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Digital Technology: The Noise of Modern Life – Or a Past Desire of Humanity?

February 13, 2011

I was reading an interesting article in Granta (One Hundred Fears of Solitude by Hal Crowther, in Summer 2010 issue) about the noise of modern life – specifically modern technology.  It is an interesting article that bemoans the technology yet admits a reluctance to do without it.  In many respects the tone of the article can be summed up in this quote it quotes (stay with me!) by Max Palevsky, founder of Intel (spoken in 2008, sadly now deceased, p.106):

I don’t own a computer.  I don’t own a cellphone, I don’t own any electronics.  I do own a radio.

There is much to unpack in the sentence.  The article does a god job of it, but I’d add, notice the semantic footwork whereby Palevsky re-classifies a radio as not electronic.  It is almost as if he sees older technology as natural?  Here’s another quote (p.103)

To me, that sounds like a prophetic glimpse of the world we inhabit today.  There may be very few ways in which the Dark Ages – [author] Leigh Fermor visited the Abbey of St Wandrille, founded in AD 649 – compare favourably to the twenty-first century.  Yet here he finds an important one.  Mere small talk, that time-wasting ‘anxious triviality’ he escaped in the cloister, has become the sacrament, equivalent to the monks’ constant prayer, by which hyper-technology’s initiates declare and share their faith.  A Stanford undergraduate, Sam Altman, once walked out of a huge lecture hall and observed that, ‘Two hundred students all pulled out their cellphones, called someone, and said, “Where are you?”  People want to connect.’ Altman’s response was to found a company called Loopt, which with the aid of GPS chips in cellphones enables cellmates to track each other, literally, twenty-four hours a day.  ‘PRIVACY LOST: THESE PHONES CAN FIND YOU’ was the sceptical headline.  But Daniel Graf, founder of a similar networking service, was excited to announce, ‘Now you can share your life over a mobile phone, and someone is always connected, watching.’

I recently finished an MA module that is part of the points I need to complete my PhD.  One of the things I really enjoyed reading talked about a confliced-dualism in the Victorian attitude to technology – that as they developed new technology, they also developed an ironic and conflicted spiritualism to go alongside it.

The rapid developments in some technologies such as electricity and the telegraph opened the concept of forces of action and communication that were, while invisible to the human eye, able to enact the power of language over vast distances.  The ongoing ebb and reform of religion also contributed its own watermarks to the collective containment of the divine and its role in life.  The unknown spaces that the retreat of biblical unity and the advance of scientific materialism, according to Durham-Peters (1999) created a duality of understanding that pulled in opposing directions;

“On the one hand there is the dream of spirit-to-spirit contact unimpaired by distance or embodiment, a dream stimulated by animal magnetism, the electrical telegraph, spiritualism, wireless, telepathy and even exotic forms of mental action at a distance.  On the other is the haunting prospect that even touch is an illusion stemming from our sense organs insensitivity to the microscopic but infinite distances between bodies and the even greater chasm between souls.” (Durham-Peters 1999:178)

He takes this idea further, indeed to its logical end with a discussion and summary of the work of William James, both a founding figure of psychology and parapsychology focusing not on his psychology, which would find a place in the annuals of a fledgling science but on the parapsychology, which would not.  James lived at a time when new technologies offered prowess that seemed almost magical – invisible forces (radio), communication over vast differences (the telegraph) and yet the dominant mental model still needed to connect with beyond this.  For Durham-Peters, this duality is implicit in the summation,of the work of this one man, “James kept the door open, hovering somewhere between a psychological reductionism and a warm embrace of the spectres.” (1999:193)  While the work of James and the technology and theory that contains it is of the age, that age was of a conflicted duality.

Is our desire for instantaneous ubiquitous connectivity via social networks and mobiles, basically the same conflicted desire?  I think it is.

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