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May 1996
Is High Technology Killing Us?

By Philip Goff


In a two part series, Philip Goff looks at our increasing dependence on computer technology. In next month’s issue of Satya, he will analyze computers, the environment, and corporate power. In the first part, he offers a critique of computer culture and the information superhighway.

As I sit in the New York Public Library watching a young woman browse through the computer "card catalog," my mind drifts towards thoughts of the communications revolution. It is easy to praise an emerging technology that allows people to locate books and other vital pieces of information in a fraction of the time it would have taken 10 or 20 years ago. Many of you surely would agree, and are probably living lives that require the help of a computer in some way, whether you are a writer, a graphic artist, or even a waiter or waitress. In the past five years we have been barraged with news, information and propaganda promoting and glorifying the computer revolution. As is typical with most new forms of technology, an open-minded analysis of the true ramifications of this revolution has not been undertaken by the media, government, or the general populace. Instead, the focus is on the gathering of an increased volume of information at greater speeds, the unlimited possibilities for virtual communities, and the impact of computers on education.

Proponents of the computer age should familiarize themselves with the fifth of the ten recommended attitudes towards technology in Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred: "Never judge technology by the way it benefits you personally, seek a holistic view of its impacts." Anyone who takes this seriously will soon discover the multitude of insidious impacts that computer technology is beginning to have on human culture and the environment. My intent here is not to convince readers to stop using computers or the Internet; I aim only to begin an honest discussion of the effects of the nearly unstoppable computer age. The efficacy of activists and educators is paramount, and, if that requires the use of computers, then so be it. But that does not excuse us from failing to understand the profound ramifications of computers on the world.

Obsession and Dependency
Our reliance on and obsession with computer technology is having major effects on the human psyche. Most profoundly, we are becoming more and more dependent on machines and computers, and less and less on human ingenuity and community support. As we become more dependent on computers to function in the workplace, go shopping, get to work, find a book in the library, and entertain ourselves, our fallibility becomes exposed and our sense of helplessness escalates when any computer system breaks down. This co-dependency with machines is denying individuals their freedom. True freedom means controlling one’s destiny and the crucial issues of one’s existence — such as food, clothing, shelter, and defense. All of these are easily threatened when we rely too heavily on modern technology to control our lives.

How truly free are we when technology changes society in such radical ways that we are eventually forced to use it? Consider someone who grew up in a once compact small town in New England before World War II who, by the 1960s, was virtually forced into owning an automobile. In that particular case, modern technology, left unchecked, began the decentralization of cities and towns, encouraged the creation of a massive network of roads, and coerced nearly everyone into buying cars. As we embrace each new technological advancement, we must keep in mind that we can never go back. If the pernicious effects of computers become too great, we can never return to typewriters and file cabinets, just as we could never go back to traveling by horse and buggy. As the information superhighway stretches out farther and farther, there become, unfortunately, fewer and fewer exits.

As computer dependence burgeons, society is gradually coming to understand the natural and cultural world only in terms with which computers can describe it. The real world of flesh and blood, air, water, soil, plants, and animals is being transformed into organized data and information. This is affecting the way people are interacting. There is much talk of "virtual" communities and cyberspace communication, the ultimate results of a dehumanized culture losing its social skills. Proponents of "virtual" communities proclaim that they will be an adequate replacement for real communities, which have been so fragmented as to be nearly destroyed. This, of course, treats only the symptoms and not the disease.

Community via computer hookups discourages us from attempting to rebuild and reintegrate existing communities. Since much of our culture is already engaged in a dysfunctional relationship with both nature and other human beings, why retreat into virtual communities based on entertainment and escapism as opposed to confronting the real-world problems of life, human relationships, and ecology?

"Virtual" Communities
"Virtual" communities pose a potential threat to urbanized living. If, as some claim, interactive computer technology obviates the need for centralization — making cities obsolete — it will allow our automobile-obsessed citizens to live further out in the "country." The influx of home offices reduces the need for centralized human habitation, an environmentally benign system when compared to sparsely populated high-tech rural communities. Cities grew because the proximity of business, government, and food distribution was vital. All communication was done face to face. With the influx of telecommunications, the need for proximity may become greatly reduced. Thus, a law firm can locate in a suburban office park, and its staff, with the proper modem hook-up, can live further and further from the home office, expediting the destruction of farms, forests, and wildlands. By promoting a global economy, our computerized, post-industrial society encourages organizations with far less connection, both financially and culturally, to local communities. Professionals who work on the global network, rather than in a physical place — Jeremy Rifkin’s "high-tech nomadic tribe" — can more easily shrink from civic responsibility and further engulf themselves in a cyber-lifestyle of telecommuting, entertainment, and the commodification of cultures and bio-regions worldwide.

Computer technology stratifies society into the computer "haves" and "have nots." Some, through class standing and education, will be more functional in our emerging virtual society, while others will be too poor to own computers, not educated sufficiently to understand them, or will by choice decide not to use them. The "have nots" will be left out in the cold, economically and culturally, if our society continues to embrace the ascending computer technology without at least questioning it or providing alternatives.

The Next Generation
The blossoming of the computer revolution raises an especially important question when it comes to raising children. Conventional wisdom currently says that children at an ever younger age must learn how to use computers or they will "fall behind" in learning and, subsequently, in the job market. It has somehow escaped the proponents of this pedagogy that none of today’s computer users, teachers, engineers, or technicians were trained at a young age, yet somehow they learned and became proficient at using them.

As younger children become more computer literate, they reduce their ability to make choices about how to live their lives. Their freedom, then, is reduced to being led down a single road, a road of utter dependence upon machines. Their futures are being "locked in" to modern technology and consumer culture. The more time children put into learning computer technology, the less time they will have to learn the rudiments of childhood: coloring with crayons, building with blocks, or fixing and maintaining their bicycles. These are things traditionally associated with the healthy development of children, and are more difficult to learn as an adult. Computer use, on the other hand, is quite feasible to learn as an adult.

Children who overuse computers are learning about life through an ersatz world based specifically on raw info translated onto a 2-D screen, rather than through multi-sensory, real-world experiences. According to Sandy Irvine in the quarterly Wild Earth, computers in the classroom will create "a new banality of learning, in which things might be learned, as by rote, from the computer screen, but with little deep understanding and even less diversity of thought." Additionally, we have yet to know the effects on the brains or eyes of someone using a computer for 50 or 60 years.

Ultimately, computers and telecommunications technology will replace some teachers in the classroom. Machines have taken over most aspects of industry and manufacturing, so it is inevitable that they take over the classroom as well. Improved software will make human teachers increasingly redundant, and administrators will be more than happy to cut costs by eliminating teachers. The need to cut costs, so often discussed these days, puts into question the entire concept of funding for computer infrastructure, which not only is expensive to install and maintain, but has a very high rate of obsolescence. President Clinton has recently promised to have all public schools quickly "on-line" and with updated computers, yet thousands of schools still need asbestos insulation removal, new playgrounds, or new structures altogether. In our technology-worshipping culture, the government seems intent on embarking on a project for public schools that, arguably, the children do not even need.

Philip Goff is a graduate student in urban planning and an eco-activist. He would like to thank Kathy Roberts for her superb copy editing.



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