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Tablets, Dumb Phones and Technological Autonomy

Those who know me well (and even those who’ve just poked around on this blog) know that I’m more than a little obsessed with notions of the end of the world. I have a special shelf on my home bookcase dedicated to dystopic fiction; in my own writing, I’ve presented post-apocalyptic landscapes several times, destroyed the whole world once (twice, if you count the novel that’s still just a treatment floating around in my head and on my query letter), and sent homegrown terrorists to blow up the arcology that was once L.A. Maybe this is why I’m apt to see dystopic visions of the future in the real world a little more than most.

All that’s a prelude for explaining why an email from a friend this week, asking if I had any use for an extra tablet that was lying around his house, has set me off into philosophical pondering about the traps and treats of modern technology.

Now, I live in the twenty-first century, like all of you (presumably): I make daily use of a laptop, an iPod, and a cell phone. By the standards of the modern world, I think, I’m perhaps “average” in my connectivity: but as I think many of y’all would agree, “average” is a moving target these days. Case in point: this past summer, Husband and I went to the Verizon store to upgrade our phones. It was a necessary rather than a luxury upgrade (my old phone was literally breaking in half) but as soon as we entered the store, we were confronted with the latest version of the person walking into a video store in the early 2000s looking to buy a VHS movie: “So, what kind of smartphone would you like?”

The question wasn’t unanticipated, but all the same, it froze me in my tracks. I knew I didn’t want a smartphone: I was afraid of the distractibility potential, the inability to get away from your email, the specter of every idle conversation between Husband and me being interrupted by “You know, I don’t know the answer to that. Let me check my phone!” I didn’t want those things, but the question I posed myself was whether I could still afford not to have them.

I recently saw a post on just this phenomenon on one of my soc-blogs, Cyborgology (hey, I’ve warned you there’d be sociological digressions on this blog. It’s in the title): the author, Doug Hill, calls it technological autonomy, and describes it this way:

Briefly stated, technological autonomy describes a condition in which we’re no longer in control of our technologies: they now function autonomously. This isn’t as absurd as it may sound. The idea isn’t that we can’t switch a given machine from “on” to “off.” Rather, technological autonomy acknowledges the fact that we have become so personally, economically, and socially committed to our devices that we couldn’t survive without them.

Like it or not, in thinking about the point he’s making, I’ve been forced to admit that a lot of modern technology has reached this stage. College students rarely hand in anything hand-written these days. In fact, in my own classes, even printed papers are becoming a thing of the past: students email me their assignments, and retrieve their grades from where I’ve posted them to the students’ accounts on our course website. Along with much of the world of higher education, I’ve come to assume not only a basic level of computer literacy from my students, but reliable access to a computer and to the Internet. I’d imagine it’d be tough to get by these days without a personal email address, and though I have a few friends who still stubbornly refuse to get cell phones, the rest of us often find ourselves stumbling when making plans with them, forgetting that you can’t change plans so easily when your friend’s phone is tied to his house. Instant contactability is increasingly becoming part of our expectation for our social world.

Smartphones aren’t there yet – at least, I don’t think so – but they’re close. Most ads on bus shelters and in store windows have QR codes for smartphone users to scan. I’ve had people change meeting times on me, by email, after I’ve left my house for the 45-minute commute to campus, because even if you’re in transit, the assumption is you’ll get the message on your phone. More than once, when I’ve turned up to meet a friend with printed-out driving directions to a restaurant, the look I’ve gotten is close to what I’d imagine someone got five years ago when they said they’d written their friend an actual, physical letter (with a stamp and everything): a kind of “Oh, aren’t you quaint.”

After much agonizing, I decided not to get the smart phone, this time — and two months later, I haven’t regretted the decision. I’m coming to feel a certain indie superiority in the possibility of still, occasionally (if I’m on BART and forgot to bring a book, or my iPod) having my cell phone in my pocket and yet finding myself with nothing to do.

