Technology and Getting A Life

70s

Why do I like technology? Well, I don’t, actually. I think back wistfully do the days before computers and my love affair with the typewriter and my newspaper cuttings library (which I still have, weirdly.) But technology isn’t going away, so rejecting it is a bit like rejecting clothing. But if I was being honest, I would say: technology allows us to think hard about the future, to see it more clearly, and to be able to argue with people who are much smarter than us.

Take a column I have just been reading by a guy called Nicholas Carr. He’s a very smart fellow, written a skeptical book about IT called Does IT Matter? and generally says things that are smart. But like a lot of people, he doesn’t always seem to get things. One thing he doesn’t like is the idea that as technology gets more ubiquitous, so does recording our lives get easier. This, he says, in a recent editorial piece in The Guardian, would make Socrates (who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”) turn over in his grave: “We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them.”

This is the kind of thing that technology users have learned to live with: the nonsense that everyone who uses technology is obsessed by it, and watches as their lives roll by. But like all balderdash it has some truth to it. As parents we seem more determined to plot our child’s progress through the filter of an viewfinder or LCD monitor than to actually absorb the moment through our eyeballs (babies one day are going to start thinking a human face has one big eye on it, one vast rectangular ear and a blinking red light for a nose.) And as I’ve mentioned before, we cubicle wallahs may be forgiven for mistaking virtual lives via our Twitter and instant messaging lists for real ones.

But Nicholas is not really talking about that. He’s talking about things called lifestreams – where we nerds create a digital feed of all the things we’re doing, reading or taking photos of and share it with anyone who’s interested. One or two folk take this a stage further, and walk around with cameras on their head. Or they record on their Twitter page what they’re eating, or write blogs that redefine the notion of boring your audience to tears. (I have read blogs that have had me literally weeping with boredom.)

Now I can understand that non-techies may feel this is a vast waste of time, and can’t think of anyone whose lives they’d want to follow in such excruciating detail. But just because we, and Nicholas Carr, can’t imagine anyone wanting to see or hear or read this deluge of life-data doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. As with all technologies, we’ll both adapt it to our needs, and adapt to it.

Posterity is a funny thing: We don’t know what it is our future selves and descendants are going to be interested in. A BBC website requesting photos and recollections of the 1970s, for example, found that most British people fondly remembered the strike-induced blackouts. (This is true: I remember looking forward to them because we all slowed down for 10 seconds and Dad told us a story around the fire.) But don’t expect to see any family snaps of that particular aspect of life back then. Unsurprisingly, not many people thought, as they shopped in the flickering gloom of candlelight, “Oo! I should record this for posterity! We’ll look back on these grim days in 30 years’ time with fondness!”

Then take a look at Flickr, or any online photo sharing site and see what people record and share these days. Now, technology allows us not only to see ourselves immediately — no more waiting for the film to come back from the developer, no more tiny digital display that doesn’t let us see much of what we’ve just shot — but also, via 3G and GPS, to share it immediately with anyone else on the planet. Technology, in other words, lets us hold a mirror up to our existence, which we can observe in real time. Socrates wouldn’t be alarmed, he’d be dancing around considering the possibilities.

True, we may not use this mirror as well as we could. A lot of what people record is banal, but who knows what people are going to find interesting about us 30, 50, 300 years down the track? Who knows what we’re going to find interesting about us 10 years down the track? (I’m guessing the lurch in male fashion from long pants to those over-the-knee numbers.) The point is that we’re not just recording our lives because technology allows us to. We’re recording them because we want to. Nicholas Carr thinks this is narcissism. For some it probably is. For others the technology becomes a fence from which to hide behind and not participate. For the rest of us it offers chance to capture and reflect on a life that goes by way too quickly.