Saturday, July 22, 2017

In The Time Before The Beeping

When I was a child, nothing beeped at you. We were left to our own devices to figure things out. When we spelled something wrong, no wiggly red line appeared beneath the word, nor did a green one appear should we use improper grammar (or rather, something Microsoft Word thought to be improper grammar). We were just supposed to know. The struggle was real.

Things were different in our day. You knew if your car door was open because you felt a breeze and it was kind of noisy. No need for a beep. You knew your lights were on because it was bright. You knew your seatbelt wasn’t fastened because—hey—nobody wore a seatbelt back then.

Microwaves weren’t constantly providing annoying reminders that they had finished the task you had assigned to them because there weren’t any. Perhaps computers beeped back then, but I couldn’t say for sure because, like most people of my generation, I had never seen one.

Games didn’t beep, they unfolded. Games didn’t make any noise at all, unless you count the sound of the rolling of dice or the spinning of a spinner. People made noise back then while playing games, it was called conversation. Believe it or not, games were something you played with other people. Sure, people occasionally played solitaire, but if people were caught doing it, they would explain their behavior by saying they were bored. Boredom, for those of you who are younger and unfamiliar with the term, was a state of mind that existed prior to deciding to get up and do something useful. Again, to explain to those of you younger than myself, solitaire was once played with a deck of cards rather than an electronic device. The cards did not beep.

Boredom was once a signal that something was not right in your world. It was a feeling of discontent with the situation you found yourself in. It was a necessary stage in the evolution from being unproductive to finding some activity that really absorbed your attention. I’m not sure that boredom exists anymore, we have replaced it with anxiety. Like a child who has dropped his nook, we are never really satisfied without a digital distraction nearby. We are never really satisfied when in possession of a digital distraction either, but we are to distracted to notice.

When I was young a song was not only a song but part of something larger, which we called an album. An album had an overall tone to it, quite often having an overarching theme. Songs were arranged in a certain way to provide an overall feel, the way flowers are arranged in a vase or gems mounted in a ring. The overall impression it made was far more powerful than could be made with a single song.

An album was not merely a sack filled with songs, it was a statement. It was an artistic expression—at least to those who knew and practiced the art—that captured the zeitgeist of both technology and cultural understanding. It was immersive: you put it on your turntable and then experienced it as you gazed at the artwork and read the lyrics. It brought you on a journey, the peak moments making you close your eyes in order to experience it more fully.

We don’t have time to take a journey like that anymore. There is always a beep to drag us back to the here and now, away from the timeless.

I remember visiting my grandmother who lived in a small town and all the stores being closed on a Sunday. My father told me that’s the way it used to be in most towns, though by the time I came along such a thing was a rarity. My parents also never allowed me to cut the grass on a Sunday. Such notions were derived from Christian tradition, and I can understand how, with a decline of a strong Christian majority, such practices fell to the wayside (though I still never cut the grass or do anything outdoors that is bothersome to the neighbors on a Sunday). While I understand the change, I still can’t help feeling we’ve lost something in no longer observing a day of rest and refraining from commerce. We need to set aside time for what is important, and slowing ourselves down and giving ourselves time to reflect is important.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and with the receding of Christian values, a new set of values assumed cultural dominance: the idea that progress is both inevitable and always preferable. It was not simply swapping out the sacred and replacing it with the secular, it assumed religious overtones itself. Technological progress was not merely an idea, it became a faith. Sure, we always seemed to lose something in the exchange, but the promised rewards were too great to ignore. So we set aside the way of life we used to know and stepped aboard a train that promised to keep going further and faster. It did not disappoint, in fact it took us further and faster than any of us could have anticipated. It took us on such a dizzying journey we haven’t ever had a chance to question the initial assumption that technological progress will always make us happier. When something came along that made us stop to think—like losing a job because of technology, or losing the ability to engage in meaningful contact with friends and neighbors—we only had enough time to repeat the mantra that technology is inevitable before moving on to something else.

We once lived on human time. Then we created machinery and were to a degree forced to live on machine time. Alarm clocks woke us up, traffic lights told us when we could proceed, and lunch whistles told us when we could eat. Now we have created microchips and live on digital time, where everything is broken up into fractions of seconds. We have become anxious we might miss that new message, the next “Breaking News” story on TV, or a response to whatever we just posted on Facebook. We have adapted, but it is not a conscious choice we made. The excuse is—it has always been—that progress is inevitable. I would suggest that what takes us away from feeling and experiencing life more fully is not progress. I would also suggest that nothing is inevitable except that which we resign ourselves to.

Technology is fashioning our behavior, we are not fashioning it. We leap to the sound of the beep the way a dog is trained by a clapper. I’m not suggesting this is some nefarious plot devised by a secret cabal, though I could certainly see the danger of it being used in that way. I’m simply positing that it is a trap that we have fallen into. It is a habit which has spread across society, not unlike the way smoking did a century or so ago. And like smoking, we can gradually come to see how it adversely affects our wellbeing and discourage the practice.

Technology is a tool we created to make our lives better. We are its owners, its masters. It exists to serve us. It has no will or drive of its own. It is up to us to decide what we want it to be. I would suggest that we have forgotten that truth. We have abandoned our choices in the matter and now we have virtually everything we do being recorded digitally through cameras, cookies, or a myriad of other digital footprints we knowingly or unknowingly leave behind. More than most any other invention of mankind, digital technology has the potential to both help and harm us. If we do not pay it sufficient mind, if we are too busy checking Twitter to take control of the digital world we daily live in, there are assuredly others who will shape that world the way they see fit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I just heard a beep.

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