All the same, though, when my friend offered me the tablet this week, I decided to take it. Because I’ve been meaning to take a look at an e-reader, because it might be handy to have a device that I can bring to writing group meetings that’s lighter than my laptop, and it could be useful to have something to pull up Allrecipes.com in the kitchen without worrying (as much) about the tech getting crumbs stuck in the keys. All that said… I’m hoping I can maintain a certain level of self-awareness with it, too. Because for all their utility, I don’t want the machines to take over the world just yet. And I’d still like to be able to go away for the weekend with Husband and leave our laptops and tablets and doodads and gizmos at home once in a while without feeling like someone’s cut my hands off at the wrists.

Even if we do need to bring the smart phone to figure out where the heck we’re going.

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7 Comments

  1. Matt

     /  October 2, 2012

    This is a really interesting topic and something I think about on a daily basis (no joke). I could easily cough up 5,000 words in a comment – but I won’t!
    My work life essentially revolves around /further/ integrating these technologies into people’s day to day lives. I receive literally hundreds of emails a day, and read/assess/respond (seems like) near instantaneously 24/7. And though my circle of contact isn’t a worldwide barometer (and this is the Bay Area after all), it certainly seems like that’s just the evolution of the culture, however long it takes the less connected areas to catch up.

    I have genuine fear about the trajectory of society in this regard, and in the ways it accelerates the division of people into have/have-not by way of connected/not-connected.
    At what point are there essentially two realities that people can/cannot live within?

    On the level of speculative fiction: I have this percolating theory (that is probably too ill-informed) that this has something to do with why we’re seeing so much dystopic fiction these days – that people literally are having trouble envisioning the future that we’re rapidly moving toward, that people literally don’t know what to write about it, and that all they can imagine is a future dystopia – since in a lot of ways it removes that problem (eliminates this communication web). A quote from William Gibson recently:

    —It seems to be either impossible or hideously difficult to describe the future of social media from the point of view of characters who would be participating in it, perhaps even while they’re sleeping, and not be paying its workings any mind.—

    And to quote the movie ‘Slacker’, “I mean, things are speeding up here near the end…”
    (that movie is twenty years old!)

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    • Not everyone I know feels so pessimistic about it: when my husband first got his tablet, he went around for a week saying “We’re living in the future! We’re living in Star Trek!”

      Re: your point about the future being increasingly difficult to predict; it’s definitely one of the hazards of near-future SF, for starters. A book written 10 years ago about the year 2020 wouldn’t have any social media in it, for starters… I’d completely believe that the teens of the near-future might reject Facebook as “that thing our parents use,” but I’m a little too cynical not to think that there’ll be some new form of social networking to take its place. When my students see sociological research on social networks, at first glance they’re apt to think it’s about Facebook… leaves me a little amused and a little spooked to have to remind them, “uh, no, guys, there used to be social networks between physical people who stood in the same room, too…”

      I’d recommend reading the Cyborgology blog, if you’re into this stuff. One of the other points that gets made regularly on there is that the “digital” and “real” worlds are not as separate as theorizing types like to say they are… things that happen in the “digital world” are done by people in the real world, have real-world repercussions and real-world existence (even if it is just on glowing screens and servers). Food for thought.

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    • Winterwolf

       /  October 3, 2012

      I wanted to comment on your “more dystopia” thought, with my own thoughts and this link http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/PostCyberPunk which I think illustrates some of the complexities with near-future settings; that is, I feel like a great deal of works that might have a lot of dystopian themes are often post cyberpunk, or reconstructed utopias/dystopias. Now to be fair, I am by no means an all consuming media black hole, kind of the opposite really, so maybe I’m missing a lot of solid dystopias, but in my experience lately, I’ve seen a LOT of “man… the world is pretty fucked up, things aren’t too great. But there’s still hope, and some good stuff, and people keep on living”, or maybe even “the world is pretty fucked up, we messed up bad but we’re doing a good job making things better/keeping them from spiraling into chaos”. I feel like it reflects a time when there’s a million things wrong, pressing in at the edges; in your life and “elsewhere” there are more terrible things, more horrors, but also more wonders, and people doing incredible things.

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      • For what it’s worth, I think books, like everything else, also move in cycles; Hunger Games has prompted a wave of YA dystopia of various forms that I don’t think there was necessarily a market for even 5 years ago.

