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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 19, 2014 at 10:44 AM

Mailbox: Though machine is progress, ‘I do not want to be one’

Our devices do a lot of things for us, but they also do things to us. This is a controversial idea not everyone accepts, but it’s just plain true. The devices we use tend to rework our norms, expectations and behaviors, for better or worse, sometimes without our even noticing (or, without our thinking it’s a big deal).

My Sunday column, “You are a machine, and other lies your smartphone tells you,” sparked some thoughtful responses on Twitter and over email. Since philosophical debates like these are never closed, here are a couple of the threads that stood out.

First, a Twitter exchange with tech author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang:

Below, a reader email:

Ms Guzman —

I always read your column with appreciation of the perspective you lend.

Today’s, particularly, reminds me of my student job at the UW Health Sciences Library reference desk, 25 or so years ago.

I was enrolled in library school and, like my classmates, wanted to perform with excellence, answering questions, citing sources. At one point, it became obvious to me that, scurrying from desk to card catalogue to shelves, back to the telephone, we were trying to outrun a recently acquired computer, a race we could never win. At age 40-ish, some 10 or 15 years older than the other library students, I had not yet drunk the Kool-aid from the Technology jug and was able to decide that, although the machine will be a huge advancement, I do not want to be one.

Today, from time to time, I, too, have to distance myself, a bit, from the apps cascade.

A faithful reader,

Bob

Hey Bob,

It’s this fascinating question: Will machines enhance us, or become us? And is it up to us what they’ll do, or up to them?

Technology is rarely as all-good or all-bad as some believe. It deserves our attention and our enthusiasm but also our scrutiny. And though its changes sweep through society, we shouldn’t give up our individual agency. How we use our tools is up to each one of us.

Thanks for your note, and thanks for reading.

— Moni

And another:

I completely agree with what you say in your Sunday column.

In my previous life as an engineer (I am now retired) I both developed and used engineering design software – software that is a notorious hog of computer resources: the more memory and the faster processor the better.

Sometime, perhaps in the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s, a strange phenomenon occurred. The computers then available were powerful enough and accessible enough to produce answers faster than I, as a design engineer, could decide what they implied – what they suggested that I should try next. Beyond that point the continuing clamor for more speed in the computer and more software features became decreasingly important. This is an oversimplification, of course, the few new features that facilitated asking new questions were still important.

Now, as a retiree, I am a photographer. I split my time between traditional (wet) darkroom photography and Photoshop, as notorious a hog of computer resources as most engineering software ever was. Wet darkroom photography is a craft of contemplation. Each step in the process gives you time to think, in fact you have no choice since there is nothing you can do to make it go faster. On the other hand, sometime, perhaps in the mid ‘00s, the computer on my desktop was powerful enough for Photoshop to produce “answers” faster than I, as an artist, could decide what they implied – what they suggested that I should try next. (Do you sense a pattern developing here?)

At some point – which we are beyond in many areas – the demand for more, more, more speed, efficiency, and snazzy features becomes more about bragging rights than it does about productivity. More apps on a smartphone or more applications running at one time on my desktop machine won’t help. A faster or more capable version of Photoshop won’t help.

By the way, I wrote this on a word processor (ca 2003, since the newer versions offer no improvements that matter to me). Typing directly into an email message doesn’t encourage me to think about the message before sending it.

Your one-liner “I am not a machine.” sums it up very well.

Thanks.

You’re welcome. And thanks for a provocative, thoughtful response. To have answers before you decide what to do next … that’s a very good way to put some of what technology can do. I think about the infinite posts on Facebook’s news feed. It used to be that it would stop somewhere, and you had to click a button that read “Load more posts.” Now, it doesn’t ask. It doesn’t give you that choice. It just supplies, more and more to look at, that never ends.

– Moni

And one more Twitter exchange:

Seen a story that caught your eye re: digital life? Email me at mguzman@seattletimes.com or reach me on Twitter or Facebook.

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