The Rebellion of the (Technological) Tools

Last week, I took my fortuitously large tax return and upgraded from my out-of-date Blackberry Bold to a Samsung Galaxy S4. The tagline for this Samsung phone is, literally, the “Life Companion”, with the text on the website reading as follows: “as a real life companion, the new Samsung Galaxy S4 helps bring us closer and captures those fun moments when we are together. Each feature was designed to simplify our daily lives. Furthermore, it cares enough to monitor our health and well-being” (emphasis mine).

It is rather eerie that this supposed ‘phone’ (the original meaning of this word being entirely lost in the context of a smartphone device) is already reading my mind. When I’m typing into the virtual QWERTY keyboard, it supplies me with a whole host of suggested words and has already learned some of my language preferences. It is also an Android device, which means that everything I do in my Gmail account or in Google Chrome automatically synchronizes with the activity on my phone.

For example, I was doing data entry for a website and typed “Long Point Provincial Park” into my Google Chrome search bar. My phone promptly provided me with the estimated drive time to Long Point, given current traffic and weather conditions.

It does feel a little bit like having a long-time partner at my elbow, whispering answers into my ear before I even verbalize my thoughts. This takes care of the ‘life companion’ claim spouted by Samsung.

The phone also offers “Smart Scroll” technology, allowing you to browse websites on-screen when your eyes are detected and the device is tilted. This feels a little bit like having a butler around to ‘simplify‘ my daily life. If I’m ever incapacitated (perhaps in a semi-vegetative state) and unable to touch the screen of the device, it’s entirely possible that I will still be able to scroll through webpages using the power of technology.  Conversely, if I’m feeling fit and want to monitor my health, this butler-phone emphasizes my well-being with a Walking Mate and S Health app.

In ages past, people trusted their butlers with their lives – to butle was to fulfill an honourable and ancient duty to one’s master. I do not trust this smartphone as my butler, however, nor do I trust it as my ‘life companion’. I have the natural, though rather Luddite-esque, reaction of yearning for more real-life, human interaction. The amount of time I spend hunched over my new phone means that I’m spending more time alone, rather than feeling that it has brought me closer to friends and family.

Others at the Critical Media Lab and Games Institute at the University of Waterloo take a similarly cautious approach to the growth and spread of technology in today’s society. Both groups support the innovative use of new technology while examining the impact of these technologies on the ‘human condition’. I particularly love the Mission description of the Critical Media Lab:

“The rapid and relentless production of new technologies has outstripped our ability to carefully consider their social, ethical, psychological, and physical implications. This race between high-tech manufacturing and our understanding of its social and personal impacts has been observed by many researchers in the Arts and Social Sciences over the last fifty years. But their efforts, which range from curmudgeonly skepticism to technophilic rhetoric, have had very little impact on the ways in which technologies are designed and implemented. The primary reason for this inefficacy is that the critical assessment of new media in the Arts and Social Sciences is often presented in forms (i.e., printed academic articles in specialized journals) that are incongruent with new media culture.

By contrast, the CML serves as a research-creation incubator that links researchers in the Faculty of Arts with the people and tools necessary to apply critically reflective work at the R & D level of technological production. This approach, which challenges the boundaries between art and science, research and artistic practice, will result in the invention of new technologies and media artifacts, dialogue facilitation across disciplines and communities, and policy formation that directly impacts technological design and implementation” (Critical Media Lab, 2014).

Outside of academia, popular fiction such as the Hunger Games illustrates a world in which technological marvels are “tools of oppression for the dystopian nation of Panem, where the Capitol elite live in high-tech luxury supported by the old-fashioned sweat of district coal miners, farm hands and factory workers” (Hsu, March 2012). Are we using technology to subjugate the lower classes? At a global scale, exporting our toxic e-waste to developing countries for re-purposing might constitute such an act of technological colonization (Vidal, December 2013). 

Even worse than being a ‘tool of oppression’, modern technology could lead to societal collapse. Science fiction writers have long wondered over the interconnected nature of society and technology in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature. In the CBC Massey Lecture entitled A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright suggests that the rise of technological tools both helps and hurts humanity. His warning is essentially this: when we get too caught up in the illusion that our technology is a step ‘forward’, or a form of ‘progress’, we fail to wonder where are we going? (as per Paul Gauguin’s 1897 work).  This can lead to excessive consumption and avoidable errors that are ultimately fatal to a civilization (Wikipedia article).

 So, although I am very excited about this cutting-edge piece of technology, I maintain an emotional distance from the device and refuse to let it become my life companion. I urge everyone to maintain a similar level of skepticism and critical thought towards their personal mobile devices.


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