        …and I tend not to think of cyberpunk as dystopic, for some odd reason. Maybe just because it’s not my style; I tend to like dystopic stuff because I enjoy seeing what the author does with the social structures, where cyberpunk (at least the versions of it that I’ve tried) tend to be pretty focused on the technology side of things.

        Always looking for recommendations, of course 🙂

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  2. Winterwolf

     /  October 3, 2012

    I’m worried I’m not gonna put the time into properly articulating my thoughts here. But oh well!

    I think about this a lot too, though as what amounts to a futurist, I reach a different place, but I also seem to be in a fairly different place than the average person, like Matt using my own subjective perception filter. I am not an early adopter, as I first got a smartphone in April (so far I’ve yet to descend into thoughtless, hedonistic consumerism, somehow. I must not be doing it right ~_^). But at the same time, when the first iPhone came out, I turned to my dad and said “we’re going to have to get those”, by which I meant not that they were so amazing I had to run out and grab one, but that they were so obviously the next PC, the next cell phone; the next game changing technology that was going to get integrated into our lives. In an interesting NPR talk on the history of technology, their guest speaker suggested that you can measure the impact of a technology on society by how quickly it becomes ubiquitous.

    That’s essentially the whole reason I got a smartphone; not because I needed ALL the apps, to play angry birds; not because I wanted functionally infinite entertainment (as long as I’m not too fussed about quality) in the literal palm of my hand, but because I think it’s important (at least to me) to recognize and adapt to paradigm shifts in culture. I would say in order of usage, I use maps/email, browser (wikipedia mostly), camera, stopwatch, voice recorder, go. So obviously my experience is different than the typical consumer.

    But I think that’s a VERY important point to make. Because more and more, as media and the internet and technology expand daily and there’s 10 to the whatever times more media than any one person could consume, the PRODUCT you’re buying is a platform in which you can create your own experience. My smartphone is a communicator and a swiss army knife, because those are the things I find valuable in a portable device. My dad’s phone is an atlas, a day planner, and a notebook/clipboard, because like some people he is an obsessive planner ;P. I have a friend who’s phone is essentially an e Reader that can make phone calls.

    You see the same thing with social media, where young people want to be able to share whatever they want whenever they want; they want to be in constant communication, yes, but they ALSO want to define the TERMS of that communication. teenagers and people in their early 20s use the privacy settings on Facebook approx. 10x more than other people, which came up in court cases over whether the police could seize private FB posts without a warrant, and recently in CA when employers were demanding applicant’s Facebook passwords.

    This is getting super long so I’m gonna cut off my ramblings. But what I WILL say is that I *strongly* recommend reading Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge. Like you said, in many ways imagining the future these days can be EXTREMELY difficult, but I think, more than any other near-future author, he does an amazing job of capturing what that ‘totally connected’ future might be like.

    I have other thoughts about tech, fiction, and dystopia, but I think I used up all my points above.

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    • I’ve read Rainbows End; I think you’re right, that Vinge has a pretty good model for one possible version of the future (I also liked the particular device he used to create his outsider-narrator, but that’s probably for a different post).

      I also think that the customization thing you’re pointing to is part of a bigger cultural trend (resisting urge to bring in dissertation theories here :-P); that another part of our modernity is the expectation that you’ll be able to have all the things you want, whenever you want them, and without any of the things you don’t want (every time I hear people whining about having to watch 1 commercial before they get to see their favorite show, there’s a part of me that still shakes my head ;)). We take it for granted that our interfaces with the world are fully customizable. Which is something in and of itself that I don’t think was part of most people’s visions of the future even a few years ago (I know when I was designing the comp-books for my space opera setting, we didn’t put any thought into exactly how the King-Arthur-obsessed captain’s comp-book interface would be different from the nerdy kid’s. But clearly, they’d each have had their own theme and sounds and etc. etc. ;))

      Also, this post has gotten more views (I think) than any other post I’ve put out there so far — clearly, I shouldn’t be afraid of diversifying topics!

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    • Kirsten

       /  October 5, 2012

      Rainbows End was pretty much what prompted me to go out and finally get a smartphone. There was something a bit disturbing about that older guy who was so proud of himself for rigging a harness for his laptop so he could walk around with it on his chest…

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