Accidental Activist

Driven by Technology

On refusing to succumb to the lures of technology for the sake of it, or to embrace the mass marketing of useless little trinkets which purport to make our lives easier but only seem to make them more complicated.

By Ben Bull
Published December 22, 2010

A few years ago I was at an Intel conference in Toronto. The Intel CEO was rambling on about his chips - all the usual boasts about Moore's Law and how Intel is saving the planet and blah blah blah.

It occurred to me, as I watched the PowerPoint slides whiz along on the screen - smiling suits tapping away on their laptops, factory robots making candies, cars and more computers - that there didn't seem to be much of a social benefit to any of this technology.

During the entire 20 minute or so presentation, I counted only two slides showing how technology is currently making life easier for less fortunate folks.

During the Q&A session there was only one question I wanted to ask: "How is all this technology making our lives easier?"

But I didn't. I was probably too tired. At the time of the conference I was working a 50 hour week.

My boss's Blackberry wasn't helping him with my workload - it was only adding to it ("I can email you anywhere!"). And while my Intel powered laptop was fast, it was useless at running meetings and authoring my reports. Like most of my IT Tech colleagues, I was getting further and further behind.

Ten years later, my experience, and my opinion, hasn't changed. I've evolved into an 'anti-technologist'. I don't live in a hut or anything and I'm still working in IT. I own a computer and a cell phone.

But I refuse to succumb to the lures of technology for the sake of it, or to embrace the mass marketing of useless little trinkets which purport to make our lives easier but only seem to make them more complicated.

The other day I was sat in the pub with my friends. As I tried to steer the conversation towards the Premiership, the weather in the UK and what we were all doing for Christmas, I realized I was not alone:

"I see that Sunderland are sixth in the table."

"Click, bleep...Uh-huh?"

"They got a nice result the other day."

"That's nice, click, bleep...What?"

Phil was playing with his new iPhone and he had the same wide-eyed little boy enthusiasm that I had when ripped the wrapping paper off my new skateboard 30 odd years ago.

Greg, a more seasoned iPhone user, was just back on the dating scene so his phone was also his mobile calendar and, judging from the mount of clicking and laughing going on from his side of the table, his calendar was filling up fast.

We are still adjusting to this new wave of technology, but if the cell phone is any indicator of where we're going, it isn't anywhere good.

These days it seems to be accepted practice to plan your dinner on the streetcar and Bluetooth birthday greetings to your boyfriend on the way home. We are now so addicted to our cell phones that the government had to step in and legislate us from using them while we drive.

And this brings me to the heart of my antipathy: Technology drives us, we don't drive technology. Sure, we invent it, but it seems we often invent it for 'needs' we never knew existed.

We've done this before, of course. Who knew how the nuclear bomb would shape the world when Rutherford split the atom all those years ago? And what of the combustion engine that brought us so much mobility and now threatens to choke up our lungs, clog up our cities and bring us to a standstill?

Ronald Wright observed these phenomena in his book, A Short History of Progress. He calls these inventions "progress traps" and provides several examples, such as hunting:

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game.

Today's new inventions are unlikely to have the same impact as enhanced hunting or atom-splitting, but they will impact - and already are impacting - our lives.

The Blackberry, Bluetooth, iPod, iPhone, iPad ... there's a lot of 'I' in these inventions but to be honest, I don't see a lot in there for me.

As I write this my wife just emailed me to tell me her boss has bought her a new Blackberry.

"It was nice knowing you," she joked.

I'm not laughing.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 22, 2010 at 07:35:49

It's funny - I've had quite the opposite experience.

After years and years of resisting it, this summer I went out and got my very own mobile phone, an HTC Legend running Android. (I had a company-provided analog flip-phone 12 years ago, but this is my first personal device.)

Rather than a disruptive nuisance that constantly interrupts what I'm trying to do, it mostly stays out of my way and then shines when I need it. Among its many functions, I've used it to:

  • Tune guitars for my son's after-school music class.
  • SSH into my web server and restart it when it became unresponsive.
  • Make sure the wooden project I was building in my backyard was level.
  • Find a destination in London ON when I missed my exit and got lost.
  • Save all my appointments so that I'm not constantly stressed out over what I need to remember.
  • Take decent-quality photographs of things in my environment that interest me (this has led to a number of RTH blog entries).
  • Listen to copious amounts of music (and the odd podcast).
  • Track how far and fast I walk on a daily, weekly and monthly basis (the mere act of recording this information has resulted in me walking farther and faster).

