For the most part, life as we know it is not immutable. It is constantly in flux: seasons change, fashion changes, culture changes. People change. These changes take place over time; usually they are not abrupt. The old fades. Suddenly we realize the leaves are a different color. We are wearing different pants, different shoes now (or maybe we aren’t–everyone else is). Our favorite television shows are being shown in syndicate on channels like TVLand or NickatNite. Technology, however, changes right before our eyes. The only constant thing about it is that it’s constantly changing. And we accept these changes as unavoidable, in the way that tax season or natural disasters are unavoidable.
My students are always teaching me things. Thanks to them I know how to circumvent dorm monitors and where to buy the best tacos at 2 am. The educational exchange never ceases to amaze me, particularly with regard to their fascination with technology. Every backpack holds a laptop, every palm of every hand a cell phone. Excuse me, smartphone. These gadgets have been parts of their lives forever. They’ve never known a world without them, and they never will. Changing technology is their norm; they can chronicle the timeline of their lives with old cell phones, batteries long since dead, chargers long since lost.
When it comes to technology, age discrepancy becomes glaringly obvious. There are those completely resistant to change, those who embrace change with some measure of hesitation, and those for whom change is the only way the world works. My students are of the last ilk. They will continue to upgrade those smartphones until they themselves become irrelevant. I am of the middle kind: I appreciate change, but I’m beginning to feel technology-induced exhaustion at the prospect of yet another software update. Technology has a way of making me feel obsolete. Sitting in Starbucks on campus I overheard a conversation: two guys discussing whether or not it is better to rebuild an old computer or purchase a new one. “My processor is old, outdated,” one of them said. “I would replace it if I could.” I discreetly turned to look at them. They were not old. They were not young either. They were somewhere in the middle, both wearing sport coats with patches on the elbows. Professors, I thought. Then I wondered: were they talking about the processors in their computers, or were they talking about themselves?
Every generation has its problems, and every life has its hurdles. To circumvent these problems, or at least make them easier to deal with, we occupy ourselves with finding shortcuts, time-savers, ways to make life a little better. But what happens when the very things we create to help us clear the hurdles only serve to make them more difficult to overcome? What happens when we create more problems than we solve?
Take, for example, the iPod. Or the iPhone. Or the iPad. Or any smartphone. You get the idea. These devices were invented to make life easier, better, more user-friendly. We thought we were saving ourselves time and trouble by implementing pieces of technology that would allow us to bank remotely or communicate via email in the grocery line. We created iTunes, a one-stop shop, sample, and storage program for all our musical needs. But when these widgets and whatsits don’t perform at our level of expectation, when the downloads take too long, when the battery drains itself, do we calmly and rationally seek other avenues for obtaining what we want? Or do we lash out at the computer, phone, or mp3 player in hopes that it will respond to our baleful coercing?
The self-checkout line also serves to call into question our dependence on ourselves versus our dependence on technology. We approach the self-checkout with the utmost optimism. Finally a way to ensure that we are not overcharged for glass cleaner and that our milk is double-bagged before we leave the store. We begin the checkout process only to find a few minutes later that our enthusiasm has confused the computer. We have, in our haste to be our most efficient selves, placed too many unidentified items in the bagging area. When we attempt to remedy the problem, we only exacerbate the situation, further confusing the computer. At this point, we are forced to wait for the checkout attendant to sidle over and fix the problem. Perhaps the regular checkout line would have been faster?
These advancements, such as they are, were created to help with the headaches of life, not cause them. And for the most part, we can derive a sense of satisfaction with the ease they sometimes create. But when we take that ease for granted, we allow ourselves to become fully dependent on their capabilities. Or incapabilities, as the case may be. In the name of efficiency we create time-saving devices, and we apply ourselves to them with the utmost confidence in their productivity. But how much time are we losing? How much self-reliance are we sacrificing? And do we even notice?