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Technological triage

by Frank Forencich on February 21, 2010

Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.
Andy Rooney

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.
Sydney J. Harris

You are my creator, but I am your master.
Mary Shelly

You may be surprised to hear this, but I hate my Mac.
I hate everything about it.
It has all the things I loathe in a computer. It’s fast, it has a huge memory capacity and it runs all the major applications smoothly and efficiently. It hardly ever crashes and I can take it everywhere I go. The battery lasts a long time and I can plug it in and get the Internet just about anywhere. The OS is sleek and easy to operate.
“So what’s to hate?” you’re sure to ask. “Isn’t this precisely what people are looking for in a computer?”
Actually, the “success” of my computer is precisely what I dislike about it. Not only does it perform the essential functions that I need to make my way in the modern world, it also performs thousands of non-essential functions that I can just as well do without. But it’s all so easy, my laptop sucks me into projects that don’t really need to be done and lures me into tasks that don’t really need to be addressed. It keeps my vision centered on a single point in space and keeps my posture in a static position. Worst of all, it keeps me indoors and destroys my relationship with the natural world. Slowly but surely, my Mac is killing me, sapping my vitality and distorting my relationship with the real world.
The first Macintosh was introduced in January, 1984, the first commercially viable personal computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface. But now, as we look back, we find that the bright and shining promise of the digital age is turning out to be a delusion and the dark side is becoming more apparent with every passing day. Some of us are now beginning to realize the truth–that the only thing worse that a slow computer is a fast computer. The only thing worse than Windows is Snow Leopard. The only thing worse than Snow Leopard is Word Press. And the only thing worse than Word Press is the iPhone. And the only thing worse than the iPhone is Facebook. And the only thing worse than Facebook is Twitter. It’s all distraction, diversion and delusion.

labor generation

Back at the dawn of the digital age, “visionaries” claimed that the computer would be a highly effective labor-saving device that would free us from untold hours of drudgery. No longer would we be shackled to our desks, writing down numbers and words by hand until the middle of the night. We’d be granted a wide open vista of easy living, free to pursue our favorite leisures, hobbies and fascinations.
Boy, were they off the mark. If the computer is anything, it’s a labor-generating device, a labor multiplier. By virtue of its multi-function capability, it actually gives us more work to do than we would otherwise have. All computers have done for us is to replace one kind of drudgery with another, less physical form. Surely some of us have been freed from some types of repetitive labor, but for every case of technological liberation, we’ve created a hundred cases of technological enslavement. As computing technology has invaded every last corner of human activity, even the smallest acts of physicality have been stolen from our lives.
Techno entrepreneurs like to call this “innovation,” but its really more of “technological incarceration.” In fact, we can be sure that the felons in the big house actually go out to the exercise yard once a day, while the rest of us stay glued to our screens for weeks, months, years and decades.
Computers remove the body from almost every creative process. I could take notes by hand, but the machine is more efficient. I could make a sketch to illustrate what I’m trying to say, but the machine is faster. I could walk down the hall and have an actual conversation with a real person, but it’s easier to simply text. Little by little, our bodies are removed from every process and every profession. As physicality becomes increasingly irrelevant, we become disembodied brains. In the process, our health and vitality disappear. In the end, the “digital lifestyle” is turning out to be more of a “deathstyle.”
The disembodying effect of computers becomes ever more powerful as the technology becomes easier to use. Direct mental control of the cursor is only a few years away and then where will we be? No need to even push the mouse; just direct your concentration at the pixels in question. The “innovators” will tell us that this will make our lives “easier” but why should we accept this claim? This “innovation” will be yet one more nail in the coffin of the human body and the human spirit.

