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OPINIONS

Constant connectivity and the human condition

I was working on a group project late last quarter when I received a harsh email from one of my partners. After discussing what parts of the report she was working on, she wrote, “you have been ignoring my calls and texts which is unacceptable.” She was half-right. Apparently the others in the group had been texting each other back and forth, as well as attempting to call me, for the five hours prior to me receiving that email. I, however, was not deliberately ignoring her; not expecting any urgent calls that night, I left my phone in my dorm room before leaving to study in the basement of Green.

The assumption behind her comment was that I was checking my phone regularly. And for college students in the heart of Silicon Valley, that is hardly an unreasonable assumption to make; breaks in class are filled with people pulling out their phones to check emails; lulls in conversations are replaced with responding to texts; buzzes and bright screens always and everywhere. I reckon that six years ago, maybe even three, a text or phone call that went unanswered for a handful of hours would not have warranted the response I received. Times, of course, have changed, although I’m not sure for the better. Not only do we own more devices, but we engage with them far more often. Have our conversations and classes gotten less interesting? Doubtful. Rather, we are more reliant than ever on our digital devices and less tactful with when we use them.

The individual, however, should not shoulder all the blame; the system he operates in demands subservience. For instance, while perhaps once owning a smartphone was a legitimate option, possessing what was once a luxury device will soon be a necessity. Airports and museums are replacing textual signs with QR codes; valuable applications are being developed only for smartphones; many of those who are constantly connected to their devices operate under the assumption that everyone else is, or should be, similarly engaged with their technologies. Thus novel technologies, while they may begin as optional products, do not remain optional. So although Google Glass, the wearable computer, might now be a prototype, and in a few years will be a product only the wealthy can afford, it or a close derivative will soon enter the mainstream. And soon after that, major facets of our lives will be designed around the technology.

Are humans ready for Google Glass? If they are, will they be ready for the next wave of computer technology? Were they even ready for smartphones, or the internet? Even if the Silicon Valley elite are willing to profoundly change the human condition, the rest of the world may not be; the values revered here—efficiency, scalability, and profitability—are not as important, or are even looked down upon, in other communities and cultures. But due to the penetration of technology discussed earlier, those who do not necessarily share the same values as the tech elite are all but forced to adopt the newest products and services and ways of life.

Humans were not “designed” under conditions of near-constant connectivity; the vast majority of our evolution occurred in the pre-industrial era. Expect resistance, then, from our bodies. Expect depression, rebellion, alienation. Expect drugs and entertainment to be front and center in an attempt to “cure” us of these ills. This used to be the realm of science fiction—think soma in Brave New World or mood organs in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep—but now we need only look at the increasing number of youth who are diagnosed with ADHD and then prescribed drugs to “fix” their “disorder” to see evidence of growing psychological distress and a corresponding over-reliance on medication.

For these reasons, I am wary of the Code.org video, “What Most Schools Don’t Teach,” that has recently been in the news. The video is a celebrity-stacked PSA explaining why today’s youth should learn computer programming. Two of the final speakers in the video have these concluding words to say: “the programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future” and “[coding] is the closest thing we have to a superpower.” They might as well have labeled themselves Gods. And for all intents and purposes, these and other programmers and engineers are playing the role of God, designing products that aim to provide humans with longer, more efficient, and ostensibly happier lives. Being God, though, comes with supreme responsibility. Those who used to be at the forefront of a given technology—the atomic bomb scientists or early internet developers, for instance—were relatively philosophical when reflecting on their technologies. Yet for the programmers portrayed in the video, with their unbridled enthusiasm and colorful offices filled with drum sets and Ping-Pong tables, humanism appears to be of minimal concern.

Connect with Adam at adamj11@stanford.edu.

About Adam Johnson

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.
  • Devil’s advocate

    Thanks for a thoughtful article Adam. I agree that the obscenely high level of digital connectivity we find all over campus here at Stanford can be quite remarkable, if not worrisome, in its ubiquity. I’d like to make a comment about a point you make. You write that “Humans were not “designed” under conditions of near-constant connectivity; the vast majority of our evolution occurred in the pre-industrial era.” As a student of human biology and developmental psychology, I have to raise an argument with this line of reasoning. In psychology, the term “naturalistic fallacy” refers to the false assumption that what nature has selected over time via evolution is necessarily the way things “should” be. Just because humans evolved in a certain environment does not mean (1) that environment cannot or should not change in the future or (2) humans cannot adapt to thrive in any given new environment. While I agree with you that we certainly should be more thoughtful and philosophical about the way that technology is quickly taking over our lives in many ways, I would argue that we must all take a more objective stance (due to the fact that we just don’t know yet) when trying to predict what kind of outcomes this societal shift will have for humans. Demonizing technology because we don’t fully understand it is probably not the best option.

  • Adam Johnson

    Thanks for the comment. You mentioned how “we just don’t know yet” about the long-term effect this will have on our lives. I think that is a reason to be much more cautious and deliberative, not to just let things play out without objection until we have the studies and data that can isolate any meaningful connections. Philosophically, though, we can make certain arguments on what is a good life and see whether technology accords with that standard. I think, for instance, a good life is at the least healthy- some technologies help with this, others (books, TVs, video games, computers…) probably only make us more sedentary.

    Regarding the naturalistic fallacy, even if I grant you numbers 1 and 2 (so the fabric of social interaction SHOULD change to incorporate more computer systems and humans WILL be able to adapt to thrive in this environment) I think in the meantime, before we adapt to thrive, no smooth transition (from a physical or emotional level) is guaranteed.

    For a heightened example, consider the hypothetical case of brutally killing off 1/2 of the world’s population (the “worse” half, to boot). After this process is done, many would argue that the world would be a better place due to a smaller, “better,” more manageable population. And humans would most certainly thrive after a few years were allotted to appropriately downsize. If we only care about the destination, there is nothing at all objectionable about what happened. Intuitively, though, most of us would object to the way in which the destination was reached.