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.