I realize none of these functions are particularly novel, and to anyone who has had a phone for the last several years they may sound downright trite. My point is only that my phone has made it easier for me to do a bunch of things I would have liked to do anyway.

Perhaps ironically, the only function of my telephone that I really dislike is the, you know, telephone part. Receiving a phone call is an interruption, because I need to stop what I'm doing and concentrate on the call.

Texting, by contrast, is a much more workflow-friendly form of communication. Like email but shorter and faster, SMS is asynchronous so you're not required to drop what you're doing when a text comes in.

It may be that the difference between my experience with my phone and the many grumblings I hear from other people is that I bought my phone on my own terms and for my own reasons. It wasn't forced on me by an employer who wants me to be more accessible.

I also try hard to make a point of not fiddling with it when I'm talking to someone face-to-face. That really is off-putting, as it indicates that the other person in an exchange is less interesting or important than whatever is happening on the phone.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted December 22, 2010 at 08:21:05

Receiving a phone call is an interruption, because I need to stop what I'm doing and concentrate on the call.

This is one reason why I prefer contacting others, and being contacted by, email, for day to day stuff. The only time I genuinely love a phone call is when it is from a friend I haven't spoken to in a long time.

Stephen Fry on the telephone being a rude invention.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2010-12-22 07:21:17

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By simonge (registered) | Posted December 22, 2010 at 08:56:10

Great article Ben. I too have had a mixed relationship with technology. I worked at tech firms for most of my career selling the latest and greatest and frankly loved the ride. However, in my current coaching business and in my own life I am more apt to notice the limitations of some of this technology and the downsides.

E-mail is probably my favourite example. What started off as a great time saver and novel way to share, in many settings has turned into a way to shuffle work and avoid conflict. This isn't to say we should get rid of e-mail, but we need to be more intentional about how we use it.

One other thought here is that I'm cautiously optimistic our children may do a better job than us as the digital natives they are. My 11-year old has had access to computers, internet, IM, ipods etc. for pretty much his whole life. He uses them seamlessly with his friends and at school and it seems to work. On the other hand I haven't bought him a blackberry so I can monitor his homework and send him new chores 7/24. Hmmm - there's an idea just in time for St. Nick!

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By jasonaallen (registered) - website | Posted December 22, 2010 at 09:02:13

Thank you for the thoughtful commentary, Ben. I am of two minds about much of the technology I depend on, and have seriously considered going analog for much of my day. I'm glued to my computer/blackberry all day for work, and wonder how much more I could accomplish/relaxed I would be if I went analog in the evenings/weekends. At least for a couple of days a week. I have to admit, I love my Blackberry, and the constant hit of info from news sites and random interval response feedback it gives me from Facebook and Twitter. I also really really love my wife's chocolate M&M cookies though, and wonder if my overconsumption of electronic stimulation is as unhealthy as if I were to eat my fill of baking.

In the end, the signal to noise ratio on Twitter has gotten really bad recently (@raisethehammer notwithstanding), and the people I care about most on Facebook don't seem to be spending much time there anymore, so maybe a bit of a step back is in order.

There is, after all, a pretty good library system in Hamilton. I'm sure I could find something to do on the train.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 22, 2010 at 14:34:16

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game.

Actually, most hunter-gatherer groups tend to have very stable populations well under any theoretical "carrying capacity" academics have been able to measure. For societies which often (in cases like Australia) existed for millenia, or even tens of them, with less change than we've seen in fifty years, this just made sense. Nomadic people burn far more calories and tend to breastfeed much longer than settled people, and diets of fruit leaves and meat tend to support that trend as well. On average, with no protection, a sexually active woman may get pregnant once year. For foragers, it's more like five years. Add onto that herbs, infanticide and other methods, and populations tended to be very stable almost anywhere you looked.

