The Latest Generation Of 'Get Off My Lawn!' Books From People Who Don't Understand Technology

from the it's-a-tool dept

Adam Singer points us to a recent article in the Guardian about a spate of recent "technology is destroying society"-type books, many of which we've spoken about before. The main book it talks about, however, is Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together. This is a bit disappointing in the fact that, in the past, Turkle has often been an astute observer of technology and how kids are adapting to it in positive ways. As one person jokes in the article: "Alone Together reads as if it were written by Turkle's evil Luddite twin."

Unfortunately, like so many of these books, the criticism seems to be focused on a sort of "get off my lawn!" outsider's view of technological culture, with assumptions about what constitutes "good" and what constitutes "bad." For example, the fact that people check information on their smartphones is seen as bad, but that doesn't take into account context or whether or not those people are communicating with others in a productive manner. As always, technology is a tool and there's no doubt that some people use it in ways that are not productive or helpful to themselves, just as many others use the tools in ways that make their lives better. Trying to paint this all with such a broad brush is disappointing. Much of it seems based on the silly assumption that communicating with someone via a screen is automatically less human than communicating with someone face-to-face. Yet we saw the same claims when the telephone first came out and I don't think anyone still claims that the telephone degraded societal communications. Technology is a part of the ecosystem and people have an amazing ability to adapt to it. Yes, some people will always overdo it, but blaming the technology and discounting the many positive users (as well as the likelihood that people adapt over time) is a huge mistake. It might sell books, but it does little to shed any real insight into how technology is impacting our lives.


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  1.  
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    MrWilson, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 7:24pm

    I tell you, it's the digital drugs and binaural beats that kids listen to these days!

     

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  2.  
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    fogbugzd (profile), Jan 25th, 2011 @ 7:33pm

    Remember when?

    It wasn't that long ago that cell phones were the targets of the neo-Luddites. Politicians and pundits were stumbling all over themselves trying to come up with laws to keep the snobby cell phone users on a short leash.

    Once the politicians and pundits discovered how useful cell phones were and started using the evil devices themselves, the paranoia shifted to text messaging. I think that is even dying down after texting demonstrated its usefulness during the last election. Heck, I saw the same thing happen in my family during a two-week period when one person went from complaining about the nieces and nephews texting to saying she needed to get a new phone because her old one was too small and made her thumbs cramp up.

    I am reminded of a letter a old lady sent to Wernher von Braun that said something like "Why do we have to go to the moon. Why can't we just stay home and watch television the way God intended." The pattern of fearing new technology before embracing it as normal is nothing new, and it will probably be with us for a long time.

     

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  3.  
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    Chris Meadows (profile), Jan 25th, 2011 @ 7:35pm

    It matters how old you are

    "My friend Jim Griffin always says that anything invented before you’re 20 was there forever; anything invented before you’re 30 is the coolest thing ever; and anything invented after that should be illegal." —Cory Doctorow

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 7:39pm

    Humans have an odd habit of highlighting negatives and ignoring that there are often many more positives. I personally think this is partly caused by the way media is presented to us, you never hear anything "good" on the local news.

    As far as I'm concerned technology has only ever made communication easier for people, starting with the printing press and now web cameras. What makes an iPod more harmful than a book? The iPod offers chances for the owner to socially interact with others (Skype, Texting, etc.).

    I think you summed it up perfectly in the last sentence, the viewpoint sells books and that's all the authors are interested in right now.

     

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  5.  
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    jfgilbert (profile), Jan 25th, 2011 @ 7:49pm

    It's all downhill from here

    I heard that some people just robbed a convenience store and drove away in a car. It just shows that nothing good will ever come out of these motorized contraptions. If they had to walk away, they would think twice before robbing a store.

     

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  6.  
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    B. Williams, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 8:26pm

    Re: It's all downhill from here

    This is like the logic that the anti-gun crowd uses. "if we ban guns, he wouldn't have a gun to use in robbing the store. gun laws stop crime."

