Futurist Retrospective

There are lot of ways that I’m a futurist.

I think that this is much to Karen’s chagrin. I tend to not just adapt to, but seek change in many ways, especially around technology. We were created as creators, after all, and I see the digital sphere as a grand, if occasionally misguided, expression of our creativity. That’s not to say that I grab every new toy that becomes available. Even if our budget were to allow, I believe in a spiritual discipline of avoiding materialism. I also believe that every technology should solve a problem for you, and that, if it doesn’t, it’s likely excessive to have it in your life.

That said, as the technology world goes, I supposed I’m still a bit of curmudgeon. I use some social media, but generally my perspective is that without it, we would have fewer problems. I read my news digitally, but I still prefer to read the paper every morning, even if it is in digital format. I use an RSS reader of sources that I know are reputable rather than allow someone else’s algorithm to feed me information. When I was splitting a lunch bill with some colleagues once, I asked if they had a PayPal account that I could send the money to, and they looked at me blankly as though I were an illiterate luddite.

There are also areas of my life in which I’m anachronistic. I refuse to use modern technology to make my coffee. I grind it in a hand grinder, measure the water carefully, and use a press for my morning caffeination. While my to-do lists are digital because I see a legitimate need to be able to access them from anywhere, any important thoughts or notes that I have about life or inspiration or reflection go into a leather traveler’s notebook that Karen gifted me for Christmas several years ago. There’s something about the discipline of slowing down long enough to write something by hand that is deeply important.

Some of my family finds this amusing. My father-in-law jokingly says that he likes watching me make coffee because I’m a “mad scientist.” I’m fairly certain I’ve gotten some strange looks on flights while journaling my thoughts. It’s just not something that one sees often any longer.

So, while there are ways that I’m a futurist, I suppose that these aren’t among them.

I remember a conversation some years ago with an old friend during our weekly meeting at a local coffee shop. We were discussing how, in Victorian times, everyone kept a journal. Publishing the private journals and papers of influential thinkers, often posthumously, has long been a valued practice in the academic community. I recall making the point in that conversation that blogs were the modern equivalent of this practice, only with the added benefit of inviting conversation from others on the thoughts recorded. Today, I think that I would be more uncertain of whether or not I was onto something there, and, even if I were, the algorithms of social media have all but degraded blogs to the backs of our minds (who has time to ready 200 word posts?) and, even if they haven’t in some circles, the beauty of a blog is the conversation, and almost no one comments on posts these days. So, even if I was correct and we were onto something important there, I think we’ve mostly managed to lose it among the noise.

There’s a theory out there that digital technology never actually makes anything easier for us (I’m specifying digital here, because I don’t think most of would argue against innovations like machines that do our laundry for us). As our work becomes more knowledge-based and less physical, we have developed the capacity to work from anywhere. While that’s a luxury that affords us more time, it also consumes more of our time because we can never switch it off. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet was a better place when it was a place we went to when we intentionally sat down behind a computer and initiated a connection, rather than having it in our pockets all of the time and always on. We’ve rushed to achieve so much, and we have largely succeeded. To paraphrase Captain America, though, they didn’t tell us what we’ve lost. There’s a point of connection that we don’t have if we see each other primarily on a screen.

I guess my point here is that everything becomes progressively more frenetic. And I know that I’ve written about this before, but it’s something that always seems to be on my mind of late, because everything keeps happening faster, and faster, and..it was too fast already when I began thinking about this topic.

I wish sometimes that we could go back. I think I’ve made it apparent here that I’m not against digital progress. It’s that I think that we hit a sweet spot some years ago, and things would have been really great if we had collectively pressed pause and broken free of the illusion that we can never appreciate this great thing that we’ve done, but rather have to immediately rush onto the next thing. And while that sweet spot would be defined slightly differently by different people, I really think that, if we could just rewind a bit…back to before social media spiraled out of control, back to before the web was in our pockets and on our wrists at all times, back to when people read books more than screens…I think that would be collectively better for doing so.

Anyone who has ever tried to downgrade an operating system will tell you, though, that you can’t go back. We can only make the best of what we have and move forward. Perhaps if we just decided to settle in, though, and work on making the best of it before rushing into what’s next….

I guess that wouldn’t be progress, though. And I wouldn’t be much of a futurist if I recommended it.

Or would I?

When We Know Too Much

There’s an old adage which claims that ignorance is bliss. There was a point in my life in which I think that this bothered me, assuming that it was an excuse for not wanting to educate oneself on a given topic. Anyone who has worked an unpleasant job, however…you know, the sort of part-time gig that pays the bills while you’re in college?…has learned the truth that, the more you know, the more that is expected, and likely decided that you just didn’t want to know.

