“I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.”
— Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s quote puts him in Adam Gopnik’s defined category as a “Never-Better”: an optimistic who has embraced technological change. The issue with this overly-trusting approach is already highlighted in the quote that the reliance on computers and other technology that has the internet is a serious concern for the modern age. At a first glance, the fear of not having computers sounds extreme, but I am one of those people who has a miniature panic attack when I reach for my pocket and realize there is a possibility I may have forgotten my phone in class or at the restaurant I just left. There was a time when phone calls were exclusively done through landlines, but now? To leave one’s phone behind during a night out? Unthinkable. My phone is what I use to track which bus stop to get off at, to listen to music or podcasts during my commute, to alert my friends of my arrival, to take pictures documenting my night, and to order an Uber if need be. Being without my phone makes me feels uncomfortably vulnerable. And it is not just me — this is major cultural change. I like books, but I have never felt dependent on them.
So I will be the first to admit that I am reliant on technology. But does that mean that I trust technology? Am I a Better-Never; a believer that we are living in the Golden Age of technology and that every advancement signifies progress, an evolution worth celebrating? Not necessarily.
Upon being given the prompt, my first instinct was to say that I align myself with the Never-Waser’s. It is an imperfect binary, but I do not think modern technology will be our ruin, nor am I ready to start mourning books when my own collection of hardcovers is large and steadily growing. In many ways, I think what is happening now is not unlike what has happened throughout history where the older generation is nostalgic for a time when things worked differently and human connection was less complicated. There was a time when the older generation feared collecting information in books would mean having a less impressive memory palace and that reading was an antisocial behaviour that should be discouraged. Back in my day, kids used to play outside with their friends! I do not think it is unrealistic to assume that one day a new mode of technology will come out and those in my generation will share tweets and Facebook posts about how different things are. We already do to an extent—hey guys, remember when everyone had to wait their turn to use that one family computer and it used to take forever for one page to load? At present, my generation’s mentality has been “you kids have it so much easier than we did.” We are nostalgic about the shows we would watch during our childhood, but the technology we grew up with has only gotten faster and more intuitive, so maybe there has, in fact, been a recognizable shift.
I cannot conceive of my life without the internet, but not every change it has brought has benefitted humankind. Departing with the Never-Waser mentality of continuity, the following is a list of capabilities that distinguish the computer or the internet from any technology that came before it:
- Greater capability to bring people together
- Widespread access to knowledge (knowledge of abuses, protests, revolutions)
- Passive social connections
- Near-immediate access to food, clothes, and anything else
- Cultivating communities of people who share a common interest or goal
- Fundraising (aka America’s healthcare system)
- Portfolio visibility
- New accessibility services and a job market that enables freelancing
It is amazing to reflect on how many creative projects and medical procedures like transition surgeries that the internet has made possible. The Parkland Teens’ protest for gun-control that went viral would not have been possible without the internet. It has enabled the global, widespread sharing of information in a way that far exceeds print. But at the same time, it has allowed for the spread of misinformation on an equally astronomical scale. Fraud has never been easier. Sure, there was a time when Johannes Gutenberg would print out indulgences and sell them to God-fearing Christians for a pretty penny, but that is nothing in comparison to how many Nigerian Prince scams have been ran since the advent of the internet. Catfishing is a serious problem and one that can lead to major trauma and depression for those who have experienced it. There has also been the advent of a new type of celebrity – the influencer. My generation loves them. The majority of them are young women who post pictures of themselves living and idealistic lifestyle full of travel, eating, shopping, and visiting anywhere they can to get the perfect shot for Instagram. Their online pages are full of hiding promotions for sponsored products that their followers are encouraged to buy to mimic this unrealistic lifestyle. The Kardashians are a good example of this phenomena.
One of the many issues with capitalism is that it profits from making people feel as depressed and unfulfilled as possible in order to sell them products that promise to provide happiness and fulfilment. Influencers are amazing at creating the envy and disillusionment that capitalism thrives at and they are professionals at promoting materialistic solutions that are packaged as “inspirational.” But these influencers are not reliable, and many are willing to promote products that are dangerous and unethical. The internet has been capitalism’s playground, which leads me to my con list:
- The widespread sharing of false information
- The gathering of racists and misogynists who validate each other
- Sponsored advertising parading as content
- Catfishing and general fraud
- Cyberstalking and general lack of privacy
- Revenge porn
- Filters leading to increased dysphoria
- Repaying labour with “exposure”
It is frustrating to be both skeptical of and reliant on technology. Like Never-Betters, I am optimistic that technology will continue to evolve and enable new forms of knowledge, connection, communication, innovation, and art to emerge. Like Better-Nevers, I am pessimistically concerned that our technology will continue to be abused and exploited by scammers, neo-nazis, and capitalistic companies like Amazon and Ticketmaster. In a way, the internet is like the megaphone. It is not inherently good (sorry, Never-Betters) nor is it an inherent threat to our humanity (sorry, Better-Nevers). Instead, it is a tool that is unmatched in its capability to magnify and enable the very best and worst of human behaviour.