amusing ourselves to death

It would be one thing if we had the discipline to use our computers strictly as labor-saving tools. It would be one thing if we used them to streamline our lives and free us to live some authentic dream of true experience. But no, we use our digital devices, not as tools to free ourselves, but as a place to go when the outside world becomes unpleasant, onerous or confusing. Like drunks seeking comfort in the bottom of a bottle, we compulsively lunge for our keyboards, ready to escape whatever it is that ails us. Once logged in, we are free to loose ourselves in a bottomless world of visual distraction.
Ultimately, we find ourselves on a path towards addiction and denial of the world around us. As amusement machines, computers pave the way for decreased engagement with the natural world as they distract us from matters of genuine importance. This is a trend forshadowed most notably by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932), but also by media pundit Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).
Sitting at the computer has become the default position for “work,” or more correctly, the “apparent work.” For those who don’t know what to do with their time but who want to appear busy, the computer is the perfect hide-out. As long as you keep looking at your display, you’re safe. No one can call you a slacker if your eyeballs are glued to the screen and your hand is on the mouse. How many millions of people hide out in front of the keyboard each day? How many hours are wasted in digital posing? Is the computer the new ostrich hole for the overwhelmed and stressed-out modern?

opportunity costs

Computers are bad enough in what they do to us directly, but they also extract a toll by displacing vital, health-giving life experience. Like junk food that displaces genuine nutrition, computers displace essential human experience and engagement with land, animals and people. Even if computers were entirely neutral in their effect (they are not), they would still harm us by taking us away from our bodies, the natural world and face-to-face interactions with real people.
In the world of economics, opportunity cost is the value of the next best alternative that is forgone as the result of making a decision. If, for example, you spend time and money going to a movie, you cannot spend that time at home reading a book. If your next-best alternative to seeing the movie is reading the book, then the opportunity cost of seeing the movie is the money spent plus the pleasure you forgo by not reading the book. All decisions have opportunity costs, computer use included.

“smart phones” aren’t

Of course, no diatribe against computers would be complete without a shot at the so-called “smart phone” industry. Supposedly, these devices “liberate” us from our desks and the need to be “tied down” to any particular place.
But connection to place has been an integral part of human experience for the vast majority of our time on earth. Every primal culture has embedded itself in land and habitat with sensation, action, narrative, song and culture. Separating ourselves from the land is a radical act, an experiment, a shot in the dark. We simply have no idea what “freeing ourselves” from the land will do to body and spirit. Epidemics of attention problems suggest we are making a big mistake.
We can observe the dislocating effects of “smart phones” by watching the spectacular inattentiveness of pedestrians on the street. Cell phone users become nearly blind to their surroundings, oblivious to danger, sight and ambient sound. Public health officials have now documented an increasing number of cases in which pedestrians have been involved in auto accidents, their spatial and situational awareness blinded by the cell phone.
Just as the desktop computer sucks the life out of our muscles, “smart phones” suck the life out of our senses, our awareness of place and our ability to interact with other people in face-to-face settings. The actual damage may seem insignificant, but the displacement costs are immense. Every hour on the “smart phone” means one hour less in conversation or engagement with the real world. It means one hour less experience in realms that have defined human life for millions of years. And in this respect, these digital devices steal our humanity and our lives.

warning labels

The time has come to re-classify the computer industry and label it for what it really is. Some nutritional activists have advanced the notion that high-fructose corn syrup and trans-fats are “the new tobacco.” Maybe so. But it’s time to realize that computers belong in the same category. Apple, Google and Microsoft are wrecking our bodies just as efficiently as RJR Reynolds and Coke. Maybe we need to start talking about “digital tobacco.” Instead of worshipping Apple, Google and Microsoft as our saviors, maybe we should start talking about the hazards of “Big Digital.” And yes, maybe it’s time to start organizing a class action suit against corporations who peddles these products to consumers, with harsh penalties for those who promote “the digital lifestyle” to kids.
This is not hyperbole. This is not satire. It is no exaggeration to say that computers constitute a genuine public health hazard. And so, the comparison becomes inevitable: All computer products–hardware and software alike–ought to come with warning labels: “Long-term use of this product will cause sedentary behavior and will contribute to a host of lifestyle diseases including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and physical apathy. Use sparingly.” You think I’m kidding? The day will come.

