Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau
We are living, right now, during a revolution. Call it what you will—the Information Age, the Digital Century, the Internet Era—but humanity is experiencing a wave of change, a spasm of exponential innovation that is without precedent.
Although this revolution has no peer in scale, it is not without parallel. Indeed, there are striking similarities between the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and our situation today. People, both then and now, see the wealth of opportunity, dramatically advancing technology, burgeoning professions, shifting mentalities, and evolving culture as signs of the dynamic times.
The Internet enables people to access the wealth of collective human knowledge in an instant. Computers render nearly every aspect of our daily routine faster, easier, cheaper, and more efficient—radically so. Social media provides a breadth and ease of communication that would have been inconceivable a mere twenty or thirty years ago. Not only can we access information, but new means are being developed to better create, alter, share, and employ that information. Increasingly (with the advent of mobile devices, for example) we are developing technologies that fit our bodies, minds, and lives better. It is a time of advance and novelty, promise and excitement.
These advances have far-reaching effects. The applications of new technologies often exceed the vision of their creators; people are still discovering, for instance, the manifold uses for tablets. The Internet has proven to be a strong equalizer: despite the threats from internet service providers, government surveillance, and censorship, it remains a remarkably democratic sphere. Voices previously marginalized in a world of traditional media (are television, radio, and print really traditional?) can now engage in broader discourse. In less quantifiable ways, this revolution is also changing how we think, interact, work, and play.
Our current situation resembles the Industrial Revolution in another way: not everyone is excited. Such rapid change can be disconcerting. Although there are some who reject technology and its conveniences altogether, more commonly, people are becoming concerned with the growing power it wields in our lives and in our society as a whole.
There have been unintended consequences. The ease of image sharing is a powerful capability, but it has paved the way for a teen sexting epidemic. The same resources that make our lives convenient and efficient, like Google Earth, are also exploited by terrorists. The minerals needed for our electronic devices fund conflict in Central Africa. Unceasing iterations of gadgets—and, in some cases, planned obsolescence—not only drive unhealthy consumerism, but they contribute to an ever-growing pile of e-waste.
Then there are some who, on a fundamental level, challenge how technology is affecting our human nature. If it is changing how we think, interact, work, and play, is it worth it? What do we gain, and what do we lose? As outlined above, there are plenty of concrete benefits reaped from the digital revolution: money, time, and information. Everything is so convenient—entertainment, communication, knowledge—but is eating from this tree of knowledge killing us?
The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Technology has advanced, but our relationships have regressed. The minds behind social media expected us to grow closer to each other with its use, but we’ve become more distant. The startling ease of communication has cheapened our interactions (although people are now trying to recharge those interactions with meaning, for example, by handwriting letters). We’ve sacrificed depth for breadth; instead of having a circle of friends, we have a mob of acquaintances.
As we cleave to social media, we cleave ourselves. It becomes difficult to live authentically when we share our quotidian experience with the world. We embellish, omit, and reinterpret our lives before presenting them: we lose our identity in our attempt to construct it. The result is not a social network that builds intimacy; it is a marketplace where everyone peddles abstractions of themselves.
We are all too happy to trade control for convenience. We entrust a growing proportion of our lives to digital entities: passwords, personal information, and finances. A system of technological feudalism is emerging: we swear our allegiance to tech companies in return for services and protection. Ultimately, nothing online is completely secure—period. To those who have enough power and knowledge, virtually anything is possible. Concerns include criminals stealing personal information from smaller companies, government surveillance, and China’s incessant cyber attacks. This general risk is mitigated, however, by that fact that the average person isn’t a valuable target. Still we must ask if it’s worth exchanging security for convenience.
When we rely on technology, we sacrifice independence. How many people can competently navigate, research, or entertain themselves without gadgets? Who could survive in a natural disaster or an extended power outage? In any public space you can see that we are becoming dependent, addicted, and bound: drivers constantly on cell phones, teens removed from the world by headphones, people hardly looking up from their hands—and the trend isn’t reversing anytime soon. The future promises wearable tech, the fusion of the human and digital. Technology is already a figurative appendage, and it is soon to become literal.
We are sacrificing part of our connection to the physical world to be more engaged with the virtual, but we are also becoming even more distant from the natural world. While the separation of people from nature by no means began recently, it has been accelerated by current technological advances: it is more difficult to be immersed in the outdoors when cell service reaches all but the most remote corners of the planet. Admittedly, experiencing the natural world isn’t strictly a need (many people live without ever knowing its wonders), but it is convalescent and fulfilling.
Maybe the reason nature is so cathartic, especially now, is because it can return us to simplicity. Technological advance enables us to work efficiently and communicate quickly, but this is a curse as well as a blessing. We become slaves: constantly checking email, scrolling through social media, and being interrupted by calls. When we are always connected to technology we lose the borders between work and rest, between friendship and obligation. It is so difficult to be tranquil; peace is elusive.
All of these concerns contribute to one: are we losing our humanity? In gaining technology, do we surrender some of our nature? If assembly lines and urban poverty were dehumanizing influences during the Industrial Revolution, what are the parallels in the digital revolution—and where are the accompanying reactionaries? Or maybe human nature’s primary characteristic is its flexibility, and we are just evolving along with our surroundings. To have a more detailed discussion about all of this, an explicit definition of human nature is required—but that goes beyond the scope of this piece. I’ll let you consider these things, and I’ll say this: it seems to me that the sum of all of these issues is certainly damaging our essence—however you define it.
This all sounds quite hypocritical coming from an essay posted online. Many people could certainly be called hypocrites when it comes to technology: we understand that it’s adversely affecting us in some ways, we talk about it, but we don’t do much about it. Is it even possible to stop all of this change? People here and there are starting to deactivate Facebook (it’s easier now that it’s in decline), but few can bring themselves to completely disconnect. Those that do may benefit personally, but they lose their voice in the discourse—if you want change, it’s self-defeating.
Viewed through a different lens, maybe sharing these thoughts electronically isn’t a contradiction. Highlighting the issues of this digital revolution doesn’t necessarily make me a technophobe—I want a compromise concerning the role of technology in our lives. We need to reach a better balance.
Let us use what is helpful and avoid what is harmful. Let us proceed forward with innovation, but let us be informed. Let us make decisions about our participation in this revolution, knowing the risks and the sacrifices. We will define our boundaries and uphold them. We will use technology to enhance our lives, not dilute them. We will take breaks from our trinkets—if only at punctuated times. By cultivating awareness and discipline, we will be able to avoid becoming the tools of our tools.
Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.