    To which the rest of us laugh. So if he doesn't have a gun to do it with, he'll just use a knife, or a baseball bat, or his fists.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 8:54pm

    Re: Re: It's all downhill from here

    Well even in that case it would discourage some, to understand the why go to a farm pig with a big honking knife, select a pig that will die anyway and thrust that knife inside him, you will feel the knife going in, hitting bones and the sounds that creature makes as it takes its last breath, can people do it to a human being? yep, but it is not that easy, even doing it to a pig, is hurt breaking for most people and would discourage the use of knifes, maybe that is why women preferred weapon is poisons, that are not up and close and don't make a mess depending on the poison.

    But I agree gun laws don't stop crime just shift how things are done.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 8:57pm

    Re: Re: Re: It's all downhill from here

    * its heart

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 8:59pm

    I don't remember that

    "Yet we saw the same claims when the telephone first came out"

    You must be older than I thought.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 9:00pm

    Re: Remember when?

    "It wasn't that long ago that cell phones were the targets of the neo-Luddites. Politicians and pundits were stumbling all over themselves trying to come up with laws to keep the snobby cell phone users on a short leash."

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 9:02pm

    Re: Re: Remember when?

    Sorry about that.

    Funny you should mention the part I quoted. I saw a teaser on some "news" network just today about some politicians wanting to ban texting and walking.

    I didn't stick around for the whole "story". It could be typical sensationalism but they were talking about it today.

     

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  12.  
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    kyle clements (profile), Jan 25th, 2011 @ 10:25pm

    guinness...

    I've heard that the Guinness book of world records was started as a means of preventing bar room brawls. People would get into an argument over something stupid, and this would lead to a fight. Guinness figured they should collect a bunch of useless facts, put them in a book, and it would end some of these fights. It's gone on to become one of the most successful series of books of all time.

    How is a smart phone any different from a fact book?

    Now people carry the sum of all human knowledge around with them in their pocket. Only a smart phone is much smaller, and has access to far more info. And it can do all sorts of other handy things, too.

    How is any of that a bad thing?

     

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  13.  
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    Bubbles, Jan 25th, 2011 @ 11:32pm

    Yes but...

    First, I agree that there is a significant value of electronic communications. I've lived it and loved it for the last 20 years I've been emailing.

    Second, while I am no trained sociologist, I do believe that there is a humanistic scale of interaction and it is pretty hardcoded into us. As you separate yourself from seeing a person's body language, facial reactions, or just the ability to shake a hand or give a loved one a hug, you lose something in the interaction.

    Talking over the phone is (imho) absolutely less human than face to face. Having done my nth conference call of a day, there is just no substitute for being in the room with the people you are talking to. And the same goes on the personal level. Email and text are even less human than phone calls. I find videoconferencing to be better than phone calls in group settings, less so for one on one, but always less than f2f.

    There's a reason that most mature adults believe that texting or emailing a breakup is b.s. There's a reason salespeople want to get in the room with a client. There's a reason we don't try to spend Thanksgiving videoconferencing with our family if there is a real option of going home.

    What you gain, however, is incremental quantity of interaction at that cost of lesser quality. The calculus undoubtedly works out for most that they are better for additional communication channels. But where things go awry is when they start to use lesser quality channels at the expense of higher quality channels. You know the people at work who send a dizzying array of emails that could have easily been eliminated by just sitting in a room with 3 people for a half hour. You also know that friend who updates Facebook every 15 minute but doesn't have time to grab a beer with you once in a while.

    The prodigal son wouldn't have been coming home if he updated his Facebook status to say he Likes family again.

     

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  14.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jan 25th, 2011 @ 11:46pm

    Re: It matters how old you are

    "My friend Jim Griffin always says that anything invented before you’re 20 was there forever; anything invented before you’re 30 is the coolest thing ever; and anything invented after that should be illegal." —Cory Doctorow

    Pretty sure that's a Douglas Adams quote, not a Griffin quote.

