The medium is the mindset


Every so often, just to reassure myself that planet Earth is still in business, I take a look at the world’s news. I’ve noticed that technology has gone from being portrayed as the world’s savior to being viewed with a more jaundiced eye. There’s been a slew of articles, with more arriving all the time, speculating about the dark consequences of artificial intelligence, robots, and potentially job-stealing gizmos such as self-driving trucks.

If there are controversies brewing over this stuff, I’m sure not a part of them. I view technology as just another big factor, like the weather, that I have no control over. Instead of yelling at the wind, I just quietly trim my sails and keep my hand on the helm.

Still, just like the weather, technology can be an interesting thing to watch.

Maybe when a form of technology sounds vague it doesn’t have a lot of appeal, but when it actually materializes as a shiny new thing the demand can be insatiable. Of course, not everything that hits the market is a success, but that doesn’t erase the overall trend.

Before the selfie society came along, if you described “social media” to people as an abstract concept they would have nodded politely and started glancing at the exit.

Nowadays, they can’t glance at anything: Their eyeballs are glued to their smartphones. If you’ve eaten a diet of clickbait for a dozen years the only direction you’re going is where technology pulls you.

When this whole Web thing got big there was talk of a “digital divide” that separated the haves from the have-nots when it came to Web access. Saipan’s Joeten-Kiyu Public Library did an admirable job teaching people how to use the Web; you could just drop by the computer area and a friendly guy would tutor you.

Nowadays, 20 years later, I sense another digital divide. This time it’s between those who have embraced the digital realm as their primary means of conceptualizing the world, and those who haven’t.

Technical know-how is not the key distinction here. For example, I know a number of computer programmers who maintain old-school ways in their non-working lives, and, in fact, I can think of several who don’t even let their kids use smartphones.

On the other hand, because modern tech is so easy to use, anyone, no matter how non-technically inclined, can be totally immersed in the electronic world.

This digital divide might be invisible, you can’t draw it on a map, but it seems to cleave through a lot of realms of modern life, including social circles and marriages.

An attorney recently told me that when one spouse is engaged in the e-life and the other isn’t, there’s probably a divorce in the future.

Managers in the retail and hotel industries have been telling me that customer service skills can be difficult to find in a workforce accustomed to keyboard-to-keyboard communications instead of the face-to-face kind. I’ll acknowledge that point, but I’ll also note that long before the smartphone came along, people with good customer service skills were hard to find.

Meanwhile, there are some differences in etiquette that crop up with modern technology. For instance, I’m apt to cringe a bit whenever somebody jams their phone between my face and my dinner plate in order to show me something. There’s got to be a better way.

Hey, here’s one: Maybe we could invent electronic screens that glue to people’s foreheads so they can display things to other people. If they don’t have anything to display at any particular time they’ll be paid for the ads that are shown. We could all be human billboards that are advertising to all the other human billboards. Better yet, I’d get rich for starting the concept.

That’s such a great idea that I just submitted it to the comptroller of my funds. Unfortunately, she rejected it, told me to quit reading the news, and reminded me that it’s time to do the dishes.

Yes, dear, I’m on my way.

I guess that winds up my foray into global events, at least this time around. Technology is, alas, destined to remain a force entirely outside of my influence. So I’ll just adjust my sails again while keeping a steady hand on the dish towel.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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