The following two videos pair well together. In the first, Tyler Cowen argues (in a TEDx talk) that we are in a period of technological stagnation. In the second, Neal Stephenson (in an interview at MIT) suggests that a new more utopian type of science fiction might help to shake us out of this malaise.
Head to Ogden’s 25th Street any evening, and you will see individuals and groups staring at their phones while simultaneously navigating obstacles and people on city sidewalks. You’re witnessing this summer’s Pokémon Go craze. Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, on the east side of Washington Boulevard, almost directly across from Five Guys Burgers, there’s the three-story Weber State Downtown building.
WSU Downtown, a partnership between the campus and the community, contains the offices of Startup Ogden, where a number of small companies are developing web and mobile-phone apps. The center is another initiative helping the university and Ogden City contribute to the tech revolution happening up and down the Wasatch Front.
As an engine driving regional economic growth, this revolution is creating Utah’s equivalent of Silicon Valley — our own, so-called Silicon Slopes. A properly directed revolution can’t, however, barrel into the future on the premise that technological progress leads inevitably to economic and social progress. For that reason, all tech initiatives, including those through Ogden and Weber State, should take time to distinguish when the technological innovations they are incubating and adopting are a social boon or a social bane. Has Pokémon Go enhanced or inhibited sociability among Ogdenites?
If mobile devices were exclusively dedicated to running Pokémon Go, the answer would seem pretty clear: the game has nudged people off their basement couches and into the public sphere. A full month after the game’s release, the sidewalks of 25th Street abound with players on the hunt for Pokémon. On the Weber State campus, usually quiet on summer evenings, players prowl the grounds late into the night.
For the young, who don’t remember, or for the technology enthusiasts who conflate technical progress with social progress, these effects might be taken as a matter of course. After all, why else would social media be called social media? And yet, in the long, intertwined history of American sociability and technical innovation, positive outcomes are anything but guaranteed. For example, when the telegraph debuted 150 years ago, Henry Thoreau wondered on the side of Walden Pond whether it was all a frivolous distraction:
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end … We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Modern sociologists have perceived even darker outcomes. For many of them the technological advancements of the 20th century have isolated Americans from each other. Instead of congregating on the city commons to hear a summer band, Americans hole up in their air-conditioned, suburban homes, watching television by themselves. Instead of walking to work or riding on buses, Americans drive alone. And instead of hanging out on their front porches greeting their neighbors, Americans have built so-called “snout houses” with jutting garages that displace their porches and discourage street-side neighborly interactions.
If these 20th century technologies led to increased social isolation and the desertion of public spaces, tech critics lament that smartphones have worsened the problem. Sociologist Sherry Turkle described it as people who are “alone together.” The greatest illustration of this phrase is the couple sitting together at dinner, each distracted by the siren call of his or her respective phone.
To the outsider, Pokémon Go might look the same: Couples, families and groups of teenagers wandering the streets busily interacting with the game instead of with each other. But that is a caricature of what is usually going on. Between capturing Pokémon, people are communicating about the game, commiserating about the slow server speeds and getting into public spaces in ways they definitely did not in the past. If much of modern technology seems to be indulging individualism and amplifying social isolation, there are also modern tools such as Pokémon Go that encourage the opposite tendencies.
This doesn’t mean we should confuse technological progress with social progress, or that we should settle on the idea our communication devices are “just tools” that can be used for good or ill. Clearly different technologies have different characteristics. Some encourage more sociability where others discourage it. In imagining the next app invented by town/gown and “Startup Ogden,” we should consider these characteristics. In so doing, we’ll enrich Silicon Slopes and our local economy. But even more importantly we’ll ensure the vitality of our own public sphere.
Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.
Dr. Luke Fernandez is a faculty member in the School of Computing at Weber State University. He is co-authoring a book on how Americans have felt about technology from the telegraph to Twitter. Twitter: @luke_fernandez
I came across this photo serendipitously, while doing some follow up research for the book Susan and I are finishing. The photo is hosted on the Smithsonian Web site and the caption reads: This 1844 telegraph key by Alfred Vail, improving on Morse’s original design, is believed to be from the first Baltimore-Washington telegraph line. What strikes me about the design is that it has some ergonomic features built in. The left hand screw controls how far off the desk the key sits and the right hand screw controls the amount of travel the operator wants. Pretty nifty!
