Is Our Digital World Helping Or Hurting?

I recently turned 64.  Understandably, I have been thinking about how I imagined the America that I was born into would change during my lifetime, and I now realize that I could not have foreseen how the world I knew when I was young would begin to disappear entirely by the time I was only thirty—because of breathtaking changes in technology.  

My abundantly analog youth is now gone forever, discarded like some worthless Lotus 1-2-3 file.

Amazingly, I managed to go all the way through college in that forgotten pre-digital age when books were always printed on paper, electric self-correcting typewriters were the amazing educational technology, and you spent your time looking through a card catalogue to find the sources you needed to complete your assignments.  I still find it remarkable to recall just how difficult it was to access the most basic information and data when no one had ever heard of Google.  

I remember how thrilled I was when I snagged my first adult job after college at an advertising agency and discovered I could go into the so-called “cutting room” at the end of the day and stuff my briefcase with newspapers and magazines that had already been scavenged for client ads that would later be attached to their paper invoices.  Whether or not it was a good use of energy, for reasons that now escape me I read, among the many other publications that filled my free time, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for two full years just to follow the progress of a sewer bond issue.  Easy and free access to print media from all over the nation was an incredible educational opportunity, and it was one that benefitted me tremendously.

During the decade or so I spent in the advertising business in New York City and Connecticut before going to graduate school, I witnessed the transition from picking up envelopes full of printed text from specialty type businesses packed with clattering, clanking, whirring Linotype machines, which were the very pinnacle of old-school pre-digital technology, to the onslaught of desktop publishing that soon sent all those same steel Linotype machines to the scrap heap.  

By the same token, we were amazed and pleased when the day arrived that we no longer had to messenger or FedEx our print ads; instead, we could simply fax them (very, very slowly) or later transmit them electronically (also very, very slowly).  It all seemed wonderful, but it was a miracle that was to exact a steep societal price just a little further down the road.

Desktop computers arriving in our offices were a revelation, although they were, compared to what we have today, stupendously user-unfriendly, pokey, and lacking the computing power and memory we now take for granted.  Bill Gates’ infamous observation, which he now emphatically denies he ever said, that “640K is more memory than anyone will ever need” was considered received wisdom in those days because we were still in the infancy of personal computing technology.  Playing Pong on our computers during lunchtime was still considered cool, and no one gave any thought to the intrusions upon our privacy or the wholesale destruction of jobs lurking over the horizon.  

Our world became faster and more efficient more quickly than we could have imagined, and anyone or any business unable to adapt was speedily and ruthlessly shoved aside by increasingly powerful silicon chips and the complex software programs they enabled.

Unsurprisingly, the enormous Sunday edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which I used to devour on my subway rides home on Mondays in the early 1980’s after snagging a copy from the cutting room, is now but a frail ghost that exists only online.  All those pressmen, delivery drivers, newsstand operators, editors, reporters, runners, interns, and pimply teenage carriers on bicycles have now been relegated to technological history by a tap of my finger on a plastic phone screen.  Cheap, easy, and portable computing has been life changing—but just horribly cruel.  

That convenient and enormously useful phone in my pocket, which I pay to carry wherever I go, is an ingenious super spy that records what I read, where I go, whom I contact, and what I buy.  Government agencies can now monitor our thoughts and movements in a manner that would have made the old Soviet KGB green with envy, and misinformation and outright propaganda—much of it governmental in origin—now zips around the world at the speed of light.  

Of course, those who disagree with the nature and conduct of government today are themselves accused of misinformation and propaganda, so we are often left bewildered as we scan our interconnected world for some shred of data we can rely upon as a truth that we can use to navigate a nation now beset by officially sanctioned censorship, stalking, and bullying—all of these incredible evils, ironically enough, inflicted upon our nation in the name of protecting our democracy.

Worse still, the manner in which technology has increasingly taken the place of old-fashioned human interactions in so many of our lives, turning loneliness and disconnection into our most pernicious modern disease, has been a plague upon our nation.  Skyrocketing rates of mental illness, addiction, suicide, and the other stigmata of human misery are certainly attributable to the isolation—both imposed and self-inflicted—that comes from peering at a device instead of cultivating the relationships that will bring joy and meaning to our lives.  The ease and wonder of cheap and incredibly powerful computing—certainly the biggest single development during my lifetime—should not blind us to its many, many drawbacks.   

Moreover, many segments of our daily lives that relied on human interactions—retail, courtship, and education among others—have become victims of efficiencies that have efficiently maximized our distance from one another.

This is the plague of our modern age: We are connected yet thoroughly disconnected.  In addition, we are drowning in data yet seemingly more ignorant than ever.  Perhaps the ease with which we can now do so much is, in fact, a poor trade-off for what we have given up, and it could be the case that intellectual lassitude and emotional vacuity have been the payment exacted for the many conveniences that computers now bring us.  

One does not have to be a Luddite or sourpuss to wonder about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the world that has emerged over the past thirty years or so.  The Uber Eats dinner that we consume alone while watching a streaming movie and shopping on Amazon with our iPads might be much more costly to our health and souls than we fully comprehend.

And most dangerously of all, we too often we mistake information for knowledge and forget it is much further still to attaining any incomplete yet useful understanding approximating wisdom.

Hopefully, we are still far, far away from buying companion and spousal robots or willingly having a helpful microchip implanted in our brains at birth.  If not, I shudder to think of what the next thirty years might bring.