This doesn’t stop when we enter the professional world, though. I discovered this the first time that I was in a leadership role. There was a heavy self-examination that took place before I would accept the responsibility. I recall my father coming home and discussing how he turned down, or had no interest in, more leadership responsibilities than he already had at work. He wanted to just do his job and come home. The extra burden was a weight that he chose to live without, and I will always have respect for his courage to make that decision.

Sometimes, I consider this when I think of how much information thrusts itself into my daily life. A few years ago, I used to have conversations, as I’m sure most of us did, around how “it’s never been easier to access the information that we need,” or words to that effect. Now, we have conversations about how information is always there, whether we want it to be or not, like the illegal off-switches predicted in Max Headroom. My phone includes a screen time monitor that, among other data, tells me how many notifications I receive each week. The first time that I saw the number, I was astounded at how many I receive on an average day. The number was huge.

And that number is another piece of information, another data point, which makes its way into my life.

I think that we forget that knowledge brings with it responsibility. Just like that old college job, a truth in life is that the more that we know, the more that is required of us, because that knowledge brings with it a burden as well as a benefit.

“Knowledge is a burden–once taken up, it can never be discarded.”

Stephen Lawhead, from The Paradise War

I thought of this a few days ago when I read about a new service offered by the U.S. Postal Service called Informed Delivery. While it’s a really interesting capability, and while I can imagine use cases for certain people and scenarios, especially surrounding the holiday rush that will impose itself upon our lives all too soon, my initial reaction was that I have no place in my life for this information. This would be yet another notification, yet another data point showing up on a device, something that I would be checking periodically, all for information that I can easily live without.

And that, I think, is the key. What information can we live without? I think that the answer is a greater amount than we think. In a way, the older that I get, the more my view of progress changes, the more that I consider the wisdom that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. The rapid pace of our digital milieu seems to be based entirely on doing everything that we can, simply because we can.

I’m far from a luddite. I really like new toys. Lately, though, I’ve been working through the clutter and identifying what is too much, keeping what is necessary, and leaving behind what is not. I think that some people have a use for Informed Delivery, as well as for many other new technologies and tools that we hear about every day. I just caution that we don’t all have a need for all of the things that are out there, and that, if you don’t, perhaps…just perhaps…your life might be better off without.

Just a thought.

A Review of “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”

Screenshot of the cover of Digitzed: Spiritual Implications of TechnologyThis book intrigued me because I’m always fascinated by interdisciplinary explorations, especially when the thoughts surround theological implications of how we live our daily lives. As I’ve always been a bit of geek, and now make my living in technology, thinking theologically about that technology and how it impacts not only what I do, but how I live, is an exercise that I do regularly in any case. Hearing someone else’s thoughts on this is always welcome to me.

So, Bernard Bull’s Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology popped out to me as a must-read. I’ve never heard of Bull prior to this book, or read any of his other work, though he is published elsewhere. What I expected was a theological treatment of technology and daily life. What I got, to my disappointment, was a more religious recommendation of how to utilize technology in practice.

Bull’s examinations are of a very surface level. Spread widely through his book are definitions of basic concepts, such as social media and blogs. While establishing definitions early is important in any scholarly work, Bull dwells on these definitions at length, targeting readers who are not technically savvy at the expense of those who are. As a result, he manages to alienate readers such as myself (who are drawn to what the book appears to be about) in his earliest chapters. His recommendations at orthopraxy are low-level, extremely basic, and backed by views that smack of the very legalism that Bull insists he is trying to avoid.

That said, the book is not entirely without value. Bull spends time discussing the spiritual perils of a cultural obsession with efficiency, emphasizing that a Christian theological worldview insists that people are created in God’s image, and thus are more than the numbers to which the business world attempts to reduce us. He also includes thought-provoking discussion on the concept of identity and how this is effected by our digital presentations of ourselves, the implications of which are a relative concept of our true selves and how that relatively is, by definition, untrue.

Continuing on this concept of relativity, Bull speaks a timely truth in regards to how digital expression impacts our perceptual filters of the world in which we live:

“We are inclined to believe that which is presented in the most persuasive manner rather than that which is true. We celebrate social and political commentary that appears in 140 characters…We grow disinterested in lengthier explanations. We turn to ad hominem attacks on those with whom we disagree instead of respectfully debating the issues. We value news as much for its entertainment value as for its accuracy and information. If we are not careful, such practices breed skepticism about truth.”

