, Salem, MA


August 2, 2013

Watson: Online technology is not neutral


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.

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