Swans Commentary » swans.com July 2, 2012  



Screen Distractions: Old Story


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - July 2, 2012)   It looks like a number of articles have emerged recently disparaging our addictions to digital technology. In May, Aatekah Mir of The Wall Street Journal wrote the article "How Distracting is Technology?", which bemoaned the amount of time people spend on social networking sites and checking e-mails while at work. The image caption of the article, a man wearing a pair of glasses that is a computer, projects where digital soothsayers claim digital technology is going: embedded in or on the human body. (1) On the flip side of the issue of the notion that digital technology slows down productivity, there was an article published in Kaiser Health News in March that profiled a doctor who regularly uses iPads and Smartphones to be more efficient in his duties, although the article eventually comes out against the use of these devices in the medical workplace. (2) We are all well aware of the endless news reports of the dangers of texting and driving and we no doubt see instances of this in our daily lives. (3) I usually catch, while waiting for the bus for work, the "conscientious" violators: drivers who begin texting or checking out Facebook on their iPhones when the car he or she is driving stops for a red light. Then there is the clueless pedestrian who ambles into a busy intersection while either yapping on their mobile phone or twittering about how the day has sucked. As an educator, a job requirement for most college teachers is the ability to use classroom computers and Smartboards in a setting where almost all of the students are tuning in to their mobile devices instead of the lesson. So what gives?

These and other stories about our dependence upon digital technologies are old stories. I am not certain if "addiction," the term I used in the previous paragraph, is the right word. Would we laugh with incredulity at future institutions such as the Palm Tree Detox Center for World of Warcraft fanatics or the Betty Ford Center for Compulsive Twitterers? These stories only scratch the surface, whereas other stories about the lure of putting all of our eggs in the digital basket (i.e., letting the machine do all of the thinking) are perhaps over-exaggerating the problem. Stories of the latter sort that we see in Hollywood fiction, such as Hal 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, The Matrix, and I-Robot place responsibility for catastrophe on artificial intelligence or computer error as well as the blind (human) enthusiasm for a world completely overrun with touch screens and computers that respond to human voice commands. These stories are overblown, however: we survived the year 2000 problem, which could have been truly catastrophic. But at this point, one of the most important dangers to individuals that digital Web technology poses, as opposed to dangers to populations, is identity compromise that already creates problems for some Facebook users (when employers seek out profiles for current or prospective employees) or when you place an order through a Web service and later drown in spam from that Web service, when you have explicitly forbidden the use of your e-mail for such purposes. Every time I open my college e-mail account, there is spam from FTD florists (I sent my mother flowers for her birthday in April). No doubt that from the number of jobs I've held in my lifetime, my Social Security Number has probably passed through the eyes of individuals who have the ability to use that information to take out a credit card in my name. So as we shift more and more information to a digital medium, individuals need to be wary of how entities that have almost unparalleled access to personal information -- usually governments and corporations -- use that information for surveillance purposes (yes, the goal is surveillance and access to the personal details of our lives, such as buying habits, Web surfing habits, likes or dislikes, etc.).

I have written before about the "digital gaze" or worship of the screen deity in the journal Left Curve (4) but I have somewhat modified my position since the article was published two years ago. In that article I wrote that technology -- and in particular, "digital technology" -- was an object of worship in modern society to which we tithe thousands and thousands of dollars each year to maintain or upgrade, but the most essential offering to technology is the gaze: not only our gaze of its lifelike displays but from the view of it as an object from which all knowledge is freely accessible and unmistakably true.

I still consider digital technology as an object of worship by modern society but I feel I must distinguish between individuals who stress its practicality over its ubiquitousness; in other words, those who demonstrate its usefulness over those who say it is useful because everyone owns such and such a device or program. The latter group of individuals is composed of salesman; the former group is composed of innovators. Instead of taking the uncompromising primitivist view of technology I took in that essay (a view of technology as completely alienating to human experience), I write here as someone who uses technology for practical benefits who does not feel that his life depends on it or has to depend upon it: only the salesman will make that claim.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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1.  http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/05/18/how-distracting-is-technology/  (back)

2. http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/smartphones-ipads-may-be-distracting-halamka-warns  (back)

3.  I used as search terms "texting and driving" in the Google search engine and obtained over 35,000,000 search results. What does this essentially mean? Well, texting and driving is a burning issue of the day: probably because there are good arguments against it and states and localities seek to ban it but there are inevitably millions of people who believe their ability to send a text message anytime and anywhere gives them the right to send a text message anytime and anywhere.

Apparently, however, "texting and driving" is not as an important issue as "Justin Bieber" which yielded 800,000,000 search results. This is perhaps a more ominous development for the future of society.  (back)

4.  Harvey Whitney, "The Screen Deity and the Challenges of Unchecked Technophilia," Left Curve, 34 (2010).  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 2, 2012