Bernard Bull, “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”, p. 152

While Bull attempts to give us practical applications at the conclusion of his book (most of which I forced myself through as they appeared to be targeting those of an unrealistic level of technological illiteracy), his best practical take-away, perhaps ironically, comes from someone else. He borrows from Neil Postman and his contribution to the field of media ecology. Bull encourages the reader to answer the following questions when adopting any new technology (taken from pp. 130ff):

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
  2. Whose problem is it, actually?
  3. If there is a legitimate problem that is solved by this technology, what other problems will be caused by using this technology?
  4. Am I using this technology, or is it using me?

Personally, the answers with which I found myself after asking the final of these four questions were…troubling….in regard to some pieces of technology that have a place in my life. Despite the large percentage of the book that was disappointing to me, there was much value in this application, though I question whether it is more Postman’s application than Bull’s.

Altogether, this book is worth reading for the 10% that is thought-provoking, assuming the reader is willing to either skip the rest or force themselves through it. Digitized is far from what I expected, but not completely without value.

Information Shelf Life

Glasses laying on an open textbookWhen I was a student, I developed certain habits and ways of thinking. Most students do, and I imagine that these habits are remarkably similar from one to another. When Karen and I encounter a new and unfamiliar problem, for example, we find a book (or several) on the topic. We know which books to pull from our shelves should we need to reference them for some obscure detail.

Because of our academic careers, we instinctively know an important tenant of research: the oldest source is almost always the most valid. Newer research is, by nature, regarded with some scholarly skepticism because it hasn’t yet been subjected to rigorous debate by the academy. In fact, depending on the discipline, the date of the research can be the most important factor when citing it in other works.

Fast forward to today. Now I make my living on the web, and I am forced to change this habitual way of thinking. Research and relevant information in my field comes from blogs more than books, because books become out-dated too quickly. I can bookmark these posts that contain essential information, but these bookmarks are fleeting, just like the content to which they point. Research that is older is treated with disdain – newer is always seen as more relevant, because the technology moves so fast. A year old is often seen as worthless.

This has been a difficult mindset to which to adapt, because it seems to eschew the wisdom of what came before. Youthful enthusiasm and “disruption” is prized above experience in a way that academics…or many other professional disciplines…would not tolerate. I see the negative impact of this on my profession, as well: burnout, insane amounts of over-complication, pressure to learn and then leave behind. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis, so much salvific hope, in our technology, while the exponential pace at which that very technology rushes ahead betrays us, leaves us behind, our perceptions now scattered…damaged goods, as it were.

New research is not a bad thing. We progress because of it. I would go so far as to say that we need it to thrive as a civilization. Forgetting its place, though…allowing it to push aside all that has come before it in the name of progress…counters all of the good that it might do. Critical thinking is important, and forgetting that when we’re caught up in the moment of what seems to be a revolutionary new perspective, is imprudent.

And we are the worse for it.

Books as Hardware

My nookI subscribe to the Atlantic. I have off and on over the years. Most recently, my subscription is digital. I receive the latest issue each month on my tablet from Barnes and Noble. I’ve wrestled with ebooks since my first experience with them, but magazines make much more sense to me digitally. They feel less permanent by nature. Recently, however, I went back to reference a great article that I had read in the Atlantic, only to discover that issues past a certain date were no longer available.

As it turns out, this is an apparent choice on the part of the magazine, as all of their articles are available on their website after a period of time. I actually think that this is an excellent choice on their part, although I am frustrated that I can no longer access those issues when I want.

My discovery led to other disclosures, also, and these were much more disturbing. I can no longer download purchased ebooks to my local drive for backup or archival purposes. Barnes and Noble has intentionally removed the ability to do so, as has Amazon. What’s more, I can no longer open previously downloaded books. This is strikingly different from music and movie purchases from, for example, iTunes, which I can easily backup and archive. This decision on the part of the booksellers forces us to trust their clouds with our purchases instead of being able to have what we’ve purchased to read whenever we like. The opportunity for active censorship of what we have available to read in this scenario should make your hair stand on end.

Books aren’t software. What’s concerning about this trend is what it reveals. We hold books in lower regard than other mediums. We view them as fleeting, ephemeral–no more important than a blog post. Yet, it is in them that we preserve our cultural identity, in them that we experience other points of view and begin to wrestle with the most important aspects of our human condition. Our books contain such a vital piece of our humanity, because we’ve entrusted that to them. In devaluing them in this way, we’ve devalued our own human-ness, as well. We’ve declared that it’s expendable, that it’s only data…that we are only data.

Can we be surprised, then, at the way our civility devolves around us? I don’t think that we can.