::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Essay: The Neo-Luddite Handbook

"For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three."
- Alice Kahn

I’ve got enough gray hair to remember the promise of the four-day, 32-hour work week. Technology, we were told, was the key. Technology would increase productivity and that time savings would be generously passed on to workers.

Leisure time would usher in societal revolution. Parents would finally be able to spend enough time with their children. Given the extra time people would volunteer to prepare meals at soup kitchens, coach youth soccer teams, and organize neighborhood clean-ups. Participation in community government would explode and membership at Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs would be at all time highs.

The four-day work week, we were told, would be a boon to civilization – brought to us by the magnificent advances in science and technology.

None of this happened, of course.

Technology did, indeed, increase productivity – to unheard of levels. But private enterprise had no intention of sharing the time-savings with workers. In fact, they did the opposite. They stole even more time.

Why hire two or even three workers when you can use technology to get the same productivity out of one? Corporate America invested heavily in time-saving technology to automate processes and subsequently downsized the workforce. The time savings were passed on to stockholders in the form of higher profits instead. Workers are now faced with chronic overwork and many corporate environments now resemble white-collar sweatshops.

Most workers wish we could return to the good old days of the five-day, 40-hour work week.

That’s been the problem with technology. The promises never pan out. Yet we’re constantly seduced by it. Look at the cell phone. The convenience of knowing the babysitter can contact you in case of an emergency or being able to order take-out Chinese comes with a price – being available all the time. Clients can call you at night or on weekends. Naps are easily disturbed. Conversations are with real, live people are often interrupted.

The cell phone – along with its brethren the Raspberry, Palm Pilot, and the Treo (which add email to the mix) – is like a leash. You become tethered to them. Whoever dials your number – boss, wife, co-workers, and clients – gets to give you a strong tug. Your privacy and leisure time are yanked away.

Telephone and email conversations – now the primary mode of communication at most enterprises – dehumanize people. Co-workers in the same office now email or instant message each other rather than get up and walk 50 feet to talk in person. As a result, real-life interactions have been undermined and reduced in importance. Amazing since most people acknowledge that email is a terrible mode of communication. It’s an excellent tool for sharing information and exchanging documents, but fails to convey body language, tone, nuance, and subtleties involved in true human communication. As a result, email often leads to miscommunication and mistakes. It’s easy to offend people in an email.

The latest technology promise involves Web 2.0 and social networks – Web communities like MySpace, Gather, Flicker and YouTube. There are 65 million people with personalize Web sites at MySpace. They share music, photographs, and blog entries. We’re told these sites are the advent of the Social Web. That this new phase of the Internet brings people together to share, date, debate, and exchange ideas.

Sure. I’ll buy two.

The only problem is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that technology isolates people rather than brings them together. The American Sociological Review released a study last month involving 1,467 adults called “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.”

The study found that since 1985 the number of people who have no one to discuss important matters nearly tripled. Respondents also had fewer close friends and family to discuss personal matters than they did 20 years ago. The study found that our inner circles of intimacy have shrunk and we’ve become more isolated. One of the primary reasons? Technology. Communicating with lots of people on the Internet, it turns out, isn’t the same thing as having friends.

But you don’t have to read a study to figure this out. We’ve all seen the young people on subway cars wearing their iPods – completely disengaged from their surroundings. We’ve sat in the coffee shop next to a young woman tapping away at her laptop focused only on what’s on the screen. We’re seen the businessman at the restaurant obsessively checking his email on his Palm every time it vibrates.

These people aren’t living in the moment. They aren’t participating in the experience of where they are, but escaping it through their music, emails or the Web.

Social networks take this isolation one step further – giving people the illusion of community when in fact it’s just a cold, faceless Web site filled with lonely people clicking away in rooms all by themselves. These social networks may be places to share interests, quips, and sexual banter, but meanwhile your next door neighbor is a stranger and you’ve never even introduced yourself to the girl behind the counter at the Dunkin’ Donuts we frequent daily.

Technology is just a tool and if you don’t use it properly it will steal your time, invade your privacy, disrupt your leisure, and wreck your relationships.

Unplug and join a real social network. It’s called your life.

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Anonymous EMS1 said...
But then how would I read your blog?

Blogger GFS3 said...
DaRK PaRTY now offers a "smoke signal" version. You can read our insightful commentary, literary sketches and interviews from the comfort of your own high mesa.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Have to say I don't really agree with most of what was said, then again the world would be an even more awful place to live in if everyone did agree with one another. But I want to point out that technology is a great time saver, and can't be blamed for some over enthusiastic peoples words.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks Anonymous -- although I'd have to disagree with the time saving aspects of technology. Technology is time encroachment. Cell phone and PDAs make you available after-hours and during weekends. That takes time away from leisure -- and work begins to creep into personal matters.

Anonymous Rob Rupert said...
Thanks for the interesting post. I resisted getting a cell phone for years. I broke down only recently when parental concerns got the best of me (teen-agers out running around). I also like the picture -- enough to want to use it as a book cover, if it hasn't already been so used. Does anyone know who created it? If so, please e-mail me at robert [dot] rupert [at] colorado [dot] edu.

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