and other research shows that in recent decades, people have been going more frequently to art museums, the theater and the opera.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, the diaries show that the workweek has been shortening, that women have as much leisure time as men and that parents are spending as much time with their children as they did in the 1960’s. These children, unfortunately, are less likely to live with two parents, which may be partly a consequence of technology that has made divorce and single parenthood less of an economic burden: men and women are presumably more inclined to live separately now that they can both support themselves outside the home, relying on machines to make clothes, clean house and do most food preparation. But new technology is hardly the only cause of the traditional family’s decline, and in any case it’s hard to get too nostalgic for the days when women had no choice but to stay in the kitchen.
Why, if men and women have more time and opportunity than ever to pursue their dreams, do they grouse so much about modern technology? One reason is that new technologies like computers usually are more trouble than they’re worth — at first. They’re hard to learn and create resentment among workers, particularly the unskilled ones who fear displacement and are jealous of higher-paid experts in the new technology. The introduction last century of electricity to factories did not immediately increase workers’ pay and productivity; the widespread benefits came only after several decades, when factory managers and workers finally learned how to use the new motors efficiently. Then wages increased for everyone, raising the standard of living and creating new kinds of jobs. Luddites have been warning for two centuries that technology destroys jobs, but the overall effect of automation is to free workers to concentrate on other, less-tedious tasks. Today’s workers are richer and more cultured than their Luddite ancestors (and better dressed, thanks to mechanical looms). While they may have fewer jobs in the textile industry, they have more opportunities to work as teachers, social workers, travel agents, personal trainers, writers and museum curators.
As much discomfort as the personal computer has caused, there’s no reason to assume that the machines will remain complicated. Gadgets become simpler as technologies mature and marketers appeal to the masses. George Orwell’s despair over cars, gramophones and telephones was at least partly due to the crude state of those technologies in his day. The automobile was a relatively unreliable, high-maintenance machine until a couple of decades ago. Gramophones were cumbersome and yielded tinny sounds. Telephones were forever disturbing the peace of people trying to eat, converse or read. The phone didn’t become wholly civilized until people were freed to ignore it by the invention of the answering machine — a contraption that was despised before coming to be regarded as a necessity. Today, E-mail is a novelty that can be disruptive, but pioneers are developing techniques for coping, like automated responses when there’s no time to deal with an overloaded mailbox and filters to sift out the junk mail.
Another reason we grouse about modernity is that our expectations are higher. The middle class wants perquisites once limited to the rich, from material luxuries to cultural experiences to intellectual fulfillment. Our ancestors may have been content to pass the time on the porch chatting with neighbors about the weather and crop prices, but they didn’t have many other choices. Today most people — including those academics who rhapsodize about traditional communities while working in offices far from their hometowns — demand more stimulation than their relatives and neighbors can provide. We feel more rushed because we have more possibilities.
”Free time is increasing, but not as fast as our sense of the necessary,” says Geoffrey Godbey, a co-author of ”Time for Life,” a report on the time-diary research project. ”With technology we’ve upped the ante. Instead of corresponding with 6 or 7 people, we have 150 E-mail partners. Thirty years ago most people didn’t bother shampooing their carpets or blow-drying their hair or making their own bread, but now that they have the equipment, they have higher standards.”
The most dispiriting trend discovered by Godbey and his colleagues is the couch-potato paradox: people have been watching more television even though they rate it among their least-favorite forms of leisure. Americans average more than 16 hours a week, an increase of 4 hours since 1965, which means that most of our recently acquired free time has gone to the tube. A die-hard optimist could argue that television has been improving, that people are deriving joy and enlightenment from all those new cable channels, but it would be just as easy to argue that they’re staring at cubic zirconium rings. The increase in tube-watching seems especially perverse considering that it coincides with a decline of two hours a week in the amount of time people spend socializing, an activity they consider much more enjoyable than television. A society of solitary people sitting at home enviously watching the camaraderie on ”Friends” does not seem like a triumph of the communications revolution.
The good news is that people with computers are watching less television, and they’ve increased the amount of time spent socializing with family and friends (partly because they get together to play computer games). At the moment only about 40 percent of American households have computers, but the percentage is rising as the machines become cheaper and easier to use. Over the past year, home computers have begun outselling televisions in the United States, a statistic that cheers George Gilder, who in 1990 wrote a book titled ”Life After Television.” Now the editor of the Gilder Technology Report, he expects the broadcast-television empires to collapse — and an intellectual culture to flourish — once the masses can easily receive video and text from a computer network as diverse as the Internet.
