How I deal with changing technology and its implications on society

This is a post I started to write in August 2012, but never finished. As of late, I’ve been thinking often about this topic: how technology has affected my life and my writing, both for good and for bad, and how I deal with it.

One of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., has a bit where he castigates some guy for complaining about his cell-phone reception. His point is that we’re lucky to have the technologies we do, and that the world did just fine without them. Well, yes, I agree. I still try to live my life as if cell phones aren’t a crutch – carrying a notepad, memorizing phone numbers, mapping out routes in advance.

But society isn’t playing ball. We value too much the ability to change plans on the fly, to Google the answer to a trivia question, to find our way if we get lost. In the process, we’ve become more fickle, less focused, and so reliant on machines that it can get us in trouble if we’re, say, hiking without a printed map and our phone dies.

The same appears to be true with journalism, particularly with the quick turnaround time the Internet requires. I’d rather write thought-out, well-researched long-form pieces, but the appetite of the browsing class tends toward cat videos and listicles. It’s frustrating, and I often fight to keep my focus on what I consider important.

ETA: Yes, I drew these myself.

I mentor a young man. He’s a senior at a high school in the Bronx, and lives in Inwood. Two years ago we took a tour of the 9/11 Memorial, and talking about our perspectives on the event made me aware of generational differences in perception.

Obviously, we had different reactions to the attack: I was 16, he was 5. It was a JFK-assassination moment for me, one that captured my attention for weeks and changed the way I looked at many areas of life. For him, it meant that he couldn’t play Sega Dreamcast because his parents wanted to watch the news.

I then started to talk about my days growing up with a TurboGrafx 16 and how I once played Rampage on my friend’s NES for five hours straight. He looked at me like I was an alien. He’d never heard of such goofy consoles, and he only knew of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis because of Biggie Smalls.

As I’ve dipped my toe into journalism over the past month, I’ve spoken with several writers who have been in the industry for decades. Asking them about mundane processes like fact-checking has been eye-opening. Much of the time, I rely on the digital archives provided by the Times and the Brooklyn Eagle (via the Brooklyn Public Library).

I still go through file cabinets and microfilm on occasion. But having to do that all the time? That’s a barrier that’s hard to fathom. (Plus, I have a blog; in the past, where would my writing actually have gone?)

I like to play a game whenever I’m on a guided tour, which I did at Weeksville a few days before starting this post. This game has no formal name, but is fairly simple: I pretend I’m a sixth-grader.

Mind you, I don’t actually say my thoughts out loud; they merely serve as catalysts for more-mature questions. For example: “Eww, they had to pee in THAT?” becomes “Did chamber-pots serve any other functions around the house?” (“That would be an awesome spot for a flat-screen plasma TV” stays in my head.)

I’ve found playing this game makes me think in a more basic way about what I’m seeing. It’s a solution to the “fresh eyes” problem: if you’ve been working on something for a while, it’s a good idea to have someone else take a look. It’s too easy – and a bit lazy, perhaps – to process what you experience through your existing schema, rather than attempt a different perspective.

Constantly questioning oneself is perhaps the most fundamental attribute of an aware human being. Who knows? Maybe your schema is flawed, but it’s become second nature. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations:

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.

The principle is lasting – it will exist no matter what new technologies come into play, or no matter how society changes as a result. And while those changes might force us to play along to some extent, it’s a relief to recognize our reaction to them is still in our control.

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