***In general this post deals with issues that are bigger than the ones we may want to reasonably tackle in the book, especially those on the environmental side. But, hopefully this is a helpful exercise in terms of getting to some of the deeper trends and dilemmas that surround the technology debate and our feelings about its use in our daily lives.***

Here in Sweden I’ve been taking Swedish-as-a-second-language classes. The class I just finished focused on reading non-fiction texts, such as newspaper articles, and debating them.

One article we read discussed the phenomenon of anxiety people feel if they happen to forget their mobile phone at home, lose it, or are caught without service or a dead battery. The article poetically described Swedes on summer vacation hurrying out of forest glades or up to higher spots to find mobile phone service.

The larger point was, similar to many articles written in English, that many of us have incorporated mobile devices into our lives to such an extent that we have become reliant on them not only practically, but also in terms of feeling productive, safe and whole.

The article resulted in an interesting discussion between myself and two other women in the class, Adanna and Jamila. Although I usually have a pretty critical lens on technology, I found myself playing a rather supportive role for it:

Jamila: So, what do you think of the article?

Adanna: It’s kind of crazy with technology. We’re in a culture of people always wanting more and more. We can’t always keep on having more. People go out and buy new stuff all the time, the new iPhone, or the best computer. Do you really need to buy an expensive computer? I don’t think so! Something that is cheaper will do basically the same job.

Amelia: Actually, yes! I do need a relatively expensive computer. When I’m working on editing a film I need a powerful computer and certain software, otherwise I simply can’t do my job.

Adanna: Well, okay. But, what did people use to edit films before there were computers? Couldn’t you just do it that way?

Amelia: Hmm. Before there were computers people used really big editing machines and physical film. These machines were so big they could take up most of a room.  I don’t know where I would get one, and it would probably be quite expensive. I never learned to edit that way so it would take me a while to learn. But, I couldn’t use one of those because people don’t shoot on film anymore. And, I even if I did I would still have to digitize whatever I made on the analog machine and put it into a computer powerful enough to output a high quality video file (so I’d still need an expensive computer).

Adanna: Okay…

Amelia: But, the main problem with all this would be that I would be so much slower than everyone else that no one would want to hire me! I wouldn’t be able to keep up. So, even if I’d like to edit in the old way, in terms of practicality I really can’t, or I won’t be able to make a living.

Jamila: Yes, that’s totally true. And, what’s so bad about technology? Isn’t technology exciting?! I was watching a TV show on my smart phone in the bathtub the other day. It was so amazing that I was able to do that! I do have a fancy phone, but I think the cost is justified. I mean, I use it all the time, and it’s a really useful tool. So, why not have something that actually works well and makes my life easier?

Adanna: It doesn’t matter if technology is exciting. I mean, even if you if like it, do you really need that? I don’t buy something just because my neighbors do. I don’t need a fancy smart phone. We all play a part in hurting the environment and all of our consumption adds to that: this culture of “more”. We have to face reality that things can’t go on like this. We can’t always have “more” and “better”.

What struck me from this conversation was the realization that we perhaps have less of a choice than we like to think in terms of how we integrate digital technologies into our lives.

Although I see Adanna’s point of view, I also think Jamila’s point was well taken.  If today one is more or less required to have a certain type of technology to participate socially and economically, why not have something that makes that relatively easy for you?

I wrestled with this dilemma earlier this summer. I walked around sunny Stockholm for a number of hours trying to decide whether or not I should buy my first smart phone. Should I move up a step in the technology ladder when the one I’m on seems to be working just fine? There was a very good sale on the old iPhone model, but it felt wrong to buy one, in the sense that my old and very simple phone was just fine and I didn’t want to invite extra connection-time into my life. I already spend quite a lot of my day glued to my computer and my email account, and I didn’t want to start doing that outside of the office too.

In the end I got the smart phone. Practically it had become difficult without one in terms of being able to keep up on meeting changes or other work things, since there’s an assumption that one has one and everyone else behaves as such, perhaps even more so in Sweden and than in the US. Plus … I liked the phone. It actually is much easier to communicate with the smart phone than my old phone, and thus far I haven’t become particularly more compulsive about using it, though it does feel rather sad to leave that powerful tool lying in my purse 90% of the time.

This dilemma – of being both invited and forced to keep up with change – isn’t specific to information and communications technologies, but is part of the bigger history of technology advances.