”When I debate network television executives,” Gilder says, ”they come up to me afterward and say: ‘Look, you don’t understand. People like the stuff we put on. We’ve done market surveys and we’ve found that people are boobs.’ Well, I’m a boob when faced with conventional TV. It’s too much work to find something good, and if you do, it probably won’t accord with your particular interests. Television is a lowest-common-denominator medium even with 50 or 500 channels. You’d never go to a bookstore with only 500 titles. In the book or the magazine industries, 99.7 percent of the stuff is by definition not for you, and that’s what the Internet is like. It’s a first-choice medium with a bias toward each individual’s area of excellence instead of the few commonly shared interests, which are mostly prurient and sensational.”
Now that the computer is combining the television with the telephone, it’s clear that George Orwell got things precisely wrong in ”1984.” He was remarkably prescient to envision society’s being transformed by a two-way communication device called the telescreen, but he didn’t foresee that these telescreens would promote freedom. One-way television is useful to Big Brother, but two-way communication devices undermine central authority by communicating with one another. Totalitarian countries have fewer telephones than televisions; democracies have more telephones.
Why was Orwell so technophobic, so sure that telescreens would promote tyranny and war? Peter Huber, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who analyzes the mistakes of ”1984” in his recent book, ”Orwell’s Revenge,” finds the answer in an essay Orwell wrote imagining how humans could free themselves of the drudgery of washing dishes. In this 1945 essay, Orwell considers the possibility of paper plates but settles on another solution: ”Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial, of course) in return.” Orwell envisions a dishwashing factory run by a public agency — Big Brother’s Ministry of Crockery, as Huber calls it.
”The thought of private, automatic dishwashing machines never even surfaces,” Huber writes. ”For Orwell, the centralization of powerful machines is inescapable economic destiny in the industrial age.” The most graphic refutation of Orwell was the famous Apple commercial broadcast during the 1984 Super Bowl, in which the enslaved masses were liberated by a lone woman hurling a sledgehammer at a demagogue on a huge telescreen.
At the time it was a wonderful image of the home computer’s revolutionary potential. In hindsight, it’s even more apt, because the target of the attack, I.B.M., which then seemed to be the omnipotent Big Blue, was about to be humbled. It was more Wizard of Oz than Big Brother. The company had dominated the era of mainframe computers, but it floundered in the late 1980’s when it faced competition from upstarts offering cheaper, decentralized machines.
As these personal devices proliferate, it’s becoming impossible for political leaders to censor information. Africa’s leaders can control newspapers, but citizens in remote villages are now getting uncensored news from Africa Online. And as information becomes central to economies, the incentives for tyrants to wage war are diminishing. Military conquest of foreign lands made a certain amount of sense when the victors acquired manpower and resources from farms, mines and factories. Access to scarce natural resources was vital — in the Middle Ages, armies fought wars over salt. Today wealth is based more and more on information, not natural resources, which is why the Congo is poor despite its vast mineral reserves, and why Hong Kong is rich even though it must import food and drinking water. The Beijing autocrats may have acquired title to Hong Kong’s real estate, but they haven’t conquered it. They can’t seal its borders or appropriate its wealth. If they try to stop Hong Kong’s telescreens from communicating, computer keyboards around the world will respond, and Hong Kong’s money will start to flow away, followed shortly by its populace.
Now that the specter of Big Brother is receding, today’s critics of technology have been focusing on the opposite danger: too much freedom. Conservatives worry that traditional values are threatened by on-line crudity; liberals worry that social injustice and selfishness will prevail in the unregulated realm of cyberspace. The critics correctly see that governments are losing some of their power to impose laws and moral standards, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to chaos and cruelty. Humans developed sociable rules and moral codes long before the era of centralized governments. The Internet may look like a dangerously anarchic world, but it’s actually fairly similar to the ancient environment in which humans evolved to become the most cooperative, virtuous creatures on earth.
The original Information Revolution occurred during the Pleistocene, a decentralized era if there ever was one, when hunter-gatherers on the African savanna developed a powerful new computer: the human brain. The brain evolved to its large size because its information-processing capacity enabled humans to band together and increase their chances of survival. The size of a primate’s brain correlates directly with the size of its social group, and the formula worked out by scientists indicates that the human brain is sized for a group of about 150, which by no coincidence is the number in a typical band of hunter-gatherers.
The large brain enabled our ancestors to work together because they had so much information about one another. They knew whom to trust because they could store memories of past behavior and obtain news about others’ reputations. They developed instincts and customs that stigmatized selfishness and encouraged voluntary cooperation, especially within the band but also with outsiders. Other animals make sacrifices for the common good of their immediate kin, performing acts of altruism that insure the survival of their mutual genes, but humans go further. ”We are just about the only animals who act altruistically toward nonrelatives,” says Matt Ridley, a zoologist and the author of ”The Origins of Virtue,” a new book analyzing the evolution and economics of cooperative behavior. ”Humans can be selfish, of course, but what makes us special is our instinct to be nice to one another. Every culture defines virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behavior, and vice as antisocial behavior.”
