Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#159 - Technology - It's a Beautiful Thing . . . Sometimes

Technology is a beautiful thing – when it works. When it doesn’t, people are inconvenienced, businesses lose money, lives are disrupted.

A recent and minor change in the office where I work brought that notion home to me. The change – a simple battery – caused us to be without access to our internal computer network as well as the external computing world for about 30 minutes. No opening files from remote locations, no sending or receiving e-mails, no surfing on the internet and, because we have internet phones (voIP or voice over Internet Protocol), no incoming or outgoing phone calls.

Once the battery was replaced, regaining access was simply a matter of restarting our computers, reopening our e-mail programs and web browsers, and picking up where we left off. Except for phone calls, that is. This seems to be a problem every time there is some sort of change to our computer network, only no one seems to know where the reset button is for the phones (if there even is one).

Technology is a double-edged sword. It frees us and ensnares us. Thanks to technology, medical and scientific procedures and advances once unthinkable become commonplace. We can map the human genetic sequence and turn once major surgical procedures into outpatient surgeries with small or no scars. At the same time, a computer failure can cause large parts of a major city to lose power or potentially cause a nuclear missile to begin a pre-launch sequence. Because so many of us use e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with friends, family, and associates, a technological failure can also cause us to lose touch with the world around us, albeit temporarily.

As I sit and wait for the telephones at work to resume functionality, I am struck by the thought that most if not all of us would be lost and completely unable to function in a world without the technology we take for granted. While our 18th and 19th-century ancestors were largely independent and self-sufficient, we are largely dependent (the objections of some notwithstanding) on one another and upon our economies of scale. Such changes are more efficient and perhaps make life easier, but disruptions are more noticeable and create more inconvenience on a larger scale.

Although they are never mentioned as part of the argument, I suspect such potential pitfalls lend credence to the suggestion (even argument) that each of us needs to occasionally unplug and disconnect from our electronic lives and plug into and connect with the physical world around us. Our e-lives allow us to reconnect with people and places we might otherwise lose touch with, but they are no substitute for the world that exists all around us. As The Police sang in their 1981 song, “we are spirits in the material world.”

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