In her book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Oxford University Press, 1992) researcher Helena Norberg-Hodge describes the vast (and devastating) cultural change that barreled over the Ladakh people in northern India when the government built roads to the region and motor vehicles arrived. This was done in the name of development, and surely brought positive changes as well. But, Norberg-Hodge, who spent time with Ladakh communities before this shift, describes how the centuries long delicate balance with the landscape and the people’s sense of self was quickly and powerfully disrupted. Even when farmers wanted to continue farming and living in the traditional ways, which took into account the limits of the environment, they often felt they could not.  How could what a farmer working by hand would produce possibly compare to what one could produce with the help of a truck? How could a farmer justify denying their family the food and money brought in by the use of the new machinery when others around them were benefiting? So, in this case the technologies were cars and roads, not mobile phones, but the pattern of change — and the requirement to keep up with it — are resonant.

This, I think, is where the dilemma lies.

Our dominant cultural story over the last few hundred years has insisted that technological change is unequivocally good. That more, bigger, faster = better. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, though there are those like the writer Bill McKibben that wonder whether all of these bigger and faster changes have really made us happier – or perhaps only happier up to a certain point. But, the practical problem is that even if we’d like to we can’t keep endlessly heading in this direction because we live on a planet that is finite and simply cannot support continually increasing resource use, which is one thing the “bigger and faster, more technology” trend drives.

It certainly may be true in some cases that technology advances, digital or otherwise, mean that we use fewer resources (e.g. more efficient — faster but not bigger). For instance a modern washing machine may draw less energy and water than its predecessors. Though, perhaps this simply means that most of us own and wash more clothes, more often than we would have ever done if we would need to wash them by hand. I say this with some personal experience as, after spending two years washing clothes the old-fashioned way in a metal washbasin, I’ve recently bought a washing machine.

The larger point is that, generally, technological advances have meant that we humans have the ability to use more natural resources more quickly (see my earlier post on digital time and instant coffee).

For instance, I learned through a conversation with a fisherman that one contemporary fishing boat can catch a significantly larger amount of fish in a much shorter amount of time than the commercial fishing boats widely used even as recently as the 1970s or 1980s could. In part, this is due to information technologies, such as a sort of radar which allows fishermen to see schools of fish swimming beneath the water. If this technological advance meant that the new fishing boats only worked a fraction of the time that the old ones did, and the workers got the rest of the time off, then the amount of fish being caught would perhaps have not changed that much. But, since new fishing boats are presumably out for just as long as the old ones, they catch many more fish (which is theoretically good), but they also deplete the overall stock of fish in the ocean much more quickly (which is bad, and realistically, quite a bit more complex than this). That is, this technology development can be seen as both helpful, and harmful.

As design thinker John Thackara pointedly writes in his book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (MIT Press, 2005):

We’ve built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means, but hazy about ends. It’s no longer clear to which question all this stuff – tech – is an answer, or what value it adds to our lives. Too many people I meet assume that being innovative means ‘adding technology to it.’ Technology has become a powerful, self-replicating system that is accustomed to respect and receives the lion’s share of research funding. In NASDAQ, tech even has its own stock exchange.” (p. 2)

He adds:

That torrent of trucks [on a highway in France] was a reminder that thanks to all the design we do, man-made flows of matter and energy all around us are growing in volume. We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates. In my lifetime, global population has doubled, energy production has more than tripled, economic output has risen by a factor of five, and computer processing speeds and storage have both increased over a million fold. It took from the beginning of human history to 1900 to grow a world economy that produced six billion dollars in output: today, the world economy grows by that amount every two years. This acceleration is like a cultural centrifuge. The faster the economy grows, the heavier we feel.” (p. 9-10)

So, what we have is a larger historical trend of using technology to do more, more quickly. This gives us new opportunities, but makes bigger and bigger impacts on the environment (which supports us, and all this technology) in shorter amounts of time. And, as those around us adopt these technologies it seems we have little choice than to follow suit in this forward motion.

The general cultural malaise around communications technologies – the feeling of being over-burdened by their use and at the same time afraid of being disconnected – doesn’t usually explicitly deal with these bigger trends of time, speed and acceleration, and certainly not the environment. But, I do wonder if there is some underlying connection?

Those of us living in this bigger & faster technology world often dream, perhaps a bit too idyllically, of its opposites: slowness, nature, and simplicity. Technology itself allows us to access that dream without being able (or necessarily actually desiring) to be there ourselves, as in these stunningly luscious photos of isolated cabins, or “cabin porn”.

Yet, ultimately, in this situation, what can and should we do? Should we embrace “bigger and faster”? Fight it? Would it even be possible to individually or collectively step out of Thackara’s “cultural centrifuge” and the seemingly ever increasing speed towards the future? If so, what would the consequences be? And, what are the consequences if we don’t?

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