Continuing today with Mr. Patrick Rhone, the Real Life series contends with the pitfalls of the modern technological experience, the influence of the digital world upon children, and lending coherence and control to this immaterial environment.
The Real Life series is an ongoing discussion between friends. A conversation built upon the tenets of introspection, reflection, and the thoughtful consideration of the past, present, and future.
MA: Patrick, as a renowned writer and triumphant advocate of a minimalistic lifestyle, how has technology — regardless of type— made a true impact upon your life?
PR: Well, I hate to dive into semantics but well, I'm a writer so I assume a certain amount of license to do so. By technology I assume you mean computing technology as it has come to prominence on a personal computing level during my lifetime beginning around the time I was a pre-teen (early 1980's).
Well, like any other seminal technology, like fire, or the printing press, it completely changed the world. My first computer was a Timex Sinclair that was on indefinite loan from a relative of mine that was into computing. I remember having to hook it up to an old tube TV for the display and a cassette recorder for the "drive". There were some cassettes that came with it that each had a program on them. One, a text adventure game. The other, a programming instruction tape (BASIC I assume). The cassettes were white. I enjoyed playing the game. I mostly ignored the other. I remember wishing I could use it to write. But there was not a cassette tape for that. My interest was not dissuaded by this omission.
My first "real" computer was a 486/50 that I ordered from some no-name vendor I found in the back of Computer Shopper with a $3000.00 inheritance from a recently passed Uncle meant for my further education. This, in my opinion, qualified. I had a geek friend who gave me clear instructions on what to order, how, and from whom. These were 1) Get the fastest and best you can buy 2) Call and get both a receipt and warranty in writing and 3) Don't order from any company that can afford a full page ad or any that can't afford at least a 1/8 page. About a week later, the fastest and most loaded computer one could get at the time showed up. I used it mostly for writing, BBS, Doom, Lunatic Fringe (A game built into a screen saver program). It was fantastic.
Not long after I got a job working for one of those full page ad vendors that I never would have bought from. I started as a writer but within a year or so found myself doing tech support when they found out I was also a geek. Actually, they offered me the tech support job, I turned them down for the sake of my "art". They then showed me that I'd be making double in tech support. No brainer.
Every other job I had after that was in tech. Some of my best friends I have because I chose that path. People I met along the way. Geeks. Nerds. Outcasts who, seemingly overnight, woke up and found themselves in a world with seemingly limitless possibility. People like me.
I met my wife because her hard drive died and a mutual friend asked if I could help her out. She was cute but I had a bad case of the flu and was focused on the task and a promise to a friend. I charged her nothing and left not thinking much of it. Then, she sent me an email to thank me once again...
So, how has technology impacted my life in a true and meaningful way? In every way that could have meaning. I don't really think my life would be the life I have without it.
MA: The notion that computing provided a new medium for personal definition is certainly interesting to consider.
Today, however, personal computing seems to have largely lost the glean of novelty. Instead, personal computing is an accepted and integral portion of our lives. Rather than providing definition where there was none prior, personal computing has shifted into a societal norm.
In this continuing evolution, how do you foresee the impact of technology further affecting the lives of people? Rather than existing as a niche industry reserved for geeks and nerds, personal computing has adopted an ever-broadening reach. Smartphones, tablets, and smart televisions are increasingly fostering an environment of near-constant connectivity. Yet, despite this dazzling environment, the vast majority of people are complacent and unaware of their technological circumstance.
So, in that sense, do you see this interconnected, computing-driven world as a provider of enrichment — as it was for you during your formative years — or as a potential agent for corruption?
PR: I think, in general, it is and will continue to expand on the path of being an enhancement.
For instance, I just look at the way it affects my four-year old daughter. She already understands that a photograph is something that is available instantly and can be shared immediately from a computer that grownups carry in their pockets. She knows that just about any movie she might ever want to watch is available on the iPad or the iMac we use as an entertainment hub (which she calls "The Big iPad"). In fact, she has a harder time understanding those rare situations when the Internet isn't available — like up at our cabin where the connectivity is really abysmal. I believe most kids of today will know a world where connectivity is as expected in life as the air we breathe.
Of course, this kind of ubiquitous connectivity is still relatively new. We are all still trying to find a way to deal with it sensibly. The same societal and personal transformations had to occur when printed materials like books became cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to acquire. The telephone as well. The same fears and objections were raised about their affect. This has all happened before and it will all happen again.
MA: Prior to this discussion, I hadn't spent much time considering the impact of technology upon children. Instead, I had focused primarily upon the lives of technologically-versed adults, and the ever-changing digital landscapes surrounding them. For us, the changing landscape is a new source for jobs, communication, and interconnectivity, but for them it is an accepted aspect of life.
In respect to this phenomenon, as a parent yourself, do you worry about the entrenched nature of connectivity in your daughter's life? Do you ever attempt to impose boundaries between the physical and digital worlds, or do you think that it has become a necessary aspect of her formative experience?
PR: I would not say "necessary" is the right word. Perhaps, unavoidable is somewhat more appropriate. I mean, we live in a world where we have coffee machines that can connect to the internet and download the perfect roast on a per-bean basis. I can adjust my home thermostat from anywhere in the world. But what does this mean?
