Our Tools Are Using Us

Released: 7/20/2012 4:40 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: IEEE Spectrum Magazine
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Newswise — Our minds, bodies, businesses, governments, and social institutions are no longer capable of coping with the rapid rate of change in technology, writes William Davidow, formerly head of the microprocessor division at Intel Corp. and now a respected venture capitalist. He argues that we must first recognize the problem and then resolve to take measures to mitigate its effects--above all by strictly limiting our dependence on virtual reality in all its forms.

Research shows that our brains have become addicted to the blandishments of multimedia devices--smart-phones are merely the leading refinement at the moment. This phenomenon first became obvious in people's obsessive checking and re-checking of their e-mail. Today it has expanded into new realms, such as social media. The image of reality--the tokens of far-away or nonexistent events--dominates our minds. As a result we are seeing a precipitous decline in our ability and even our desire to see what's in front of our noses.

Our business and social institutions are changing too rapidly for us to understand the problems that ensue or to formulate policies to mitigate those problems. Davidow contrasts Barnes & Noble with Amazon.com, noting that Barnes & Noble built its chain of bookstores from a single store, in 1917, to more than 700, in 2012. The company needed time to find the proper locations, lease them, and stock them, and build them into viable businesses. Amazon, however, started in 1994 and was already operating in virtual space throughout the United States by the next year, putting a bookstore in every home that had an Internet connection.

The changes associated with economic progress have always been painful, but never have they been so fast and therefore so incomprehensible as they are today, Davidow writes. The recent meltdown in the world's financial system is another case in point. True, financial crises have been coming in cycles for centuries, but the latest one was aided and accelerated by instant communications, virtual reality technology, and fast-trading algorithms that made a mockery of governments' pose of being in charge of things. It is quite clear that nobody understands many of the financial instruments that rule today's economy, and one big reason for this ignorance is that we have relinquished our control to the machine.

The solution must begin with the individual, Davidow concludes. We must wall off our lives from our networked machines, resolve to check our e-mail no more frequently than we used to check our mail-boxes, meet in person whenever possible, and think not twice but three times before entrusting our social and psychological well-being to mere silicon.


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