     

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  15.  
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    Frosty840, Jan 26th, 2011 @ 1:54am

    Re: Remember when?

    "Why can't we just stay home and watch television the way God intended?"

    Please, someone find me this letter! Crowdsource powers activate!

     

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  16.  
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    btrussell (profile), Jan 26th, 2011 @ 3:46am

    That is one theory the anti-gun crowd likes to use.

    I've used guns, knives and hands to end life. Hands are the quickest, cleanest and quietest.

    Hands or guns are the most humane.

    "Sticking" a pig is intentional to allow it to bleed out while heart is still pumping. Hardly going for a quick kill.

     

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  17.  
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    btrussell (profile), Jan 26th, 2011 @ 3:55am

    "reply to this" isn't working for me.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 26th, 2011 @ 4:08am

    After a promise of more optimism in the new year, it seems the volume of the siren on the TD waaaahmbulance is back up to 11.

     

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  19.  
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    Chargone (profile), Jan 26th, 2011 @ 5:02am

    Re: I don't remember that

    pretty sure that's a collective 'we' encompassing all of humanity through out history, actually :P

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 26th, 2011 @ 9:52am

    Re: Re: It's all downhill from here

    Exactly. In the days of using fists, the biggest guy robbed you - they stole your leg of lamb of some other such thing. With the gun, at least it gives small people the power to fight back against people who are 6 foot 2 and 250 pounds. This may sound like sarcasm but it isn’t-without guns, some people would just commit different crimes.

     

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  21.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 27th, 2011 @ 12:39pm

    Re: Yes but...

    "Talking over the phone is (imho) absolutely less human than face to face."

    Sure. But doesn't it open up possibilities that are impossible without it? e.g. liaising with clients in different countries, talking with an aunt on a different continent, contacting the bank without having to take a morning off to wait at the branch, etc...

    "You also know that friend who updates Facebook every 15 minute but doesn't have time to grab a beer with you once in a while."

    Yes, but would that friend suddenly have that time if Facebook didn't exist, or would you just forget that he does?

    The point in the article is that technology is just a tool, it's how you use it that's important. virtually every technology ever invented has positive and negative uses. Your colleagues apparently haven't got a clue how to use email efficiently, that doesn't diminish the massive positive effects of email.

    It's just silly to trash the technology because the "bad" uses exist.

     

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  22.  
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    Bubbles, Jan 27th, 2011 @ 10:17pm

    Re: Re: Yes but...

    ""Talking over the phone is (imho) absolutely less human than face to face."

    Sure. But doesn't it open up possibilities that are impossible without it? e.g. liaising with clients in different countries, talking with an aunt on a different continent, contacting the bank without having to take a morning off to wait at the branch, etc..."

    Agreed. As I said in my post, what you gain is incremental quantity of interaction at that cost of lesser quality. And recall what was said in the OP:

    "Much of it seems based on the silly assumption that communicating with someone via a screen is automatically less human than communicating with someone face-to-face."

    I don't find that assumption silly in the least.

    "Yes, but would that friend suddenly have that time if Facebook didn't exist, or would you just forget that he does?"

    By definition, I wouldn't consider him much of a friend if he didn't interact with me. I find the term on FB to be a misnomer for 90% of the "friend" collectors.

    "The point in the article is that technology is just a tool, it's how you use it that's important. virtually every technology ever invented has positive and negative uses. Your colleagues apparently haven't got a clue how to use email efficiently, that doesn't diminish the massive positive effects of email.

    It's just silly to trash the technology because the "bad" uses exist."

    First, I don't think this article is that nuanced. It is kneejerk reaction against someone who doesn't believe technology is being used well (thus the OP's belief that there is no hierarchical order to personal interactions, an absurd viewpoint in my mind).

    Second, I don't think the technology itself is being trashed. It *is* the usage under scrutiny. Many, many people have abdicated their personal lives to relatively impersonal communications. That's not a recipe for personal fulfillment for most (but certainly not all).

