Modern society has evolved along two parallel yet interconnected courses. One is our social evolution and the other is the evolution of our technology. That of social evolution will be dealt with in another essay. The problem is that these courses are becoming increasingly less connected. In the modern climate in which technology is not developed for the utility of making life easier, but rather for the pure profitability of the supply and demand of goods and gadgets, we are hard pushed to find any new technology which has been developed for the betterment of society. It is all about the individual.
When automobiles first hit the roads, they were a force for the social application of communication. They allowed people to get in contact with each other more easily. Families would go together as a communal activity. People could visit each other more readily. Even at an industrial level, they allowed for the transportation of goods amongst the community. Today, however, people buy cars in order to be independent of the family and their circle of friends, to control their own coming and going as a capsule of individuality. For this reason we note that here in New Zealand, with the third highest rate of vehicle usage in the world, some 92 percent of all vehicles have only one person in them, the driver.
This break-down of the family structure was amplified by the ease with which televisions were available, primarily since the 1970s. Situations rapidly arose in which every child had a TV in their own room, the parents had one in theirs, and the lounge had its own TV which was rarely, if ever viewed by everybody at once. TV stations and production companies began to make programmes specifically for a fragmented and alienated audience.
With the advent of the microwave and the TV dinner, familial feeding times were a thing of the past and the social cohesion inherent in this ancient ritual died along with them. Fast foods replaced nutritional meals, and no one was prepared to sit down at a table for more than ten minutes. Obesity was a natural by-product of this technological take-over.
In time the home computer allowed increasing numbers of young people to alienate themselves even more from the social world around them. The argument that computers offered interactive games is a little weak, since in the early days a child and one or two friends in their bedroom still scarcely compensated for the loss of more expanded social interaction, such as on the school playing-field or at the local park. It is of no surprise that one of the most anti-social by-products of the computer age is again obesity. Of course, nor can we justify the newest versions of the computer game, on-line social games, to be an adequate exoneration, since far more than their predecessors they attract the lone player in their isolated room. The ‘community’ of the on-line gamester is an artificial community, where interaction is muted and the rules of social policy are minimised. You can play a game in which you blow the bloody heads off a hundred people, and sit there in your room, naked and masturbating over this carnage, and there is no one there to tell you that this response is inappropriate. On line, no social rules apply.
The computer, of course, led to the Internet, and whereas this has opened up the world to a vast array of information and activity, it has also done so at the expense of a certain class of education. Merely because we can eat from a smorgasbord does not mean that we know anything about haute cuisine: it certainly does not mean that we know how to boil an egg! Our ability to understand and to scrutinise knowledge has often decreased in the same proportions as the increase in the raw data itself. A proverbial 99% of those who offer ideas on the Internet do so with the articulation and construction of a six-year-old. The old phrase, “It must be true because I read it in the papers”, has simply become “because I read it on the Internet”, despite the clear cynical truism that equally proportionate has been the increase in bullshit. Yes, according to the Internet, the CIA have been in regular communications with aliens since the 1930s, and even got one of them in as President.
So ubiquitous is the Internet that today it is virtually impossible functioning in society without it, and indeed in many arenas people are actively excluded for not being participants. Some 95% of businesses advertising on television no longer include their physical address, but supply only a website address. If you are not on the Internet, they do not want you as a customer! When the Government advertises the need for Civil Defence awareness, they tell us to “visit our website”. “If a disaster comes” and you are not decent enough to be technologically up to scratch, the Government feels that you can simply die, as far as they are concerned. When the Ministry of Health advertised precautions against the flu epidemic, you could only get further information “via our website”. Again, if you are not up to scratch, keeping the mega-industries wealthy, you can die… as far as the Government is concerned. Such is their policy that only once, in 2008, has any local member of parliament, in the person of Nandor Tanczos, stated clearly, “Not every one has the Internet.” Techno-arrogance says that if you are not civilised enough to throw away your hard-earned money on what the Government and the technology sector alike tell you that you must have, then you are not to be deemed to be a real member of society.
This techno-arrogance displayed even at a governmental level was also seen in 2011, when the right-wing National Government, notorious for sticking its nose in where it has no right, declared that all television channels would be converted to digital signals by 2013. This means that all owners of TVs would have to buy a digital decoder. Not only does this make all portable TVs totally useless, but if you can not afford the decoder, you will be deprived of your democratic right to access to information and your contractual right to use the item for which you have already paid. This is arrogance!
The phone, of course, was another device which has altered its social application. Originally very social, in that being a great way of keeping in touch, often we could not keep certain people off the phone, today it is another instrument of anti-social isolation. A woman in Australia allowed her baby to drown because she was far too self-absorbed talking to somebody on a cell-phone. In Auckland, a woman let her young child fall off her shoulders and crack its head open on the concrete, because she was yapping away on the cell-phone. An American man allowed his four-year-old son to burn to death, because the father was too absorbed nattering on the phone and being absorbed in tacky ‘reality’ TV to pay attention to the smoke billowing through from the back of the house. Internationally, thousands of people have died as the result of people talking on their cell-phones while driving. Often it is the motorist who dies, often some pedestrian who can not be bothered looking where they are going.
Of course, we blend the anti-social nature of the e-mail with the cell-phone in the modern form of texting, in which utterly illiterate people talk or text complete rubbish a hundred times a day. Recently, I had an hour-long interview with one woman who spent far more time texting and answering calls than talking with me (a total of only seven minutes with me out of the whole hour). Such is the sense of ‘urgency’ that a call or a text must be responded to and immediately. We get young people literally going through addiction withdrawal symptoms if their phone has not rung or beeped in the last twenty minutes. Someone on a bus phones their friend to tell them what street they are on, then again a few minutes later to mention the next street, then the next, and so on all the way home. Another has to call her flatmate to describe the patterns on some pictured toilet-paper that she has just bought. Virtually one hundred percent of times on which we get crashed into on the pavement, it is from a person far more interested in their texts than in looking where they are going.
Basically, the cell-phone is designed for a bunch of losers, of no-hopers, whose lives are so shallow and empty that they hope to believe that the world can not possibly revolve on its axis without their being a constant part of this meaningless communication. They will grab their phones within five seconds of the ending of a moving or of sitting down on a bus (or sometimes while they are trying to get onto a bus), because they can not bear to stand their own private company for any longer than that and must convince themselves that the world needs them at all times. For this reason, many people even sleep with them. Perish the thought that a single message might be aimed in your direction, and you do not get to read it… until the morning! Oh my God, no!
What is even more frightening is that some cell-phone service providers even boast how anti-social they are! One local provider, Vodafone, has an advert in which a guy in a restaurant is texting away madly, completely oblivious to the fact that his girlfriend/date, completely bored or offended, as simply walked off. But the texting, apparently, is more important! In another, a wife at the dinner table is giving her husband the ‘evil stare’ because he is far more interested in watching some TV channel now available through Vodafone than in talking with his wife. And they are proud of this anti-social behaviour!
By the time that we have added the iPhone phenomenon, in which people plug their ears into sound 24 hours a day, so that they can not even be spoken with (nor can they hear us screaming out to them, ‘Look out, you are about to be hit’), we find that there is very little, if anything in this modern technology which helps us to belong, to be a fully interactive part of a conscious society.
We need not be Luddites in this matter, smashing the machines for the sake of an antiquated nostalgia. But we need to ask, ‘Is technology subservient to us, or are we subservient to technology?’ They are our devices, not our directors! And until such time as we are willing to put the phone down, to unplug the iPhone, to turn the computer off, to cook a real meal for ourselves, we are the ones who will remain the real slaves.