I'm fairly tech savvy. I would consider myself digitally functionally literate. I can't build computers or write software, but I can use the digital toolset to be creative, to communicate more effectively, and to solve problems. I rather enjoy using technology--when it functions properly. And I'm pretty good at troubleshooting technology when it fails to deliver. I make my living promoting the use of technology to better educate our students--to empower educators and students alike to think more critically and be more creative. So you may find what follows in this post to be a bit unexpected.
One of the big buzz words in technology for the past couple of years has been "convergence." Last weekend I lived an excellent example of convergence: my digital camera communicates to a satellite where I am when I shoot a picture on a hike in a canyon. That location data is stored in the image file's metadata. I then tag the picture with information related to the trip to make it easy for anyone to do a search on Eaton Canyon, on Tim Tyson, on hike, on Pasedena, on waterfall and find the pictures, find me. Yes, even my mom, now in her 70's, still keeps track of me online! Using cell phone technology I can immediately, in real time, upload the pictures to the internet--to my Flickr account, to a Google map that shows where I am, what I'm seeing, how far I'm hiking, how many feet I'm climbing and descending, how fast I'm walking, how many calories I'm burning, how long I'm hiking.
In this real, personal example, my digital camera technology talks to my GPS technology, talks to a software application running on my iPhone, talks to AT&T's 3G network, talks to the internet, talks to Google maps, talks to Flickr's servers, and talks to my blog technology on my server, talks to my home desktop computer that talks to my AppleTV to show my photos when it talks to my television. And I left out lots of other "talks tos" along the way. All of these very different technologies have converged. Now I've given everyone in the world the ability to be with me, to know me better, to hopefully enjoy something I enjoy: hiking in the great outdoors.
Education technologists the world over extoll the virtues of leveraging digital convergence, of creating personal digital learning networks, of seizing connectivity to reach further, faster. Digital technology increases access, increases speed, increases the capacity to edit and revise, increases portability, increases the capacity to think more critically, increases the capacity to reach a larger audience, et al. Ironically, at the very same time, digital technology can also profoundly diminish all of these as well.
Sometimes I feel as though we, those of us who love technology, are in a rush to find the next cool tech toy, to find a way to fit that toy into our lifeflow. What's Apple announcing this year? What's hot at the Consumer Electronics Show? I'm starting to think I'm living a techno feeding frenzy, mindlessly gobbling up the latest and greatest, the fastest and coolest. As I frequently say: "My name is Tim. I'm addicted to technology. I'm not in recovery."
But there's a whole under belly, a dark side, if you will, to technology. I started thinking about this after writing a recent article on transparency in government. Odd, I know.
How many more years will it be before technology convergence will allow anyone in the world to drill down in a Google map to a live street view in the ever expanding surveillance society in which we live? Are we having a national conversation about how technology is quietly impacting personal privacy, limiting access, being used to manipulate and flat deceive? I know a few people occasionally bring up these matters, but are we having a systematic discussion about this? Am I just missing out on it?
With facial recognition technology, GPS--in our cars, cell phones, and now even in our watches, wireless video cameras smaller than a nickel, sophisticated traffic monitoring devices, telephony surveillance, internet search surveillance, at what point will our society be so tethered "to the matrix" that nothing is private? I read in one new year's prediction about what the future holds, that nothing will be private and everything we say, do, purchase, every place we go will be recorded. Our lives will be, according to this prediction, completely digitally documented and databased for instant search. Not too many years ago, sometime in the last century, maybe around 1984?, this prediction would have been the stuff of science fiction, of an amusing Alvin Toffler quick read.
But today, we have smart traffic grids that can tell our car's GPS where the nearest available parking space is (desirable), can give us a ticket the second our meter time expires (undesirable). We can get a ticket when we go through the red light, even if no human traffic enforcement is present. It all goes in a database tagged: you! And, as public record, these "violations" can be search. If that's today, what is in the future if we do not talk about this, and let the technopoly go where ever it wants to quietly go?
And I read and listen to technologist, brilliant people who I admire and respect, say that increasingly our value and worth will be measured by what we contribute, what we share, on the grid. And part of me embraces this, acknowledges it, even sees the benefit of it. While, at the same time, part of me emphatically opposes this trend, wanting my contribution as a human soul to be measured more by my spontaneous warm personal touch as opposed to a cooler, more carefully crafted digital footprint.
I am reminded of an eighth grade girl at Mabry Middle School sharing with me her baby sitting experience. The experience so deeply impacted her she produced a movie called "The Human Touch." She told me that her family took care of a little baby until her mother would get home from work. The very young child loved to watch DVDs. One day while this eighth grader and her mother were running errands, the little child was riding in the back car seat and wanted to watch a DVD. The child spoke her first word! No, not "mama." The child said "TV." Both mother and eighth grader were horrified! Our children are growing up without knowing life was ever different from this.
I've just barely touched the surface here, leaving out many other enormously significant issues. But, I suspect we need to do a better job of talking about more than just internet safety for children. I think we need to begin a national conversation about balancing the technopoly with the human condition. People, society as a whole, certainly our legal structures (copyright, intellectual property, privacy, etc.) and democratic government are currently not equipped (may never be equipped?) to work and change at the speed at which the technopoly is now working and changing. Human nature being what it is, on a global scale with gaping disparities, this can pose a substantive risk to people, to humankind, to you and me.
I believe that humans are not binary. Unlike digital technology, we are more than logic, more than algorithms of flux, variability, probability. We need failure. We need immeasurable distance between "on" and "off." We need privacy. We need time and space off the grid. We need to imagine in only our mind's eye. We need emotive experience. We need to dream the illusive. We need to explore the invisible matters of soul. We need solitude. We need to be able to do a complete "about-face" as we see fit. We need a distraction-free space in which we can focus, find and savor serenity.
In the "old days," in the pre-technopoly days, in the past century, when casually walking down the street minding one's own business, one could see a potential threat approaching and respond appropriately. I'm concerned that in today's burgeoning technopoly of the invisible digital matrix, we will never see the threat to our freedom, to our very human condition, coming.
Yes, we need a national conversation.
[Photo credit: CC by Telstar Logistics at Flickr ]