A week ago I was at a dinner party celebrating the opening of a new production of King John at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was a festive event, with nice wine and delicious food, attended by wonderful people.
Out of habit, I took out my phone and snapped a few photos of the people at the table. I wasn’t planning on a social media posting, I just wanted photos I could look at to remind myself how nice this party had been.
When I set my phone down on the table, the friend next to me asked “How many apps do you have on your phone?” To answer, I flipped through the home screens as she watched.
I confessed that I had a love/hate relationship with my phone. And then I went on and confessed that I had a bit of a fraught relationship with computing in general.
I used to tell people that I worked writing operating system software for Microsoft with a certain amount of pride for the things we’d accomplished. At the time, everyone involved thought that ubiquitous, inexpensive computers would make the world a better place. And it many ways, ubiquitous, inexpensive, incredibly powerful computers have made things better. But in many ways they’ve also made things much worse, and for that I am most profoundly sorry.
In particular, modern computing (and the smart phone in particular) has made it incredibly easy for people to make money by capturing your attention and then selling it to a third party, and to gather information about what you think, attend to, and do, and then sell that information to a third party as well. And then, the people who buy that information use it to further capture your attention and control what ideas you are exposed to.
It’s a vicious spiral through which we are increasingly ceding control of our lives and thoughts to people who very definitely do not have our best interests at heart. The people/corporations who are doing this want control over your attention and time because it’s how they make money, and they want a lot of money, so they want all of your attention and time no matter how negative the consequences are for you. These people are like drug dealers who want you addicted.
Insofar as modern computers have become powerful tools that enhance our creative power, they’re great. Insofar as modern computers have become tools we use to passively be entertained, they’re not so great. Insofar as modern computers have coaxed us into letting others direct our attention and control what information we encounter, they are bad.