     

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  23.  
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    Andrew D. Todd, Jan 28th, 2011 @ 8:16am

    Computer Software Goes Slumming

    It is generally recognized that Facebook is a computer implementation of the High School Popularity Game, or the related College Fraternity Game. The game itself isn't new, if anything, it is a rather bloodless form of the meatspace game. Every so often, the meatspace fraternity "brothers" wind up in court after a pledge gets killed during pledging. Perhaps they made the pledge drink a gallon of vodka, or perhaps they drowned him in the swimming pool. Such is life. The same kind of thing traditionally happened at a certain type of boys' boarding school. Read John Knowles, _A Separate Peace_, or Robert Musil, _Young Torless_ (_The Confusions of Young Torless_). More mundanely, there is the kind of over-riding preoccupation with "collecting scalps." In certain circles, it used to be immensely important how many people you could get to autograph your high-school yearbook. That is the ancestral form of "Friending." One might obtain a set of back issues of Mad Magazine, to get a fairly good idea of what "kid culture" looked like, circa 1970.

    What impressed me about MySpace, on the other hand, was that there were a series of "MySpace" murders, the kinds of senseless murders which normally happen in the alleys behind rough taverns, eg. two tough guys fighting to the death over a waitress who doesn't want to have anything to do with either one of them. Again, there's nothing new about that kind of thing in general. However, in these instances, the events were mediated by MySpace, rather than by a bricks-and-mortar tavern. When I began hearing about these kinds of murders, I knew that the internet had expanded downward about as far as it could expand. Facebook doesn't seem to have as much of that kind of "rough traffic."

    What happened was that certain systems were computer-implemented before others, because of the ways skills overlapped. Other things equal, the first systems to be implemented were those which people could make for their own use, "scratching one's own itch," which meant systems useful to a computer geek. Things like computer conferencing systems-- blogs in all but name-- date back to the 1970's (see Murray Turoff, _The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer_, 1978). There were other variations. When a middle-aged non-techie academic set up a blog, dealing with, say, medieval history , years before anyone else in his field did, it was often a case of having a son or nephew who was a computer geek, so that the effective cost of setting up a blog was much lower than it would have been for the general public. The thing about MySpace and Facebook is that they were systems geared to the interests of the groups of people least likely to learn to program. They are not pinnacles of high-tech, so much as they are expressions of the Disneyland Principle, the Traveling Carnival Midway Principle, of things being built by businesses "for the rubes."

    I suspect that the "for the rubes" factor is part of what Sherry Turkle is reacting to. One thing you get a sense of in Turkle's first book, _The Second Self_ is how much she likes the boys, the engineering students, who come into her MIT classroom, all of them more or less resembling Luke Skywalker. Further, this is an extension of what she likes in small children. A twenty-year-old computer wizard is like a little kid playing with LEGO blocks, only more so. Facebook users are rather less attractive customers. There was a time when the bare fact of using a computer self-selected you as a more-than-usually-intelligent person, because you had to do all sorts of things by hand. This, of course, is no longer the case.

    There are certain types of very structured computer communication systems, notably software development version control, which are, at one level, similar to Facebook, but at another level, quite different. It is necessary that two people should not attempt to alter a given program segment at the same time, and there are mechanisms to prevent this. These are not regarded as especially dehumanizing, any more than a traffic light is. The fact that a computer is completely literal-minded in running its program is a fact of life, just as it is a fact of life that two automobiles cannot occupy the same space simultaneously. A blog does not need that order of foolproofness, because the human reader is intelligent, and can cope with different blog-posters disagreeing with each other, or using words in different ways. In the case of traffic lights, one could, in theory, fit every automobile with a loudspeaker or whatever, so that the motorists could do an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine at every intersection. Of course, nothing like that happens. Most people simply go when the light says it is their turn, and leave it at that. When people install such loudspeakers in their cars, they usually do so in order to make insulting remarks to strangers in safety, to shout "fighting words" without the associated risk, and then to speed away, to behave like Anonymous Cowards, in short. Someone who installs such a loudspeaker proves in practice to be a very little person.

