Do you see any connection between the changes you attribute to human use of computers with the radical deterioration of human quality of life in industrial society claimed by intellectual critics such as Sven Birkerts, Clifford Stoll, Kirkpatrick Sale, and more populist critics who seem to be raising objections, questions, and resistance to the once-accepted notion of "technological progress?"
One of the things that the once accepted notion of technological "progress"
has brought with it is that increasingly, people are faced with situations
that would have seemed "unthinkable" only a few years ago. The problem is
that we now know how to do theset things, yet they are still un-thinkable
that is, we don't know how to think about them.
Medical technology raises some of the most urgent questions: We don't know
how to think about the once-unproblematic notion of motherhood when one
woman can donate an egg, a man she has never met can donate spern, a third
woman, unknown to both these parties, can have the child grow within her,
while a fourth woman stands ready to raise the child. On the one hand, we
seem on the border of defining motherhood in social terms, who stands ready
to raise a child, love a child, protect and take responsibility for a
child. On the other hand, we seem to be defining "parents" and "family" in
increasingly biological terms. It seems to me quite understandable that at
moments when the unthinkable becomes possible, there are these dramatic
paradoxes in our approach to issues -- but it means that when the paradoxes
become apparent, technology is there to blame.
There is too, an all-or-nothingness tone to much of technological criticism
that speaks to its being a "Rorshach" for other things, a place where some
irrationality expresses itself. You see this in notions of "computer
addiction" or "internet addiction." Computers and communication networks
are not drugs. They are complex media that different people (and different
social and political groups for that matter) use in different ways. Yet
the notion of addiction seems almost irresistable. X amount of heroin use
is never a good thing; this same amount of internet activity can be a
helpful or a hurtful thing, depending on the content of the messages and
the role of the activity in the life of the person doing it.
Some of us feel that with the deterioration of local communities, we have
lost a certain direct contact with others. Now, for some people I
interviewed, the telephone is looked upon nostalgically as a means for
direct communication -- a technology whose distancing was once seen as
alienating, now becomes a model for a lost golden age. I believe that when
people see the virtues of email for completing "transactions" on the
internet, they fear that communications that once had a "softer" or
non-instrumental dimension (a business call to a colleague where some
personal matters were discussed as well) will be turned into efficient
The fear is of making too many of our encounters into transactions. This
may be progress on one dimension but an important step back on another.
But each technology needs time to develop as a medium that enhances the
experience of people. In my family, my grandparents used the telephone for
emergencies and my parents used it to do routine business and make plans.
I used it as an extension of my social an emotional communication.
With computer-mediated communication, things are moving very quickly. We
are only now developing the fora and the people able to turn this medium to
the richest purposes.