Technology’s dark side is getting brighter

Posted: 03.28.13

One of the panels at SXSW that we didn’t actually see but really really wish we did was a debate between University of Michigan at Dearborn philosophy lecturer David Skrbina, billed as the Unabomber’s pen pal, and writer/philosopher Peter Ludlow from Northwestern University. As you might expect, Skrbina goes to some lengths to distance himself from Kaczynski’s crimes, but he points out that the guy did have some valid points when it came to the dangers of technology. Skrbina cites cellphone addiction, toxic stress levels, ADD, autism, and a whole host of mental disorders as side effects of our love affair with technology.

Ludlow counters that to accept Skrbina’s view in its entirety is to practically cripple oneself in modern society; he cites the advantages we enjoy of better ways to keep in touch. Or, at least I think he said that—it’s a teensy weensy bit possible I’m slipping my own opinions in to what I’ve read about Ludlow’s presentation. I figure I’m in the clear, unless you were there or you’re Ludlow

Ludlow concedes that technology has its dark side, but he sees no advantage to trying to limit our use of technology. Rather, he argues, we need to protect ourselves from those who would control technology for us. His position is that as consumers, we need to take control of technology rather than let those in power try to control us with it. This is the part I like and I believe in, from down to the very geekiest levels up to high levels of communication. If you don’t understand how photos can be manipulated, you might be willing to accept images of bombs over Lebanon, rockets shooting up from Korea, or the flawless beauty of a fashion model. It’s important to understand privacy controls, computer safety, anti-piracy laws, and maybe even Internet etiquette. For instance, and here I speak for all of us, do not look at your email every 10 seconds—really, I mean it. If you at least try, I will too. Also, you know, when we’re texting, you don’t have to answer each time, right? k? LOL.

These things are going to become much more important as politicians scramble to better take advantage of the digital tools available to them, but it won’t be just politicians. We’re already seeing terrible behavior having greater and greater effects as Internet trolls grab the controls and hacktivists of all description push their agenda. It’s not just the responsibility of law enforcement, or government, it’s important for individu¬als to improve their own filters when confronted with the mountains of information—good, bad, and evil—that’s being thrown at us. The level of Internet pollution is just going to get worse before it gets better.

So, uh-oh, I’ve just about argued my way over to Skrbina’s point of view. He’s afraid we can’t just take the good and avoid the bad. He sees too much dependence on technology as a threat to people, resulting in a loss of freedom.
Those of us working on weekends and during dinner probably get Skrbina’s point, and most of us are probably too far gone to do much about it. We’re technology junkies. Jenna Wortham wrote a nice Bits Blogfor the New York Times about Skrbina’s idea. She too admits she’s powerless against the lure of technology.

However, the secret to our salvation probably is going to come not from less technology, but from more technology. Sure, right now we’re absurdly connect¬ed to our phones. People are having car wrecks because they can’t resist one last text, and people are not paying attention to each other when they’re together because they’re following each other on Facebook. But lookie, that young woman who walked into a fountain while looking at her phone was at least out and about at the mall. She wasn’t chained to a computer. And finally, now so many people are connected, mothers are hearing from their children again. It’s not the weekly phone call, but it could well be regular email letters and it’s just going to get better.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told her troops to come home, you’re needed in the office. More companies may be doing this. Intentional or not, what’s she’s doing has an unstated flip side. She is setting limits on work. In the case of Yahoo, you come in to work. You go home to not work. It’s something we have to learn again. The fact that we can access our work anywhere at any time should comfort us with the knowledge that we aren’t slaves to work. We don’t have to drop everything to get something done, or respond to each and every text, and email. It is always there. We don’t need a Unabomber to tell us that, but it might be nice to call home. Your mom will tell you.