I’ve had some thoughts about technology and change bouncing around my head for quite a while now.
“A friend is going through a tough time right now. Last night I consoled him and offered advice, while simultaneously browsing for a new camera case on my iPhone.
It occured to me to write a long essay about how that scenario points to the increasing fragmentation of our attention and the threat that technology poses to real-world relationships. But really it just means I’m an asshole.”
Scott’s a pretty funny guy, and he’s right, of course. Whether or not he thinks “that essay would have been terrible” because it would have been wrong or because it would have been plain boring – I don’t know, but it’s still a dickish thing to not give a friend your full attention when they really need it.
It was the idea of technology being a bad thing1 that got me thinking. I’m not convinced that the internet, and particularly the rise of social websites like Facebook, is posing a threat to real-world relationships, and I’m not convinced that they’re increasing the fragmentation of our attention (which I’m not even convinced would be a bad thing).
- The internet allows people to connect more, to keep in touch with more friends who live in more locations than would be otherwise possible.
- One could argue that that would lead to more superficial relationships, but that is not a requirement of using social networks, just a possibility.
- People argue that people who use social networks see their friends face-to-face less often, leading to problems of isolation. Again, it’s not necessary to have less real-world socialising as a consequence of social networking, even though some people may choose to do this.
The effect of the internet on one’s social life depends on how one uses it, and with what attitude. Ultimately it’s one’s own choice whether or not one makes the effort to see friends in person – the internet doesn’t prevent socialising, it helps it: people who don’t want to be social in real life just aren’t going to be. Sadly, the internet ends up as the scapegoat.
As for our attention becoming more and more fragmented; is that what’s meant by doing lots of things at once? Isn’t that a skill? Sure, some people are addicted to checking their email and can’t focus on work when there’s a world of possibilities at their fingertips. That’s not the internet’s fault: it’s the person’s fault for not being more disciplined and not learning how to control their impulses. Maybe it’s something that we could be taught at school: how to avoid distractions, such as the internet, when we’re doing something important.
Scott’s right. People who do things like that are assholes. But it’s not technology’s fault.
I thought some more.
Before properly writing my speech to Perth Speakers’ Club, I jotted down some ideas in a notebook. I noticed that my handwriting looked rather weird – it could have been down to writing whilst in bed, but I thought there was something more, so I wrote this:
I thought that my handwriting had gone awful but I just needed something to lean on. Then again, after barely handwriting for 8 months (wow), it has changed. I can type reliably at about 100 wpm, yet I handwrite so much slower.
I’m used to being able to get text down almost as quickly as I think of it, but with handwriting, I find myself thinking sentences ahead (even more than usual). My handwriting has therefore changed to accommodate my new speed and personality.
Before I exited this aside to return to my speech, I wrote:
Also, my wrist aches from all this writing.
Why was I writing by hand? Because I was in bed, and I had no computer that’s suitable for writing in bed. I had my iPod, but it’s too small for more than a few sentences at a time. A laptop would have worked fine in this situation, but I don’t have one.
Unsurprisingly, after surviving without handwriting for so long, I started to think. When would I ever write by hand?
- Situations where I don’t have a computer and I want/need to write, such as being in bed.
- I’ll have a laptop by the time I go to university which takes care of a lot of that.
- When I have to write:
- Writing a cheque
- Signing my name
- Filling in forms
- Leaving notes to people
- Writing my name on shit
- Writing a card
Can you see what handwriting has become, at least to me? It’s a novelty, something to do only when I have to – and even those times are decreasing. I can’t remember writing a cheque. I can text or email my family members instead of leaving notes. Forms can be filled out on a computer.
Why would I want to write by hand? It’s slow and painful, whilst on a computer you can easily write text that can then be copied around the world in seconds. Some people are fond of writing by hand, like how some people still buy CDs, but I don’t think there are going to be many such people for much longer.
This leads to the question: should we continue to teach children how to handwrite?
I think it’s obvious, or should be obvious, that eventually we’ll get to a point where writing by hand is never necessary, making the teaching of handwriting a waste of time. Handwriting is just a means to an end – that end being writing. There’s nothing inherently special about writing. Why continue to spend so long teaching kids to handwrite, when we could be teaching them how to type at 10,000 words per minute and other relevant skills2? The debate therefore should be about when this happens, not if.
There is only one potential problem that I see: the sudden unavailability of electronic writing devices. After having thought about this subject, when I was on the train going to see my nephew, I wrote this question in my notebook3:
“Is our reliance on technology a problem?”
Technology makes our lives much easier, but can we allow ourselves to make it even easier by completely depending on it; to forget our previous ways?
I think this is a really important thing to consider. I’ve had several discussions along these lines over the last few months, and I’ve read and thought about it too. Several ways in which we’re coming to depend on technology have come up:
- Typing rather than handwriting
- Students relying on search engines rather than memorising facts
- Having our books in electronic form rather than paper form
- Even just things like using a washing machine and a dishwasher rather than cleaning by hand
You know what? Although older generations might moan a little about the current generation having it easy, that’s the wonderful thing about technology. It makes our lives easier, so that we can focus on the things that are important. It’s writing that’s important, not handwriting. Being able to use facts, not being able to memorise them. Reading and not the paper. Having clean stuff, not cleaning. It all makes sense.
After much thought, I’ve concluded that once a technology is sufficiently reliable, we should embrace it and leave behind the more laborious, less efficient ways of doing things. If we’re always connected to the internet, why not rely on a search engine? If you’re always going to have electricity and a computer, why not stop teaching handwriting?
And now becomes clear the one downfall of relying on technology: the possibility of societal and technological collapse. Are we willing to accept this risk in order to enjoy a better life? The answer would seem to be yes: in the most important area that there is, the vast majority of us already depend completely on technology:
The world has a population of nearly 7 billion people. In the case of the collapse of society and technology4, without a doubt a lot of people just wouldn’t be able to survive. It’s only because of technology – fertilisers and pesticides and machinery – that the world has such a large population. It would be impossible. The vast majority have accepted reliance on technology just by living in this world.
That aside, even if the population were smaller, almost all of us have not learned the skills necessary for our survival in the wild. Read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy if you want to get some idea of just how hard life would be after the collapse of society. I think I’d be pretty good at foraging, and I can make a decent shelter, but I can’t make clothes, I can’t hunt, and I don’t think I could defend myself very well.
Perhaps instinct would kick in, but I still think that most people would not survive for very long.
Should it be our duty to learn survival?
In my opinion, societal and technological collapse is it unlikely enough to happen that I am very happy to forgo survival knowledge for the benefit of an easier life. And, if I’m willing to accept that most important of reliances, surely it’s just a small step to allow my children growing up only knowing how to type. Come the end of our technological society, it doesn’t matter if we’ve forgotten how to wash our clothes and memorise facts and write by hand and wash our clothes – because we’ll be dead!
My philosophy has become: once a technology which can improve our lives has become sufficiently reliable, embrace it.
- I’m not saying that Scott believes this, judging by his type of humour and the title of his post. ↩
- For what it’s worth, I don’t think handwriting is lost if you can read. As long as you can recognise characters you should be able to reproduce them, though it may be time-consuming and the result scruffy. Handwriting can then be used if it is ever needed, or for a special effect (such as writing a love note). ↩
- Yes, I realise I’m writing by hand here: I don’t have a laptop yet. ↩
- see “The Road” and “Collapse”, which I will write about at some point ↩