The downside of high tech:

Is technology bringing us together or pushing us apart?

Are we creating, via the increasing role technology is playing, a society more tolerant of differences, or is technology pushing us towards a more Orwellian future? Is technology bringing us together or pushing us apart?

After having not flown internationally for some years, some years ago I flew to the Europe and first experienced the screens fitted to the back of each seat with the ability for everyone to watch their own movie.

I then spent hours in personal and private bliss as I watched the films I chose along with everyone else on board, without having to put up with a movie shown on a central screen with other passengers moving about in their seats or attendants attending obscuring the screen at vital times while the poor quality earphones always hurt my ears.

After I had watched a couple of movies I was standing in a toilet queue and observed the entire planeload of people in their own worlds.

Gone was the feeling of having shared a collective experience such as felt in a cinema or felt previously on a plane where at the end of a film there’d be the toilet queue.

Conversations would be had with strangers about the film; in short, a sense of community.

Strangers who sat next to each other, slept next to each other, would at least have shared some cursory information about themselves and possibly even made introductions.

Of course there are people who fly often, particularly people who fly alone, who find this kind of relating to total strangers tedious and fraught, and much prefer the anonymity and independence, possibly even the freedom to be unknown. Yet what does this say about why we travel?

Many would say we travel to broaden our vision, to expand our boundaries, to understand the world, yet we do not want to talk to someone we are sitting next to for 10-12 hours.

When I published Kindred magazine we used to do public screenings of films, and valued the experience of community that arises from people watching a film together.

We all saw Inconvenient Truth and most likely it made a strong impression on us all. I feel that part of that impression’s strength was due to sitting with strangers, seeing their faces afterwards.

I feel that if it had only been available as a dvd, where it was watched alone in the comfort of our living rooms, it would not have had nearly as strong an impact as it did. It created a sense of community by bringing people together.

Similarly to those who see a rock concert together, there is a bonding with shared experiences.

iPod Culture

The MP3 revolution also has its downside. Driving the car with my kids with my iPod blaring through the car stereo I would often get amazed at the level of our kids’ impatience with a song that they do not like (versus a more active dislike) and wanting to change it.

Even if they love other songs by the same artist. This made me consider my own relationship to music, and how often I have grown to love songs that I had to listen to because they were on the same record, or CD, as my more favourite song.

We can all remember the experience of a song ‘growing’ on us through many listenings, an experience that is denied the iPod owner who only listens to songs they have individually chosen to download.

Remember those records/CDs you bought for one song and ended up loving all the songs?

I recall I fell in love with Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms simply because in order to hear the hits on the album it was easier to let the whole record play, and what gems were there.

It occurs to me that the iPod culture, of having only what you want on your personal music machine is making us less tolerant of ‘not favourites’.

This level of control over what we experience is marketed very successfully, and it is sold as ‘express your individuality’, your ‘uniqueness’.

By definition this is just a choice that arises from your experience which has its limitations and is in turn simply reflective of what you believe.

By never encountering music, or a film, or a cultural experience that is outside of our experience, we remain defined by our experience, in effect our past, and are more closed off to life, to the new.

I have my iPod full of songs that I like, that I give at least 3 stars out of 5, and while I love being able to put it in shuffle (whereby songs are played at random) knowing every song is a favourite, I am aware I am not listening to anything outside of my preselected playlists.

In fact sometimes it appears our whole life can be set up like a playlist.

I like tuning into the radio to get some unpredictability, although even then radio stations also cater to certain tastes so the parameters of what I will hear are also set.

The film The Accidental Traveller talks of modern life’s homogenisation whereby the experience of travelling to different cultures can be removed completely from travelling, with hotel rooms set up the same, ditto room service, the dining rooms, satellite TV etc.

This is the kind of scenario that iPods create.

Recently I went on a long drive on my own, 11 hours, and found myself singing along to the succession of my favourite songs that came on.

At no time did I listen to music that did not grab me, that did not stimulate me, and I found that after some time my appreciation of what I was listening to had waned, and I got bored with what was my favourite music.

While I knew I still loved my music, I was aware it was the fact I had missed some downtime, those periods of tuning out that give meaning to tuning in, that had produced this feeling of boredom.

Consider you are watching a fast paced thriller on TV and an ad break comes on, and it is one of those high volume electrical goods-store-chains ads, at the end of which you are even more hyped up, and so when the movie restarts it feels like coming down.

If it had been a different ad, perhaps a beer commercial that makes you laugh, then it refreshes you so when the movie restarts you are ready to engage again.

By shopping online, do we miss the experience of being attracted to a product that we did not know about, the experience of browsing?

By buying our flight tickets online, are we missing what our former travel agent might have told us about this or that destination?

Yes the choices that our high tech society provides for us are fabulous and unimagineable even 5 years ago, but are these choices bringing us together, or are they creating separation, playing on the illusion that we are not connected to a community, and so making us easier to manipulate.

A kind of commercial ‘divide and rule’ approach?

By Mark O’Brien

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