computer ed reconsidered

When we take a hard look at the pathological effects of computers, we begin to realize that our educational institutions are completely missing the point. That is, most schools and colleges now operate under the unquestioned assumption that it is essential to “teach students how to use computers.” And so we see entire curriculums built around digital “how-to.” No one doubts this sort of educational offering; every institution now boasts dozens of computer classes at every level.
But given what we know about the health-negative effects of sitting for weeks, months and years in front of a keyboard, our educational objective really ought to be reversed. In other words, our goal should be to “Teach students how to not use computers.” In other words, we ought to teach students the intelligent use of digital devices. Students must learn to ask the right questions: What are computers good for? When is it appropriate to use a computer? What are the drawbacks? When is it better to use traditional materials? When is it better to simply turn away?


Of course, this whole discussion poses a nasty conundrum. Computers, for all their body-sucking, health-destroying qualities, are not going away any time soon. Our culture has become so infected with digititis that escape now seems nearly impossible. If we want to get anything done in this world, we have to sit down and drive the mouse; even the most committed Luddite must spend some time at the keyboard if he is to have any chance of relevance.
And so, it’s time to make some hard decisions about what we’re going to do with all those digital tools in our lives. Shall we be the masters or the slaves?
The problem is difficult, but not unsolvable. There are things that we can and must do:
First, look to eliminate all the trivial and optional amusements that are now possible on the computer. Start by abandoning the “fake work” that is so popular in modern homes and offices. This includes all the optional tasks that really don’t need to be done: downloading cute icons, fine-tuning your screen saver and over-clocking your processor are things that can wait.
Just as obviously, the games have got to go. There’s simply no justifiable reason to be playing a computer game when there’s so many other kinds of games that we could be playing. Computer games not only wreck our bodies, they steal the very soul of human imagination.
Next, eliminate those projects that, however valuable, will become sink holes of time and effort. Sure, you could launch a new website with lots of engaging content, like videos of your cat. But that will take hundreds of hours and worse yet, the “success” of your site will only serve to suck your readers deeper into their own digital morass.
Instead, reserve your computer time for those projects and tasks that hold some prospect for genuine advancement of your essential interests. Treat your time on the computer as if it were costly. What if you had to pay $100 per hour for time on the keyboard? Wouldn’t that bring a little focus to your efforts?
When it comes to allocating computer time, it pays to be ruthless. Ask yourself:
Do I really need to be sitting here at this machine?
Am I sitting at the keyboard to advance some essential task that will enhance the quality of my life?
Or am I trying to look busy?
Am I making some kind of difference in the world or am I simply avoiding some difficult challenge?
Finally, when you’ve run out of options and are forced to push the mouse, make your screen time as short as possible. Do this by learning the programs and polishing your skills. Learn the key strokes. Find the work-arounds. Buy whatever code you need to make it go smoother, but triage that too. Don’t spend 5 hours learning a program that will save you 3 mouse clicks. It just isn’t worth it.
And one more thing: think twice about heaping digital work on your friends and colleagues. Sure, it’s easy to send out links to bottomless web pages and interminable YouTube videos, but what kind of favor is that? All you’ve done is instill a sense of obligation for your friends to remain locked onto the screen. If you really want to do your friends and colleagues a favor, let them get back to some kind of authentic human experience.

computers aren’t us

Triage, skill and discretion are essential, but these are only steps in the right direction. What we really need is to change our basic relationship with the digital realm. Most importantly, we have to stop identifying with computers, operating systems, digital devices or for that matter, any consumer product or corporation. To say, “I’m a Mac guy” is just as perverse as saying “I’m a Windows guy.”
Stand up for your humanity. You are an animal, not an OS. You are a flesh and blood creature, not a brain on a chip. You are a wild and creative spirit, not a batch of code to be run on command.
Get your identity straight.
The computer is a mere tool and a dangerous one at that.
Save yourself.
Stand up for your life.
Step away from the machine.

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