Slaves of technology

Russell Wangersky
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Maybe Marshall McLuhan was right — and not necessarily in a good way. McLuhan’s argument that “the medium is the message” sometimes confuses people, but the concept is straightforward enough.

Basically, it suggests that the way you receive a message can fundamentally change the way society functions, while the message itself may be merely the most transitory of information.

Receiving a single phone call from Europe might not be significant, but having subocean communication that allows that instantaneous contact — as opposed to

the delay of a ship-borne letter — certainly does.

And we’re definitely living in the midst of just such a seismic shift now. I’m just not sure it’s for the better.

Soon, the notion of 4G (fourth-generation cellphone coverage) will be eclipsed by 5G, 6G and eventually 25G. Or whatever.

We will own the next generation — or it will own us. It will have the ability to share a massive amount of information, on everything from the latest photo of a bowl of strawberries to the next fly found in a salad to definitive empirical answers about the length of a piece of string. It will do it everywhere and all the time, and that will be good. All good.

Am I alone in thinking that “sharing” an endless deluge of even startlingly beautiful images on social media serves, in a strange way, to diminish them, converting the rare and the sublime into the momentary and commonplace?

Am I alone in thinking that, as email, text messages and cellphone calls fracture our time, we become unable to manage, use or even deal with large blocks of unfractured time?

Or that, being swamped with offensive, petty or pedestrian tweets and blurts distracts us from, well, living in the real world all around us?

There are benefits to constant contact — but some 85 per cent of the things that are sent to me by email in a day are a useless waste of time and concentration, sent out to a wide pool of recipients simply because they can be.

I believe it’s deeper than simple questions about attention spans.

I watch people in their cars, desperate to get at their phones or rushing to text, and I wonder sometimes if any one of them — and there are dozens every day — stops afterwards and thinks, wow; getting that text and answering it was certainly worth any risk involved.

Live in hope

I think that the Pavlovian twitch towards the latest tweet — and

the hope that is in some way life-changing news — is fundamentally changing our ability to concentrate on complex thought, and our ability not to live in a land of constant, quiet disappointment when email after email fails to live up to our hopes.

What weight do we add to our lives, picking up the phone in hope and setting it down with the latest of the thousand cuts of disappointment?

It’s clear already that our ability to work is affected by our plunge into the constantly connected world.

Science has already shown that multitaskers are basically sloppy, and often dangerously so.

Constant interruption lowers your ability to concentrate, and in the process, your IQ.

Some studies say that flying all your electronic devices at once is much the same as trying to drive stoned. But maybe, after a tipping-point of exposure, more and more of us just aren’t interested anymore.

I’m reasonably sure that even mentioning Marshall McLuhan at the top of this column was enough to make some people shy away — not because they didn’t understand the concept, but because they simply couldn’t be bothered to try.

It makes me think a bit about something my father said about living with his parents. My father’s family — he was an only child — ran a moderately successful market

garden and livestock farm in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He left the farm to become a scientist.

I remember asking him, with some sense of wonderment, why he would ever have given up farming. (At the time, reading books like “All Creatures Great and Small,” I was quite taken with the romantic ideal of agrarian life.)

He put it pretty simply.

“You don’t own a farm — a farm owns you.”

See that thing in your hand? You don’t own that phone.

It owns you.

I say that, even though I myself may be hopelessly hooked.

Yes, I work on the electronic farm, and it almost certainly owns me.

In my business, instantaneous communication is a necessary evil. But it may well be an evil just the same, shaping my life — all our lives — in ways that will not be easily changed, and that we may live to regret.

In the cigarette business, smoking is good. In the munitions business — well, you get the point. Unfair comparison?

Well, the media told you a dozen true-crime stories today, just so you could sit and be frightened in your own home.

“I was looking at the news, honey, live-tweeted all day from the courtroom. Maybe we’d better buy a 5-G gun …”

I think it will not be long before there is a class of deliberate social media, cellphone and text message Luddites.

They will walk away from the instant and constant twitch, convinced that there is a more meaningful and valuable way to live.

And I think that they will create beautiful, lasting work in ways we are quickly forgetting.

When you see that work, you’ll want to tell them what you think — but you’ll have to send a letter.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Europe, Woonsocket, Rhode Island

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Recent comments

  • grisha
    July 28, 2012 - 13:23

    This may be the best article or yours I have read. I notice similar tendencies in my own profession. I am a lawyer. In the past clients and other lawyers understood that certain tasks took time to think through and formulate appropriate and accurate solutions. Today, most folks' work requires little thought at all. Each solution, procedure or answer is derived in the same manner, by locating it on a computer. No matter what the individual characteristics of the matter the answer or solution is derived in the same manner, punching buttons on a keyboard. Often after protracted negotiations where there are a lot of give and take and complicated points debated I am asked, "Can you have the contract out by this afternoon?" I am usually able to supress the anger if feel and tell them it will be later. I do not say, "Just because your job does not require thought and application does not mean my does not." But, that would just fall on deaf ears as these people, particularly the younger ones, do not grasp any of this. Now I am not saying I dislike spell check and the ease of composing a document on the computer. I like having so much information on the internet so assessable. I like all that very much. I simply miss the times when tasks took thought and reasoning and, yes, a little time. Also, your dad was exactly right. Our family is tied to a small family farm and it does own us.

  • Steamer
    July 28, 2012 - 12:19

    Russell, This is one of the best articles you've ever written. I don't have Facebook, but that is as rare as hen's teeth amongst people under 25. It is probably one of the most socially isolating decisions I have ever made. Somehow, though, I think I am better off without it. All the same, I have wasted my Saturday by browsing around internet forums - discussing my hobbies and other bits of minutiae. I haven't even had lunch yet. Is this the social interaction of the future? I would leave all of this technology behind, like the Luddites and rick-burners of old, but is there enough left from the old world for us to turn to? 99% of us are caught up in this trap of an "endless growth" economy that will only cease if we favour sustainability over affluence. What are the odds of that? The more likely scenario is collective disaster as crisis after crisis crashes our planet. All I can feel in my heart of hearts, though, is that I have to wake up from this technological stupor soon - the clock is ticking, after all... If the clock strikes tomorrow, what will I have to show for it?

  • Winston Adams
    July 28, 2012 - 10:26

    The medium is the message. An important insight. Read your article twice. I was familar with the concept. Made me think of the scripture "I am the way, the Truth and the Life". I take it Jesus was saying that He was the Medium. God's message was through Jesus who was the Medium- His life and teachings. He wrote not a word. Never sent an email. But a couple of years ago I googled the word Jesus. Showed it to be more popular than Elvis any other person living or dead. Like the cable that came to Heart's Content , the cable changed the world at that time. So too, by his insights and self sacrifice Jesus changed the world in many ways. I have noticed this technology of emails, and instant communication has the attention span of a few hours. An article like yours here may get a few comments like this in the first day, and additional comments quickly die off. Seems to be of little importance. Perhaps because serious comment requires focus, and in the age of instant communication, there is little time for focus, it's often shoot from the hip. So, as you say, 85 percent of the emails sent to you are a waste of time -and you say concentration. Such communication generally requires little concentration, and that's a lot of the problem.