This cooperative spirit has made possible the division of labor, which has been the source of all wealth, technology and culture. Just as Stone Age toolmakers independently developed complex trading networks for obtaining rock blades from distant tribes, 11th-century merchants established a trading system across Europe without any central guidance or enforcement authority. The merchants traveling among disparate kingdoms developed their own legal code and observed it voluntarily because they knew that a violator would be ostracized and unable to conduct business. The mere communication of information was enough to make them behave honorably.
”The Information Revolution is taking us back toward our better social instincts,” Ridley says. ”The Industrial Revolution helped centralize authority, creating hierarchical bureaucracies that tried to coerce cooperation but often brought out the most selfish instincts in both the rulers and their subjects. The way to regain community spirit is to have small institutions and horizontal networks of equals who voluntarily cooperate, like the people you see chatting on the Internet today. These virtual communities formed spontaneously because our brains are naturally inclined to this sort of information exchange. It’s what we spent most of our time doing in the Pleistocene.”
The Pleistocene savanna makes a good image for the Internet: a wide-open frontier being settled without any central planning. A few sociopaths are out there spreading computer viruses, and encounters among strangers can provoke viciously uncivil ”flame” wars. But rules of etiquette are evolving as people coalesce into communities and networks. By trading information, they’re discovering whom to trust and whom to avoid. They’re writing E-mail letters to relatives and scheduling meetings with friends. Some, like merchants, are cooperating for profit, but a surprising number seem to be acting out of pure goodwill. They’re freely providing information, from software to consumer advice to counsel for the lovelorn.
Most of the information is of no interest to most people, which is why the Internet can seem so pointless. My first few forays persuaded me that it was the world’s most effective way to waste time. But in researching this article, I decided to give it another try. I had just read a good review of ”Data Smog,” a book by David Shenk about the dangers of the Information Revolution, so I looked for it among the 2.5 million books at the Amazon.com Web site. I found it right away, along with an assortment of reviews from newspapers and magazines. Some of the most succinct analysis (”Excellent at describing info glut, not so hot at solutions”) came from laypeople who had volunteered their own comments.
There was also an area — ”Check out these titles!” — listing other books ordered by buyers of this one, an extraordinarily useful cross-referencing feature. I began clicking from book to book, each time benefiting from the expertise of previous buyers to discover new related titles. It was like going from one Pleistocene water hole to another, at each stop picking up advice and directions to the next one.
Within a couple of hours I had found enough technophobic literature to keep George Orwell happy for years — hundreds of books ranging from old scholarly critiques of the Industrial Revolution to titles like ”Surviving the Media Jungle” and ”Under Technology’s Thumb.” I discovered ”Technolopoly,” by Neil Postman, revealing that America has become the world’s ”totalitarian technocracy,” a place with no ”transcendent sense of purpose or meaning.”
Within a week, Amazon.com had graciously delivered to my door a small library assailing its own electronic technology. I read ”Data Smog” — which decried the Internet’s ”fragmented, asynchronous, decentralized ‘free-market’ culture where the public good is sacrificed” — as well as Clifford Stoll’s ”Silicon Snake Oil” and ”Amusing Ourselves to Death,” another lament by Postman. I went through treatises on information have-nots and spiritually deprived Internet surfers. I learned about a degraded electronic culture that is rendering books obsolete — an ominous trend revealed in books purchased on line at the largest, most helpful bookstore in history. I tried to take the warnings seriously, but as the experts described the terrible plight of Americans drowning in data, there was something I couldn’t get out of my mind.
It was the line spoken by Emperor Joseph II after the premiere of ”The Abduction From the Seraglio”: ”Too many notes, my dear Mozart.” He was expressing the feeling common among the day’s elite that Mozart’s complex music was too fast-paced and stimulating for the average listener.
Like new music, new technology is always disturbing, especially to the establishment, and it always causes unforeseen problems. The agricultural and industrial revolutions were accompanied by new plagues, pollutants and weapons of destruction. Today’s revolution will bring troubles and trade-offs, but we can cope with them. Transmitting information from one willing individual to another is hardly a new menace.
Like Mozart’s music, this is something our brains are equipped to handle. This is what we’re good at, and what makes us better.
John Tierney is a staff writer for the Magazine. In May, he wrote about the debate over rent stabilization in New York.