March 25, 2010

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What gadgets do to us
Warning: contents may be paranoid
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

Awesome technology has a dark side.

I don’t mean nuclear bomb, with great power comes great responsibility type stuff. Mundane things subtly affect what we expect from other people, and what other people expect from us. How weird is it to meet someone who doesn’t have an e-mail address? A cell phone? How about a car? A thermostat? Indoor plumbing?

Every advance in technology that promises more productivity and more convenience can only do so for a short time. After that, it blends into the normal, everyday fabric of life and becomes expected rather than novel. It shifts interpersonal relationships and culture.

The most obvious place for these expectations to get out of hand is in the workplace. Anyone who’s been called at home by their boss knows this. As soon as the work life bleeds into the home life, it’s like you never leave your job. Keeping sections of one’s life separate from each other gets more and more difficult as the world grows more and more connected.

Some problems are already apparent and some are still on their way.

The tech: Remote access computing
Why it’s great: Access work computers at home in your pajamas!

Why it’s not: Unless you’re the boss, the choice isn’t normally yours as to whether you work at home or go into the office. If your presence at a meeting is required for five minutes, guess what? You have to shower today.

Those without the opportunity to work at home might not feel much sympathy for that example, but the advantage to not being able to work at home is never being asked to work at home. Doesn’t skipping a commute mean that you can work more, after all? Surely you can do a few things over the weekend, yes? Why would it take you longer to accomplish a task when you’re simultaneously feeding the pets, dressing the kids and discussing tomorrow’s dinner party? You’re fired.

The tech: Wireless phones & broadband
Why it’s great: Surf the Internet wherever you are!

Why it’s not: Especially dangerous when combined with remote access, wireless broadband brings e-mails straight to you. What do you mean you didn’t get that message on your smartphone? Didn’t you see we’d changed plans at the last minute? You can log in from your vacation hike on Mount Monadnock, right?

Cell phones have already drastically changed how people plan get-togethers. That is, they don’t. Ad-hoc calling substitutes for arranging and scheduling. More than once, I’ve tried to give driving directions to someone who insisted upon just calling me from the road. Rather than writing something down now, they’d rather purposefully distract themselves later. That’s “easier,” you know.

The tech: Social networking
Why it’s great: Keep up with all your friends!

Why it’s not: …and everyone else you ever worked or went to school with. Especially their latest accomplishments in online games, because heaven knows that’s important. As simple as filters for certain people or types of updates would be to implement, certain social networking sites haven’t made it easy to control exactly what we see.

And yeah, one could opt out of the whole FaceLinkTwitSpace scene, but then how would you ever get invited to parties? How would you see pictures? New alternatives to the mail and phone become dominant. We use what our friends and family use. Employers already glean background information from the Web; how long will it be before the lack of a public online profile becomes a flag for an antisocial person you wouldn’t want to hire?

But pity most the folks who don’t have pet cats to photograph and caption with amusing, misspelled words.