Agriculture, on the other hand, is a baby factory. Grain-based diets, enormous labour needs and massive gains in food production tend to conspire to push populations through the roof. Storable food (rather than accessible food) requires granaries, guards, governments, economics and trade on levels never before seen, which generates far more authoritarian methods of social control. And since intensive agriculture is rarely sustainable (hunter-gatherer groups often did it, but that's another story), this meant that after a few generations there were often far more people than declining soils could support. And so they conquer their lightly populated foraging or pastoral neighbours, and the cycle begins again.

Despite all of our wildly productive techologies, we still devote far more time to actually working than hunter-gatherers did. Even today's foragers in very harsh territory often devote only a few hours a day to what might be considered "work" (building homes, collecting food, etc), with much of the rest of the time spent in festival, ritual, or socializing. Even in Medieval Europe, roughly half the calendar year was holidays, despite all that feudalism nonsense.

What this suggests is that for whatever local efficiencies are being created, the net cost of these technologies is not necessarily a net gain to total efficiency or productivity. A laptop takes almost no power to run (even compared to a lightbulb), but an awful lot of it to produce.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted December 22, 2010 at 17:18:15

great article Ben.

I had an epiphany several years ago which echoed what you're saying here. I was doing a solo hike, a 3 days walk away from the next closest human in the outback of Australia. I was wading in a stream thinking to myself how completely relaxed and peaceful I felt, how much time I had to do anything I wanted, and yet I had no time saving devices like a microwave or washing machine or cell phone or computer. It made me realize that all those "time saving" devices just allow us to be more busy and that without them we are more free.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2010 at 08:51:08

I agree with you Ben. I have a blackberry now, but I resisted it for the longest time, and even now, I resist the urge to check my vibrating blackberry, and I decide that I'm going to use it on my time, not let it use me. So when I'm out for dinner, I don't check it. The exception is phone calls (which is the quickest and most "urgent" way to get in touch with me.).

I think the trend of letting technology drive you is a big mistake that leaves many people feeling overworked and stressed out - like they have no lives.

Mobile computing was supposed to make our lives easier, but it really just made our work weeks longer...

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted December 23, 2010 at 17:33:10

Ben, what's this got to do with PanAm Stadium? lol. know I love ya.

Nice piece, but Ben enough with the Ronald Wright references. I know that book changed your life but come on.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted December 23, 2010 at 20:07:38

Don't worry Trey, The Pan Am stadium discussion will be over soon enough ;)

btw - have you ever heard of Ronald Wright?

Ben
Sent from my clunky old laptop

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By jason (registered) | Posted December 23, 2010 at 20:18:10

LOL. funny discussion.

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted December 25, 2010 at 00:25:32

I find this funny this Christmas season, I joked with my family how everyone has embraced/avoided technology.

You have my one grandma, who is a very social individual, but refuses to use computers. she insists on paying all her bills, banking, shopping through the 'old' way, as this is her way to interact with people. I applaud her, since she still manages to keep up with the rest of us.

mind you, than you have my dad's mom, who is of Eastern European origin, and has embraced technology. as a means to connect with her brother and cousins who live in Lithuania. It has opened a new world up to my grandma. She now skypes with her long lost brother and relatives in lithuania(an east bloc country that quickly adapted to our western ways) where she can check the local news, and skype with her family. she stayed in contact with my brother who was travelling europe this fall practically every day through her personal facebook profile. it's incredible to see how my 80 year old grandma can work around the computer.

Than you have my little cousins, who play their DS's at the dinner table or check their blackberries at christmas eve mass. I cringe to think that this has become acceptable behavior.

while technology can be a way of reconnecting with relatives and friends, we need to keep each other in check when it comes to our cellphones and other wireless devices. if someone's blackberry becomes a distraction, i say, address the problem, and ask them to put it away. especially this time of year, we need to enjoy the time we have with each other.

Comment edited by mike_sak on 2010-12-24 23:30:46

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By told you so (anonymous) | Posted December 28, 2010 at 13:27:30

Industrial. Maybe you could slow down long enough in your zeal to champion your cause to actually read what I posted and realize I place blame squarely on both sides as both sides are acting irrationally and not paying attention to what the realities are but rather making up dishonest talking points not based on fact

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