Apple 9 this Weds | The Price We Pay for Technology is Alienation

Apple – the series of talks trying to think more deeply about technology – is back this Weds with the 9th event (7:30pm, The Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road).

The title is ‘Digital Obesity’ and will be a panel discussion with Simon Jenkins of ShipOfFools, Gavin O’Carrol from the Digital Health Service and Vaux’s own Jenny Brown from the Awesome Web Co. In other words, it’s going to be fantastic.

I blogged a bit about the idea of Digital Obesity here and here and am convinced it’s an increasing problem: we just have far too much information coming in, far more than we can usefully use. So, just as excessive calorie intake doesn’t mean we have more energy and do more exercise, excessive information doesn’t end up with us doing more, or really even knowing more. We just get tired and bloated. And change channel. Again.

Another dimension I’ll be wanting to feed in on Weds is the alienating aspect of technology. I’ve just written a review of Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows for Third Way, in which I write:

Carr summarises the co-evolution of our tools and ourselves when he writes that ‘when the carpenter takes his hammer into his hand, he can use that hand to do only what a hammer can do.’ While massively extending what we can do, ‘the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation.’

I think this is a fascinating insight. We are so very quick to extol the powers that technology gives us: the huge reach in communication, the massive increases in computational complexity, the ability to create new visual styles. But I think we have been very shy to admit the price that we have paid for these powers: the alienating effects of the tools we are using.

The parallels with diet are clear: our bodies have not had time to adjust to the huge changes in food consumption that we have experienced in the last 100 years. So we have got bigger and bigger. No one would want to return to the days of food scarcity, but we need to be open to the question of what unlimited consumption is doing to us.

In the same way, no one would sensibly suggest we abandon the digital tools that are now at our disposal. But what we absolutely must do is reflect more carefully on their use, and the fragmenting and alienating impact that these tools are going to have. And that’s exactly what Apple is about. So…you really should be there ๐Ÿ˜‰


6 responses to “Apple 9 this Weds | The Price We Pay for Technology is Alienation”

  1. Tim Hutchings

    Will the event be streamed online, or recorded for those of us who can’t be there? Digital obesity sounds like a bad thing, but one podcast would surely only count as a digital chocolate bar…

  2. There will be a recording. But it’s going to taste so much better live ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I would suggest that the original and most basic form of virtual “reality”, and hence of alienation, is language itself.

    Languages are essentially brain created language games in which we now all “live”.
    Each seemingly separate individual effectively carry’s around a virtual language created “world” of tower of babble/babel in his or her head.

  4. Hi I just ran your Ooze article (“Technology and Theology”) and wanted to comment about it here since this post and it are related.

    Carr is pretty clear in his book that alienation is not always a bad thing and is often the primary way a technology functions (e.g., sewers alienate us from our own excrement). So I wouldn’t agree that any tool we use “alienates us from engaging in others.” Many tools, in fact, enhance our engagement with others.

    Can I ask why the answer isn’t the rejection of technology? I don’t mean the rejection of technology in general (that would be impossible), but the rejection of specific technologies. If certain technologies alienate us from good things, why not reject them? A balanced and reflective use of a bad tool doesn’t make it a good tool.

  5. Thanks for commenting. I think the question is ‘what is a bad tool?’ I’m not sure there are such things. Every tool has its purpose – everything, even that blunt chisel in the bottom of the toolbox is good for something. What we need to do is learn what alienation comes with each tool, and how to put tools down.

  6. The fact that some technology is “good for something” doesn’t mean it should be used. So I guess one start at a definition of a bad tool would be those tools that alienate us from things that are good – God, our neighbor, ourselves, shalom, etc.

    And I don’t see why an appropriate response to these types of things wouldn’t be rejection. One reason why moderation/balanced use may not be a good solution in all cases is that some technologies discipline us NOT to put them down. Their very use reinforces us to continue using them. My wife and I, for example, have chosen not to subscribe to text messaging on our cell phone precisely because it is a distraction.