I just finished reading a novel, published in 2000, that paints a picture of our speeding, technological world, and its startling effect on one individual, Bill Chalmers, the protagonist of the story.
“The Diagnosis,” written by MIT physics professor Alan Lightman, author of “Einstein’s Dreams” and “Great Ideas In Physics,” describes how Chalmers physically and emotionally slowly falls apart in reaction to the realities and circumstances in his life — and in American society generally — that he finds stressful.
Chalmers is a junior partner with Plymouth Limited, a company that “processes the maximum information in the minimum time.” We never really find out what Plymouth does, or what Chalmers does for it. We do learn that Plymouth’s partners compete madly with each other for recognition and promotion. That involves incessant phone use, nonstop emailing and texting, constant access to a computer, reduced personal life, inadequate sleep, and above all, frenzied deal-making.
Plymouth is always searching for greater efficiencies, so Chalmers likewise is doing the same. He meets with consultants who show him graphs outlining strategies to increase his “consolidated total efficiency index.”
But he can’t keep up with the flood of emails that he receives and the impossible amount of work that he thinks his job requires. Additionally, he feels hostility toward the digital, hyperconnected, depersonalized, electronic structures that have become the de facto backdrop and framework for seemingly all the activity — both business and personal — in his life.
He feels that everything is rushed and that everything is computerized and that interpersonal relations have become less important than machines, technological progress and being online.
Increasingly, Chalmers is bothered by digital clocks — the time displayed is always 3:04 or 2:57, as though the precise minute matters. And unlike analog time, digital time never pauses, but is insistent. Chalmers also notices that more and more people, in all kinds of places, are wearing ear buds even while they speak or read or travel or observe or participate.
He starts to resent even the sights and sounds of the wired world. Always, there is a lit screen, a hum, or beeps, chimes or flashes from one device or another.
Chalmers wonders who authorized this transformation. Who requested — or gave permission — that “main menus” replace human operators? Who decided that virtually every desk job on the planet — no matter what the profession — be done on a computer? Who decided that it would be wise for machinery, robots and smart technology to replace human workers?
Everything is going too fast for Chalmers, and under the stress of hating it all, he starts to get sick. First, he notices numbness in his hands and feet. He becomes disoriented at times. Slowly, over the course of months, he loses all mobility in his body. He sees many doctors and specialists, but none can diagnose his malady. But he knows what ails him.
This is a grim story indeed, and it’s meant to be a warning — or at least a question — about the nature of the evolution of contemporary society. As we increasingly rely on computers, increasingly replace humans with various “smart” technologies, increasingly live online and increasingly replace live experiences with virtual or mediated ones, what is done to the qualitative nature of the activities involved? What is gained and what is lost? How are computers changing us?
Obviously, the verdict isn’t complete yet, but we can certainly discern some possibilities. As Chalmers felt, just the sheer volume of information available and the opportunities available — with laptops, smartphones, and other devices — to remain online and working, create a constant pressure to do just that.
Additionally, we are online so much, and have become so habituated to exchanging information via the Web, that many of us would rather do that than almost anything else. Social media especially — Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, personal blogs and others — transfix many people.
We are entertained and distracted by what is on our devices, and perhaps one way to understand how they change us is to consider what we don’t do or experience while we use them.
Paradoxically, for all our “networking,” we may be atomizing. With computers, each of us can be an individual actor, a brand, a newsletter, an expert, a domain or our own interest group. We can hole up, empower our own online persona and surround ourselves with data that increasingly matches our previous searches.
And ironically, despite being upset with recent disclosures about the government’s surveillance of our phone records, we are making every facet of our personal and business lives utterly dependent upon computers. We seem insufficiently concerned that private corporations — who mostly depend on us to be acquisitive, compliant, and conformist — monitor every keystroke we make and every website we visit when we’re online.
The Internet has been a wonderful thing. Social media were the tools that enabled the Arab Spring. But technology is not neutral, and it is raising many issues. What consequences — many unintended — will predominate is something for us to attend to.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.