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Our Love Affair with Digital: Are we Being Led Astray?

by David Brewster on November 20, 2009

in Society,Technology

State Library of Victoria

A dark cloud passed over me yesterday. I was in the State Library of Victoria (yes, it was a metaphorical cloud). From the balcony desk where I was sitting, I could look down on a large reading room – or so it is called. The thing is, no one was reading. At least not in the traditional sense. There were probably 200 people spread around this large room and every one of them was looking at some form of screen.

My fleeting unease had nothing to do with the lack of open books. It was the stark realisation of just how wedded to digital technology we have become. Am I alone in feeling a growing sense of communal vulnerability in this relationship?

Looking around my house, I notice that more and more of our ‘stuff’ is no more than collections of digital bytes. The music collection is stored digitally. The photos likewise. We store television programs on a digital Personal Video Recorder – videotapes are so 1999. Our books are still books, though for how long is a matter of much debate. (I now realise that this train of thought left the station on Sunday after I read Peter Munro’s article ‘Lost in Cyberspace’)

But it is more than just stuff. Digital technology runs the dishwasher and the washing machine, the heaters and the coolers, the television and, of course, the iPods. We use digital technology to open, start and run our cars. Out on the street our traffic lights are increasingly (digitally operated) LEDs instead of light bulbs. And our contact with the world beyond ourselves is entirely reliant on digital technology – not least the biggest digital network of all, the Internet.

Which is all well and good when the bits and bytes are flowing. But what if they don’t? Every digital device is a toasted integrated circuit away from oblivion. One dodgy connection and they stop. Dead.

We all know how digital technology gives us clearer mobile telephone conversations. But it also gave us those pregnant pauses when the connection drops out. It is either on or off – there is no in between. So it is with all our other digital paraphernalia.

As a signed up and proud technophile, I love all my digital toys. I adore my iPhone (more than my wife, she claims – I deny this), and as for my new MacBook Pro – wow!  These ponderings are not to question the value of this wizardry to our lives.

I just wonder, sometimes, if we aren’t putting a lot of trust into what is, essentially, a very one-sided relationship.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Catherine White November 21, 2009 at 6:33 am

Well said, well written and well… sad but true reality.

Since I’ve begun a partial sabbatical, I feel more in control and less stuck in a timeless quicksand from which I sink every time I log on.

The first week was rough, even after four weeks, I feel anxious if I’ve not logged on for a whole day. At times such as these, I remind myself the masses baying for my blogging blood at my window can wait. And they do …without a second thought for my late blog, or overdue status update.

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Nicole Irwin December 16, 2009 at 7:44 pm

I wonder if you have considered just how much this applies to most things in life. A conversation or letter is ephemeral. The words on pages of books fade. Video tape leaves deposits on the player that ever so surely degrade the output until it is unwatchable. I can recite recipes from a soapbox, but without an audience at that exact time, the performance is pointless. My blog – provided the intergoogle doesn’t collapse in a heap – allows far greater permanency than traditional media. Any reliance on technology makes us vulnerable to its failure; I don’t think digital technology is any better or worse than its analogue counterparts.

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David Brewster December 16, 2009 at 8:26 pm

You make a good point Nicole. (Thanks for your comment.) In some ways you are arguing something similar to what I’m saying in my more recent post (Why Technology will Never Replace the Knowledge of Elders) – that the fundamentals don’t change, just the media. In that sense I guess I’ve contradicted myself from one post to the next – oh the joys of blogging!

On the other hand, today’s news stories in Melbourne – over 40 Virgin Blue flights cancelled because of a single faulty cable, and a car out of control because the cruise control wouldn’t turn off – are good examples of the vulnerability I wrote of. Perhaps it’s the risk of an instantaneous “collapse in a heap”, as opposed to degradation over time, which is particularly characteristic of our reliance on things digital.

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