I think in many ways technology gives us as parents (and in general) more control. For instance, my daughter has next-to-no experience with watching traditional broadcast/cable television. We have not had one at home since before she was born. She is used to watching shows from Netflix streaming. Therefore, unlike the days of my youth, she and I can actually choose what she watches, how much, and when. This is far more control than I had as a youth, when I would get home from school, turn on the TV, and choose between whatever happened to be on at that time. It often was not age appropriate or have any real educational qualities beyond the morality lessons 1970's sitcoms occasionally provided.
On the other hand, we have made the conscious choice to send her to a Montessori school in part because of it's analog, self-directed, work-based, and tactile learning approach. I once brought my iPad into a Montessori school to show the teacher an interesting app I found and they just about chased me out with pitchforks and burning stakes.
That said, I have no illusion that technology plays a natural role in her life and that this role is increasing rapidly. But, I think this is for the better, largely, and not the worse. And, just as my Mom had to teach me how to mindfully approach my usage of television, I will have to do the same for my daughter when it comes to the technology of this day.
MA: Insofar as technology may have become an agent of control, do you think such a state of affairs might be illusory?
OmniFocus, Things, Calendar, and broad swathes of productivity software on the market all claim to improve the human experience. To allow us to reclaim control over our lives. And yet, in many respects, such purported elements of productivity often become deep pits of wasted time and effort.
My concern is that due to the ubiquity of technology, we have been forced into the perception of it as a means for control. As we desperately attempt to wrangle the digital world into our own respective circumstances, do we not embark upon a path in which we risk the utter loss of control?
PR: Well, nothing can control us or give us control. Only we can control our own actions. What we have, instead, is choice. The choice to follow one path versus following another. The choice to set that path or let that path be set for us.
I feel that this is the reason why so many of the productivity apps you mention fail. Instead of working on and building the systems and habits one needs to set for themselves — based on what works for them — they make the choice to be led by the technology born of tools and systems that work for others. I think that one of the reasons that Getting Things Done by David Allen was so successful was that it was largely presented as habits that could be adopted in whole or in part and modified to fit each individual — and worked into any technological method. Sure, there were some canonical ideas presented (Capture, Context, Review, Tickler Files, etc.) but these were presented as less than dogma and more as sensible choices — to my eyes at least.
I think, in the end, what we are searching for in technology is no different than what humans have been searching for since the dawn of Man. Tools coupled with systems that will make our existence on this planet a bit easier and make our chances for doing so as long as possible. All of these forces combined together are the definition of technology. If these can be coupled with increasingly effortless systems then the tools can become that much more powerful and the resulting technology that much more useful.
Fire, for instance, is a tool. Knowing how to make it, at will, and put it to a use is a technology. This tool allowed humans to settle in climates not normally suited for our body temperatures. It allowed us to eat food not normally suited for our digestive tracts. It allowed us to see in the dark and communicate over great distances. It also was allowed us to burn down the villages of those we did not like and torture those who we capture in the battle. These are all technology choices.
At the core, are our choices any different? Really? Honestly? I say, emphatically, no.
We are still making technological choices. Some more important than others but choices all the same.
You show me a productivity tool that can be fiddled with all day and I will show you how the same tool can be used to manage the projects needed to build the first manned mission to Mars or make half (exactly half) of the computers in every Iranian nuclear facility play AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" at exactly 1300 GMT (and exactly then).
MA: Well, I think that's certainly a fascinating way to look at things. Moreover, the broadening of the contemporary definition of technology is extraordinarily interesting to consider. It says a lot about how far we've come that such advances are so easily forgotten.
To that end — and this is my final question — I notice that you have recently sworn off Twitter (but are fairly active on App.net). The reasons given were that you felt somewhat alienated by Twitter's newfound audience and status, amongst other things. Are you at all concerned about the changing landscape of the Internet? Whether it's Twitter's perceived betrayal of its foundational users, a general lack of monetization schemes, or frequently haphazard business models, are you struck by any semblance of concern for the sanctity of innovation in this sphere?
Furthermore, and this is, perhaps, slightly more difficult to consider, do you feel that you have a place in that changing environment?
PR: I think we are right on the verge of an important shift in the seriousness of which we all take this medium called The Internet. I think the early growth and buzz around App.net is part of this. I really do think that, given the opportunity, people are willing to pay directly for things they see great utility in. In the same way we pay our cable bill and our phone bill I think services like App.net will come to be seen as a similar communication utility that we will pay a fee for (and be happy to do so). I think the real exciting innovation is this idea and associated shift.
I think this is true of other things too. I think people will not think twice about paying for access to, say, a great online publication in the same way we pay for a magazine subscription. Or, pay for a fantastic email newsletter the same way one would have subscribed to such a journal to be delivered via mail.
Now, there are not new ideas under the sun and these are certainly not. What they are, though, is the idea of physical 'objects' and digital ones being further obscured to the point of no difference. I think the big shift is this.
Here is an example based on social networking — How many of your [insert social network du jour here] friends, people you know fairly well, are people you have never met face-to-face. More than a few? That's the shift.
So, yes, I have a place in this environment. We all do.