March 15, 2012

Techno fears in cocooning vs. outgoing times

Two recent articles at CNN do a good job of distilling the kinds of anxieties and fears that most people have about today's new technologies. One looks at the wide variety of personal data that cell phones can collect and be accessed by who knows exactly, and the other at Facebook's privacy policy and its push to integrate everyone into its network.

The common theme is the invasion of privacy but more deeply the desire to be left unseen in solitude. You see this when people freak out when they learn that your computer broadcasts an IP address, among other examples. Since we live in an age of cocooning, I guess it's no surprise that that's people's main fear relating to new technologies -- that they will somehow allow others to get around or through the cocoon.

In rising-crime times, when people are more outgoing, they had the opposite fear -- that the increasingly popular gizmos might cut us off socially and emotionally from one another. Here, for example, is George Segal's encapsulation of this anxiety in the context of personal computers, right on the cover of Time magazine in 1983:

The nightmare of the early 1980s has become the utopia of recent decades, where by now even coffee houses -- supposedly places to hang out -- have been converted into joyless hive-like computer labs, each junkie seeking to wall themselves off from the others:

People who lived at least some of their formative years in more outgoing times are somewhat more immune to these changes. My worry about social network sites is not what personal data they're collecting about me -- BFD, it's not like I'm an undercover agent and they'll blow my cover. It's more about how they're evolving away from simulating back-and-forth conversations and toward individual broadcasts directed to and drawing responses from no one.

As for cell phones, Virginia Heffernan did a better job than I could of detailing how interactive and relationship-building it was to talk on the landline analog phone. It's rare to see anyone talking on their phone anymore -- unless they're driving. Increasingly it's just a more portable form of feeding their internet addiction. But even when used for communication, it's almost always texting.

Some things are fine to be taken care of by texting, things that don't have an emotional component and that don't require more-or-less undivided attention. Pointed, specific questions that are in no great rush to be answered. "Do we have any eggs left in the fridge?" "No, I think we're all out." "OK, I'll pick up a carton on the way home then." Or something similar at work, where email isn't a better option (like if they're more on-the-go).

But for most other contexts that we used to talk about over the phone, texting's shallow emotional depth and unpredictable delays between exchanges make it nearly impossible to really connect with another person that way. Remembering back to IM'ing, it wasn't so deep, but at least there were quick responses and an unbroken rhythm to the conversation. So it looks like the main defect of texting is just how interruptible the conversations are. And even during those interruptions, the person who has yet to respond usually does not have their mind on the conversation; they're off doing or thinking about something else.

These features prevent two people from lulling themselves into a dream-like state, where they're enjoying themselves so much that the flow of times goes by unnoticed. Instead it's like constantly trying to fall back asleep and return to a dream, only to keep getting woken up.

Our anxieties about technology always take the form of "such and such will leave us less human," but what that defining human quality is changes dramatically with the rises and falls in the crime rate, which shapes how outgoing or withdrawn we are. In outgoing rising-crime times, we fear that our sociability may be severed, while in cocooning falling-crime times, we fear that our solitude may be breached.


  1. Rising-Crime movies show technology as isolating people and making them easier targets for villains, whereas falling-crime movies see such technology as empowering people into "badass loners".


    Batman - 1989: Batman's gadgets and underground techno-lair transform him into a superhero, but this ultimately leaves him lonely and unfulfilled. Compare this with "Batman Begins". in 1989, Batman was tortured by his alienated status and longed to live as Bruce Wayne; but in 2005, Bruce Wayne can only really be himself when he is alienated from other people.

    Total Recall - 1990: Arnold Schwarzenegger uses technology which gives him a manufactured memory of a vacation he never actually took. However, it turns out the corporation making the technology is planting memories in people for their own ends.

    Batman Forever - 1995: The Riddler invents a machine that can implant thoughts into people through their televisions, and uses it for world conquest.

    The Net - 1995: Sandra Bullock works from home and lives her life over the Internet. She eventually has her identity stolen - and, since she knows almost no one in real life, can't verify who she really is.

    The Matrix - 1999: Machines use virtual reality to suppress human beings. Neo, the hero, lives an isolated life on his computer before being rescued and brought into "the real world".

    The Matrix also negatively portrays robots, a concept which featured in one your earlier blog posts. Agent Smith, for example, speaks in an affectless tone, and considers human beings to be "a virus".

    Now contrast the above with "falling-crime" movies:

    Spiderman - 2002: A radiation accident transforms Peter Parker from a disrespected dork into a "badass loner".

    Minority Report - 2002: Psychics are able to read people's minds and predict when they are going to murder someone. This technology is portrayed as being a violation of society, however, and society rejects it at the end of the movie.

    The Last Samurai - 2003: Invention of Gunpowder is negative since it erodes the individual power of badass loner samurais.

    Batman Begins - 2005: Technological gadgets make Batman a badass loner. Contrast this with Burton's Batman movie.

    Iron Man - 2008: A techological suit allows a playboy billionaire to get in touch with his "real", heroic personality and become a badass loner.

    Inception - 2010: Technology allows one to enter the dreams of others, but this is discarded as being too invasive and dangerous.

  2. This is worth a post on its own, but something I noticed from my list is the way in which movies deal with superheros or heros in general.

    During rising-crime times, being a hero is viewed as a stressful burden. Michael Keaton's Bruce would have much preferred having sex with Kim Basinger and living the high-life more than he would being Batman.

    But in falling-crime times, being a superhero is seen as a way to create excitement in a dead-end existence. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne prefers swinging around in black costume mroe than he does being a normal person. And Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is transformed from a picked-on nerd into a wise-cracking cool guy when he puts on the Spider-man costume.

  3. Crime peaked in the early 90s and started falling before 95's "The Net". But I'm glad you mentioned those because it's easy to be subject to confirmation bias and mistaking the date helps correct for that.

  4. The Net shows the falling-crime fear of privacy invasion, and the desire to go off the grid, vanish.

    The Matrix doesn't focus too much on either the invasion of privacy or alienation themes. More of a standard Us vs. Them battle against something we created that got out of hand. A terrible movie, though.

    To the extent that they do touch on either theme, I don't see so much about technology used to sever social bonds, since nobody even realizes they're in the matrix. If anything it sounds like a fear of invasion of privacy, with the machines reaching into people's brains to control their thoughts.

    The loner vs. team angle is a good point, and even how loners are portrayed. People get more team-minded in rising-crime times, and want to be left alone in falling-crime times.

  5. vs.

    Technology has enabled divorced parents to communicate with each other without the face time.


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