    Facebook puts a lot of stress on hiding information, and then sharing it out-- unequally. The limiting factor in secrecy, of course, is how many people know something. It is written that Christ had twelve apostles-- and one of them was Judas Iscariot. By the time a hundred people know something, one or the other of them will be thinking about where he could sell the information, so the information might as well have been published in the first place. Facebook's access controls aren't really about secrecy. The whole point of Facebook's access controls, is to manipulate people by whispering about them behind their backs, and making sure that they find out, indirectly and eventually, by way of leakage. Or, in other words, let's trick thirteen-year-old Megan Meier into hanging herself.

    Of course, if one looks at the recorded interaction of Mark Zuckerberg and the Winkelvoss brothers, it is apparent that they were both playing the same game, only he was much better at it than they were. A basic starting point is that if one cannot program well enough to do a demo, one is not going to be able to run a technology company. As nearly as can be determined from outside, the Winkelvosses seem to have had a desperate desire to make the person who actually wrote the code work for chump change, so that he would feel cheated afterwards when they became very rich. They could not accept that the going rate to outbid Microsoft for Zuckerberg's services would be a partnership, say twenty-five percent. They had to be seen to be big shots, who lived on other peoples' labor. Zuckerberg could have backed away, simply told them that he was outside of their price range, and let them find their own disaster, trying to find someone who would write their code for minimum wage while working a hundred-hour week, racing against time and Zuckerberg. But Zuckerberg had the same desire as the Winkelvosses, to make them eventually realize that they had been set up. In the end, it cost him sixty-five million dollars. Quite possibly, he regards the fun as being worth the money. It is possible that only a group of young men engaged in "recreational cattiness" would have seen the business logic of something like Facebook.

     

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  24.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 28th, 2011 @ 8:52am

    Re: Computer Software Goes Slumming

    Wow, you have a rather paranoid, rather one-sided and extremely limited viewpoint of what stuff is, and at no point in your screed did you manage to hit anything resembling a number of groups of people I personally know who use facebook.

    It's a communication tool. How you use it is down to you individually. Half of what you said was either incorrect or based on isolated cases that in no way represent a majority of users. Did it really take you so many words to say so little?

     

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  25.  
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    PaulT (profile), Jan 28th, 2011 @ 9:19am

    Re: Re: Re: Yes but...

    "By definition, I wouldn't consider him much of a friend if he didn't interact with me. I find the term on FB to be a misnomer for 90% of the "friend" collectors."

    Hmmm... hence my point. If he's not enough of a "friend" for you to call him one in real life, why does his lack of time to meet up for a beer instead of being on Facebook annoy you?

    On FB, the term "friend" is just a placeholder. On my account, I have real friends, as well as relatives, colleague from both current and previous jobs, even a few girls I used to date many years ago. I don't count them all equally as "friends" in real life, but most of them are useful contacts on Facebook, without which I'd almost certainly lose touch with many of them.

    This wouldn't be an earth-shattering problem, but FB has definitely led to a lot of real life human interaction that I may not have been able to arrange without it.

    "Many, many people have abdicated their personal lives to relatively impersonal communications"

    ...and a great deal many more have not. As you admit, the technology can be used to enrich as well as hinder personal relationships. But, it's the negative that always gets focussed on in these stories - ie. the meetup I had with old friends when I visited my home country last week and which would have been difficult/impossible without Facebook won't get reported on, but the teenager who doesn't go outside any more, and whose parents blame FB rather than their own half-assed parenting will.

    Other than that, I think we agree on a number of the major points, but perhaps differ in that I can see a lot of quality interaction that exists due to the technology (for example, where distance makes it impossible to meet face-to-face).

     

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