The ever-expanding arm of technology
By Aaron Grierson
Freedom, as we know it, is an ever-expanding concept that has historically been propelled by technological advancement, benefits which have been taken for granted but are equally important as one’s right to live as an individual. While the argument can easily be made that technologies, from basic tools to smart phones, have liberated people in a lot of ways, the same can be said for the exact opposite. It may seem odd to think of one’s self as bound by technological chains, but this is a very real, if intangible, possibility in our everyday lives.
A brief history of every technology that has, in some way, contributed to the freedom of a group of people, would be excessively grandiose and likely altogether impossible to properly and accurately summarize, but there’s no harm in trying. Venturing as far back as is possible, simple tools, like hatchets, or ploughs, were continually refined to aid in the increase of productivity and eventually, from the time freed up, more leisure. While liberty more broadly took centuries to attain, the trend of “free time” is nevertheless evident. A major turning point was the industrial revolution, exemplified by the printing press. While other developments were also immensely important, the spread of literature began by being available only to the financially established and educated, naturally leading to the dissemination of leisure reading.
Literature is an especially important manifestation of spare time. While books are key in educational pursuits as much as they are for the leisurely, they nevertheless require free time to engage with, unless of course, one works in a library. As books became more widely accessible courtesy of the printing press, ideas and ideologies spread across the populace, and, revolutions aside, the primary point is that people (and not just the elite) were given opportunity to learn and engage with public discourse. But, certain genres of reading, especially early novels, became largely about memorizing story arcs and characters archetypes that would become clichés. This practice, centuries old, has expanded at least proportionately in the modern era, but increasingly we seem to be exposed to large quantities of rather vapid writing hardly worth the designation of “public distraction”.
The flip side of technology, the negative aspects, seems to be a more recent phenomenon, but also has its roots in industrialization. Impossible working conditions, long hours, risks, and environmental issues still plague the system on the whole in the modern world. However, given the increasing dispersal of industrial jobs, many have found themselves with a proportionate increase in their leisure time. Not only to pursue good literature (subject to individual and cultural tastes of course), but also for socializing with fine company, and in the leisurely perusals of photographs, films and discussions, all of which have the potential to be the antithesis of any boon.
The contention between a liberating technology, and one that restrains through distraction, is obviously one of moderation. We can spend only two hours enjoying a film, or a game, or a book, or the seemingly endless entertainments of the internet. Or we can, and often do spend hours a day on these things. Perhaps it is merely a matter of the allure of pleasure and the absence of effort or work. The old proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is certainly out of date in terms of its target audience, but still holds weight. Especially when inverted. All play and no work may become a proverb for posterity. It would not only make us lazy, but potentially draw entire generations into what can effectively be described as an endless loop of production and admiration. What I mean is that we may create things, like blog posts, or videos or even entire stories, not as work but to spread a sense of enjoyment. This too is a more recent phenomenon, being accomplished through particular mediums that are being propped up through technology. Although the internet is obviously implicated in this loop, it is not the only proponent. It is, however a self-sustaining example of the play-all loop, where work is secondary, if existent at all, and pleasure through entertainment, the primary function.
On a broader scope, we are essentially creating a culture of distraction, born out of large quantities of leisure. And spreading these distractions is a primary way of sustaining this culture. Through word of mouth to social media, the proliferation of quite literally everything under the sun—and a great number of things beyond it—has been ever expanding by ways of technology. A very recent example would be the pending introduction of Google Glass, which is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine non-prescription glasses that can take pictures or videos for you. While such a technology sounds amazing and can allow for reliving experiences like skydiving indefinitely, it can also, through sharing especially, leave to some unfriendly consequences. There is always the worry of one’s personal image, particularly as portrayed to potential employers. Any related worries are a form of self restraint. But these concerns are agitated by the widespread use of self-advertising we engage in, through social media.
The Oculus Rift is an example of where virtual reality is headed just as much as where it is coming from. Their website describes it as designed specifically for gaming, to make a more encompassing experience. In doing so, this hardware is crossing a very real line between digital entertainment and physical reality, effectively blurring the line between the two. Although this will no doubt catch on in a few years and even expand to film (the next level of 3D?), it nevertheless raises questions about how far virtual reality will go. This is a question I know is addressed in some science-fiction novels, often very optimistically presented as beneficial augments to our normal life, even as a second, more meaningful and politically subversive life.
Surely our technology will not make us so free that we can simply leave our bodies behind, as though they are merely outdated vestiges of a world soon forgotten. This strikes me as impossible, because we need our bodies to live through sustenance and if we all did, true to the ideology of equality, indulge in such an activity, the world, our great machine, would stop. Life as we know it would grind to a halt, and while the Internet is vast it seems impossible to truly replicate the human experience. Regardless, we seem to be leaning in a direction where the ultimate freedom is release from humanity, if only in a temporary and empirical sense. The knoll rings louder too when one thinks about the increasing number of robots being used in workforces, even in tasks as simple as automated telephone receivers.
Robots as a working force might not sound like such a bad thing at first. Optimistically thinking, it may free up enough people to make serious headway on issues like poverty across the globe. Alternatively, it may leave the same people with a justified attitude towards a life of opulence, complete with automatic grape dispensers and leaf-shaped fans. Worse still, we might wind up (in a century or two) in a situation akin to life in the Terminator films and be coerced into bending the knee before our new robot overlords. But predictions aren’t limited to the cinematic experiences alone; from stories like Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot, or Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, we have been presented with a human freedom that involves the slavery of mechanical counterparts that were designed to be very anthropomorphic. This is all the more poignant when one examines robots that currently exist. Even the basic stair-climbing robot vaguely resembles an astronaut. Many more recent models have been fitted with human features, though they are of varying degrees of realism.
While such books largely focus on the moral complications like whether or not robots have rights, or even a soul, we can safely say that many texts from the science fiction genre have coupled with technology, in ways that make these texts counterparts to our fantasies of techno-liberation. They can perhaps keep us better grounded in potential reality by way of providing us with a thought-provoking pastime. Further, they can be optimistic or pessimistic, horrifying or reassuring. The difference between a medical miracle and a deadly biological attack is a fairly thin line. Something it may not hurt to be reminded of every so often.
Such impulses and ideas must be balanced in their presentation though; one too many horrors and many people may find themselves entering a state of paranoid depression where all they want to do is hide. Conversely, we may find people so enthralled in the fantastic possibilities of the future that they leap from tall buildings in mechanical ‘super-hero-suits.’ Such role-playing activities – an example of liberty in the first place – are, I think, best left to conventions and living rooms, where creativity flows both safely and freely. To even consider such thoughts is a by-product of freedom, enabled by technology and accumulated over centuries.
All of these factors are leading to new questions that someday soon will need to be addressed. Think of freedom on a whole other scale: from work, from responsibility, even from physics. All very grand ideas, and potentially available at very little cost, by the next decade or so. But can it really be worth it?
The author is Senior Articles Editor for the magazine.