Taming the Techno Beast

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of posts focusing on how civilization is disintegrating because of technology. The loss of privacy, clearly because of websites like Facebook. The prevalence of moronic rumors on the Internet that for incomprehensible reasons, people actually take seriously. And of course, the loss of language and relationship skills by young people who communicate entirely by texting in code that no one over the age of 18 can decipher not to mention the pernicious effects of electronic books replacing paper and ink. And finally, my personal favorite, the paranoid belief that mobile phones are scrambling everyone’s’ brains and are probably responsible for the epidemic of worldwide stupidity.

I’m not convinced we had any privacy to lose. If you weren’t a recluse living in a cave, then you lived amidst people. In towns, villages and cities. In tribes, settlements and family groups. In metropolitan areas, we form villages within the larger population. We call them neighborhoods. You don’t come from New York or Boston.

You come from Park Slope or Southie, Roxbury or Astoria. As long as we live in and around other people, they know all about us. They know a lot more than we wish they did. You sneeze and your neighbors say a collective “gesundheit.” Have a fight with your spouse and everyone knows every detail the following morning. Gossip is the meat and potatoes of human relationships. Call it networking or whatever you like: we talk about each other all the time. Privacy is an illusion.

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The big difference is you can use your own computer to tell total strangers everywhere in the world all your personal business. But that’s your own choice. It’s entirely voluntary, but millions of people do it every day. I suspect — on the whole — we care a lot less about privacy than we say we do. Sure, we want to protect our bank accounts and credit cards from being stolen, but otherwise? How much do you really care who knows what’s going on in your life?

We are herd animals. We are nosy. We gossip. Knowing your neighbors’ business doesn’t require technology,  just eyes and ears. For broadcast purposes,  a mouth works as well any other device.

One of the more common assumptions about technology is that this stuff is more important to young people than older folks. Older people are supposed to resist new technology, to be stuck in our ways and refuse to move on.

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I recall thinking along the same lines when I was young and stupid. Young people underestimate their elders. Maybe it helps them gain the courage to face uncertain futures, but as one of those Old People, I find it annoying.

People my age have not rejected technology. Au contraire, we embrace it with enormous enthusiasm. Technology has impacted us more than any other age group. Computers give us access to the world, let us to remain actively in touch with scattered friends and family. It helps us know what people are thinking. Digital cameras with auto-focus compensate for aging eyes. Miniaturization makes more powerful hearing aids so that people who would be condemned to silence can remain part of the world. Pacemakers prolong life; instrumented surgeries provide solutions to what used to be insoluble medical problems and lets us keep active into very old age. Technology has saved us not only from early death, but from losing touch.

We can watch movies whenever we want, the old ones from childhood and the new ones just out of theaters. We can view them in comfort on huge screens as good as the movies, but with better sound and cheaper snacks … plus a convenient “pause” button if you need to hit the bathroom or kitchen.

Virtually every one of us has a cell phone, uses electronic calendars as well as a wide range of applications to do everything from post-processing photographs and balancing our bank accounts,  to cooking meals.

My generation consumes technology voraciously, hungrily.

Unlike the kids, we don’t take it for granted. We didn’t always have it. We remember the old days and despite all those nostalgic postings on the web, most of us are glad we don’t live there anymore.

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We can’t all repair a computer, but neither can the kids. They know how to use them … my granddaughter was using a computer when she was three … but she has no idea how a computer works and would be hard put to explain the difference between the operating system and an application. Most of her friends are equally ignorant. They are on top of the world when things work but  if anything goes wrong, suddenly Granny transforms to Computer Guru.

For teenagers and young adults, technology is no miracle. They don’t need to understand it. They feel about computers the way we felt about electricity: we didn’t need to know how it worked. We just put the plug in the socket and turn on the lights.

There is a down side to technology as there’s a down side to everything. An hour’s power outage and we are lost. Dependence is not what worries me. I’m no survivalist. Without modern technology, I wouldn’t make it through a week.

I worry that young folks are not learning how to talk to each other and will have a hard time forming relationships. Not that we did all so well ourselves, but at least we talked to each other.

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The ubiquitous availability of social networking gives kids the illusion of having lots of friends … yet many of them have no real friends … not the kind of friends you can depend on and who will hang on through a lifetime.

I don’t want anyone to give up their electronic goodies … but it would be nice if there were more direct communication, human to human. I have watched groups of teens sit around in a room, but instead of talking, they send texts to one another. Good relationships need a more touchy-feely approach.

All of us have gotten a bit lazy about relationships. We send an email when we should pick up the phone. We pick up the phone when we should make a visit. There’s nothing electronic that can replace a hug.

Yet I believe civilization will endure. Stupid people were always stupid. They always will be. Those who believe nonsensical Internet rumors without bothering to learn the truth would never have been truth-seekers anyhow. Before we had Internet rumors, we had plenty of regular rumors. They didn’t travel quite as fast as they do on the Internet, but they got the job done. The problem isn’t computers; it’s people.

I don’t get why people have a problem with electronic books. As far as I am concerned, reading is good no matter what form the words take. For me, electronic books are a dream come true. I will always love the smell and feel of paper and ink, but I am glad to not need more space for books. I’m love my Kindle. Nobody had to slay a tree for the book I’m reading.

I  will always love bookstores, the feel and weight a book, the smell of ink on paper, the gentle crack of the spine when you open a new one, but I only buy special books, first editions, reference books.

The good old days weren’t that terrific. There were good things, but plenty of bad stuff. Ugly stuff. Institutionalized racism, a gap between classes far worse than today. Real oppression of women, so if you think we don’t get a fair shake now, you would never have survived growing up in the 1950s. Help wanted ads in newspapers were divided by sex; we had to wear skirts to school, even in the dead of winter.

Today, our houses are heated better. Basic household goods are relatively inexpensive. Wal-Mart sells cheap underwear. Don’t knock it: I hate spending money on underwear!

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If you want an education, you can get one … no matter what your color or ethnicity. The  legal barriers to individual development have been lowered. The world and the people in it are imperfect; there’s more than enough hate to go around and we’ll never see the end of war, but at least the law is changed. That is not a small thing. Human beings are good at hating. Laws can change the rules, but not human nature.

I wish the quality of entertainment was better and I wish they taught grammar in schools, yet I was never taught grammar and I’m reasonably literate. Those who love words will learn to use them by reading, listening and absorbing the music of language.

Language will continue to evolve but it has always been a moving target. It’s not changing because of computers. We don’t talk as they did in Olde England and future generations won’t talk — or write — like us.

The basic nature of humans hasn’t fundamentally changed. We have a savagery embedded in our DNA.  I doubt anything will erase it. Will we evolve to the point where we are truly civilized and the hidden beast is gone? I doubt it. I believe we would lose our humanity along with our bestiality. It is our never-ending battle to tame our baser instincts that defines civilization.

That, and having a really fast Internet connection.

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