High-Tech, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

This afternoon, overcome by a mounting frustration at being unable to get two monitors working on my new single-graphic-card-equipped home desktop personal computer, I blurted out the following on Facebook (only a couple of minutes before I entered a plaintive plea for help on the same forum, which resulted in several responses, and indeed, even a phone call from an old friend):

Nothing quite sums up our relationship with some kinds of high-tech better than the fact that in order to get it to work, you have crawl around on your hands and knees.

I’m not exactly a naif when it comes to high-tech; indeed, to invoke the spirit of Walter White‘s claim that he was the one “who knocks on doors,” I’m often the person asked for technical help by my friends. But over the years, I’ve lost my patience with the promises of the high-tech world: all too often, to interact with high-technology is to be left fuming, spluttering, hypertension and cortisol levels spiked. Many interfaces still remain counterintuitive, trouble-free interoperability between different kinds of devices–and the software they run–remains a distant mirage, and day by day a bewildering alphabet soup of formats, protocols, decimal-annotated versions, and their various misbegotten cousins rains down on our heads like a malevolent anti-manna.

I know, I know, I sound like an old fart. Fair enough. I’m not that young anymore, and it’s been years since I wrote my last line of code (whether in a lowly scripting language or in a more exalted programming language.) But the funny thing is, I used to bitch and moan like this even when I was a ‘techie,’ a programmer and systems analyst at Bell Labs, or later, a UNIX system administrator. I’ve always felt vaguely resentful of the discordance between the promises of high-tech and the stress it induces in our lives. (My complaints about the ‘fragility of the digital’ are another dimension of this unease.)

Yes, I’m well aware that I’m getting this message out using a writing and distribution platform on a computer connected to a gigantic worldwide network, which I use daily for communication, entertainment, and accessing vast stores of information relevant to my ongoing learning and education. Respect. Much respect. I am staggered by the ingenuity and brilliance and labor that makes this thing–or things–work. But this same friend and aide, the one dispensing benefactions which make our lives so much easier, also exacts a fairly high psychic cost. (I have, on many an occasion, felt like hurling my computer monitor at the wall.)  And, yes, I’m aware, my complaint today this is not a particularly new complaint. But it remains interestingly persistent and finds newer forms of expression as our technological ‘gifts’ and ‘burdens’ grow in seemingly equal proportions. Perhaps that’s the sobering part of this giddying rush onwards to the ever greater technologization of our lives.

Note: I have still not managed to get my two monitors to work. At one point in the afternoon, I decided I had had enough of looking up help forums on the net and banging my head on my desk, and decided I would get to work instead. On a computer, of course.

Neil Postman On Disguised Technologies, And The Night Class

In his sometimes curiously conservative Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman writes:

Some technologies come in disguise. Rudyard Kipling called them “technologies in repose.” They do not look like technologies, and because of that they do their work, for good or ill, without much criticism or even awareness. This applies not only to IQ tests and to polls and to all systems of ranking and grading but to credit cards, accounting procedures, and achievement tests. It applies in the educational world to what are called “academic courses,” as well. A course is a technology for learning. I have “taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology. It is put forward as a desirable structure for learning when in fact it is only a structure for allocating space, for convenient record-keeping, and for control of faculty time. The point is that the origin of and raison d’être for a course are concealed from us. We come to believe it exists for one reason when it exists for quite another. One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

The paradigmatic instance of the intrusion of ‘administrative convenience’ into pedagogy is the three-hour evening class, which meets once a week. Despite protestations from some of my colleagues that their night classes ‘go well’, I remain singularly convinced that such a class is an exercise in futility. Students and professors are already tired at the end of the day–especially if both have been working prior to the class meeting–and little seems to be accomplished educationally past the one-hour mark. (The post-break period is particularly tedious.) There is also the small matter of not being able to resume discussions, to revisit, quickly, an issue that needs revisitation, till an entire week has passed. In short, this kind of class has very little to commend it from the pedagogical point of view.

But there is plenty on the administrative front: teach once and you are done; attend once and you are done; the three-hour evening class is an efficient use of building space and time. Most importantly, because very few students can afford to attend university full-time and must work to make their education financially viable, the night class affords them a way to further cram their schedules. A bureaucrat’s delight.  And really, is any more justification needed than that?

Note #1: The Wikipedia entry for Technopoly helpfully excerpts Postman’s definition of the term:

Postman defines technopoly as a “totalitarian technocracy”, which demands the “submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”. Echoing Ellul’s 1964 conceptualisation of technology as autonomous, “self-determinative” independently of human action, and undirected in its growth, technology in a time of Technopoly actively eliminates all other ‘thought-worlds’. Thus, it reduces human life to finding meaning in machines and technique. [citations removed; link added]

Note #2: I’m well aware that the night class serves a valuable function for those trying to change careers or seeking additional professional qualifications.