Technology Dependence

One of the principles of Time Tells (this blog) is that history – the ongoing saga of humans – is not terribly linear. One of the best rebuttals of that position is, of course, technology. Here you are in the middle of something you could not have been in the middle of 15 years ago.

So how do you feel? Is technology so completely OTHER that its progress has not affected your affect? Or, are you now completely technology dependent and your list of items to have on a desert island starts with Blackberry and Apple (dessert island)?

I wrote two months ago about how little I need a car, thanks in large part to the location of my home and my work, neither of which are accidental. I have been sucked into e-mail as much as anyone, although (as I wrote about three months ago) I have hardly succumbed to the cell phone.

This makes me an old fogey, of course, but the more I think about it, the more clear it is that people have always been hopheads for technology, and when I say “hopheads,” I mean it in the most derogatory and abusive way. The iPod is a gun.

In May I wrote about our trip to China, the first time in five study trips that I brought electronic devices, and I brought plenty – computers, digital cameras. We were burnin’ coal like crazy. Our project was reliant on one student, Ryan Oh, who made an iPod into a symphony conductor of technology. It was the end of the good old days when my study trip sheets told students to leave their electronics – hairdryers and electric shavers, etc. behind. Alas, those days are over and now we are burning coal at every turn.

But then I thought again about those study trips and how everyone ignored my advice and brought lots of electronics. Because, you see, you can be as dependent on a hair dryer as you can on an iPod. In 1986 when I backpacked around the world, the CD Walkman was the latest thing and everyone had a cassette Walkman – even me. The iPod revolution is basically postwar
transistor technology revolution applied to the Walkman – smaller but more versatile.

I actually disdained Walkmans when they appeared sometime around 1980 because I was a young punk and I thought the traditional boombox was more appropriate – why should you be cocooned with personal music? You should inflict your music on the general public with a boombox – awaken them from their fatty bourgeosie slumber with “Holiday in Cambodia” blasting on your shoulder! Sorry – there goes the old fogey talking maudlin again.

But the point is that the 1985 Walkman and hair dryer were as essential to people as the iPod and Blackberry today. Not because of what they did (although it was hard to get big hair without it – the hair dryer I mean) or what they do: They don’t have to do anything. All they need is the mass market to insist on their existence and ownership. They become an item of identity, and their actual functioning –what they do – is entirely secondary to the fact that you need them with you all of the time. Cell phones are not used for emergency calls or even necessary calls – they are used for identity establishment and as relationship dummies.

“She sat in the crowded train car, hoping one of her friends would call and all the strangers around would be impressed/amused/dismayed by her ringtone.” I suppose I should have Holiday in Cambodia for my ringtone – might teach me a lesson.

For most of human history, fashion has been a means of identifying status. Scythians were well-known hopheads with a biker-like passion for bodily adornment. A Guptan Buddha’s accoutrements and raiments bespeak his earthly and otherearthly royalty, as does the asymmetrically seated pose of his Mathuran cousin. A medieval scholars gown conveyed his erudition. Closer to our own era, we have the associations of bling (I am as rich as the man but still a thug) and fashions that help identify or advertise our sexuality (you always know when ILM is in town). Furs and feathers and fedoras are rich in symbolic content, and the ads that make us want iPods are shadow puppet versions of those Guptan Buddhas – a few lines to indicate clothing, an ethereal pose to indicate enlightenment.

The counter argument to “technology is only a fashion statement” is of course that technology is a pure thing corrupted by advertising, which must sexualize it. Yes, we must trick it out – like all the flab in Microsoft Word – to sell it, but No, it ain’t pure. (actually some crapforbrains function just grabbed that word to Spotlight it – I don’t know what that is, but I know it slowed my workflow significantly)

Our current economy is pretty well dependent on new technology and the rapid obsolescence of old technology and we all know that economics is a driver. Don’t matter if the technology is better or just fatter and more colorful. We have to buy it if we want food and shelter.

What staved off the late 90’s recession? Y2K. Hard to remember now, but back then everyone (at least in the Windows/IBM platform) had to rebuild all of their technology. It was, from a logical point of view, massively unnecessary, expensive and wasteful. That means, of course, that it was fabulous for the economy. The only thing better than buying one is buying two – this is why we have seen so many versions of the iPod – change is driven not by technological progress but by economics. Economists like to see the economy as efficient, but it’s greatest efficiency is creating, and then satisfying desire. That is only efficient if your goal is burning endorphins – and coal.

Technology means tools and tools help us do things we didn’t even think of, like Ryan
Oh and his iPod in Yunnan. But just as you shouldn’t confuse heritage with history, you shouldn’t confuse the marketing of technology with real technology.

So how do you feel?

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