Thoughts on Wiener, week 3

After reading Men, Machines, and the World About I had a strange sense of pining. After sitting on that feeling for a few days I think that I’ve identified it as a pining for the world in which complete technology immersion is just a possibility, not a reality. A line of Wiener’s that struck me towards the end of the paper on pg 71 really drove home this feeling:

“There is a very real danger in this country in bowing down before the brass calf, the idol, which is the gadget.”

In 1954 in was a danger, now it is a reality. Even though I kind of dislike the level of technology that is in my life right now, there is no way that I could function very well without it. The things that I view as essential are: internet access which affords me communications methods, touch screens which afford what I feel is a more natural way to interact with computers, and simply the computer itself.

In an attempt to distance myself from technology a bit I started wearing a watch. My reasoning was that if I wear a watch then I will look to it for the time instead of looking to my phone. When I look to my phone for the time I invariably check my calendar, see if I have any new emails (on each of my many accounts), go ahead and look at facebook (since I went to the trouble to unlock my phone), check twitter, and by then I may think to check my email again, just in case etc, etc. And so, I’m wearing a watch now and actively attempting to leave my phone n my office, or my bag, so that I am less tempted to check it.

What this all seems to boil down to (for me) is time management and avoiding social media.

I saw an article recently by Clay Shirkey that fits into this conversation. In it, he defends his decision to ban technology use from the classes he teaches, unless the technology is required for the current task. There were two parts about the article that really struck me. The first is this passage:

“Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.”

This was my first exposure to this metaphor but I love it. I can picture my lumbering emotions dragging me along to social media updates, email refreshes (because there is a possibility of something new) and who knows what else while my poor little intellect is just hanging on, trying to direct the elephant back onto the path of a more pressing matter, like planning for an upcoming project, or doing a weekly blog post.

The other passage that stuck with me was the following, from a paper titled “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers“:

“We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.”

While the paper focused on a classroom setting, I often observe this in pretty much any other setting where there is a human and a piece of technology involved. Meetings especially, lunches, just running into someone on the street, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, I just think that now that we have opened this Pandora’s box that we now need to try and figure out how to best work with it. As Wiener said in his closing statement, “we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.” And so, we have to figure out the best way to work with it. Sometimes that means avoiding it by wearing a watch, sometimes that means using tools/methods that limit our access to it, but I think that the only real way to work best with technology is be mindful in technological design as it matures. We need to take into account that while yes, we can embed facebook notifications into everything from our phones to our smart refrigerators to our smart cars, but should we?

My hope is that by being mindful about technology design we can design things that are not a detriment to ourselves, such as the laptops in the classroom above, but are instead tools that we can use to improve our quality of life. A lot of this will hinge on corporate desires, profit margins, and other things that don’t take human well-being into account, but like to have faith that one day we’ll get there.

Final, somewhat disconnected thought that this reading made me think of that I’m not able to tie-in right now: Technology gives people tunnel vision.


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