Once a long time ago when I dabbled briefly in art I tried to paint a breaking wave as various hues of blue rushing up a face and then curling over itself to form the tube that surfers dream of. My effort to represent what I imagine to be one of the finer experiences of life wasn't much. But William Finnegan's Barbarian Days is. The book is a memoir documenting the author's attempt to find and ride the perfect wave. I can't say that he succeeds entirely at this task because no book possibly could; the experience belies textual description. But he does about a good a job as one could, given the limitations of the printed word.
The core of the memoir is a bildungsroman in the classic sense of the word. Finnegan graduates from University of California at Santa Cruz in 1974 and soon thereafter sets out across the southern hemisphere on a multiyear quest for the perfect wave stopping along the way to work as a dishwasher in Australia and a teacher in a South African ghetto. Through it all Finnegan attempts to understand how to indulge his obsession while at the same time becoming a political journalist who is mindful of the welfare of others.
On one level this is a familiar framing: a hippie going through an extended mid-twenties adolescence struggles to reconcile his selfish and hedonistic passions with the vocational and familial responsibilities that loom as one contemplates adulthood. And to some extent the memoir is that. Finnegan drops acid in Honolua Bay. He avails himself of the hospitality of Pacific islanders without repaying them in kind. He defrauds American Express in Thailand to extend his idyll. He dates (and ultimately discards) a series of woman who, had he been less irresolute, might have married him. He assumes physical and mortal risks in the surf that would make any mother turn over in her grave. In short, he riots in the excesses of the 70s and all of the privileges that were extended to a certain socio-economic segment of that American generation. And yet, instead of giving into this life, Finnegan emerges at the other end as a father in a stable marriage and as a renowned political journalist reporting on social injustices across the globe.
What is less familiar about this bildungsroman is that while Finnegan grows up he never leaves the beach behind. To this day, he continues to make surfing forays from his home in New York City to various spots along the New Jersey and Long Island shores. And he finds time to surf in exotic foreign locales as well. Do these forays represent a lapse? A signal that he hasn't grown up and that irrepressible adolescent inclinations peek out from behind the veneer of his adult gravitas? That is one way to portray it. But I want to be more charitable. It's not just Finnegan vacillating between the pull of a selfish individualism and the push of a more communitarian and selfless nature. It's not just the sensibilities of the “me decade” dueling with those of the “we decade.” Rather, it's Finnegan realizing that a life well lived can (and should) have room for both activities. Reporting on social injustices as Finnegan does deserves the highest accolades. It's what Aristotle was talking about when he argued that the telos of being human is to be political. But those adult virtues, celebrated as they are, don't need to eclipse the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and bearing witness to its sublime beauty. Both define the good life. And both, in their proper measure, are worthy of pursuit. In Barbarian Days Finnegan shows how he found those measures.
Below is a xmas greeting my dad wrote in 1969 on a teletype terminal while he was an anthro professor at Dartmouth College. The photo depicts a scrap of teletype paper. The poem, using words like "GOTO" and "Run" presents itself as a working program written in BASIC which John Kemeny was popularizing at Dartmouth at the time. The program doesn't actually run I don't think. But it's an artifact of the times illustrating how humanists and social scientists were also peripherally getting involved with the use of BASIC. Here is the poem transcribed in a more readable format:
10 ANOTHER CHRISTMAS COMPUTATION
15 REPROCESSING OUR LIST OF FRIENDS
20 CAN WE AGAIN GET OUT THOSE CARDS
30 BEFORE THE SEASON ENDS?
50 IN FACT THE TASK THOUGH ONEROUS
60 IS FILLED WITH JOY AND LOVE
70 DOES IT SEEM MECHANICAL?
80 GO TO LINE 60 ABOVE
100 WITH EACH OF YOU WITH WHOM WE SHARE
110 SOME WHERE, SOME PLEASURE AND FUN
130 READ 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'
140 READ 'NEW YEAR'S JOYS'
150 MAY THEY NEVER
160 BUT INFINITELY