, Salem, MA


August 2, 2013

Watson: Online technology is not neutral

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.

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