The telephone: communication or torture? #edcmooc

Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) of Downton Abbey fame on the installation of a telephone:
‘Is this an instrument of communication or torture?’

This post is in response to the short film, Thursday, that was assigned to the EDC MOOC. The basic notion of the film is two people (let’s call them digital man and digital woman) going through their day as many of us do. They use coffee makers and alarm clocks. Their work life is spent on a computer. They connect on their ubiquitous smartphones. The film also follows a mockingbird and her nest that have adapted to this world of high rises and urban digital life.

My impression is that the people are not unhappy. The world is not devoid of nature. Digital man and digital woman even embark on a date via elevator to outer space with the bird tagging along.

The first instinct of many is to see all the ways the people in the film are disconnected or connected only via technology. This leads to questions about “authentic” connections vs. digital ones. Or, how has technology disrupted a way of life? Are we less reflective? Less communicative? Less connected? Even as technology connects us in more and more ways?

This brings me to Lady Grantham circa 1915. Bemoaning the next new thing that, in her view, destroys life as we know it. Utopia vs. dystopia has always been the debate about technology.

With each new technology from electricity to the steam engine to telephones and onward, hasn’t there always been this conversation about what will be lost in society? I imagine conversations about the loss of letter writing occurred once telephones became common now we’re concerned about tweets and texts taking over the written word. I imagine the first telephones were also considered intrusive by many or isolating (you didn’t have to walk down to the neighbors). Then, we all got air conditioning and people stopped sitting on porches.

We have as a society had to adapt to technology since the creation of pen and paper. We, as humans, are always looking for ways to connect and communicate with each other more efficiently and effectively as well as more frequently (people wouldn’t be engrossed in Facebook, twitter, etc if not for seeking connection). Connections are just taking a different form.

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4 thoughts on “The telephone: communication or torture? #edcmooc

  1. A very interesting perspective Margrethj, I agree with your points about historical perspectives and each generation having to grapple with the changes technology brings into their lives. However I would like to question you further on your comment about nature and technology, your comment ‘the world in not devoid of nature’, seems to be implying that there has been no great loss as a result of technology. I have lived for extended periods in both the heart of a massive metropolis as well as isolated in the middle of untouched wilderness. I have not witnessed them as compatible, one is every second of every day impacting in a devastating way on the very existence of the other. The only nature that survives the encroachment of human technology are exactly that, survivors. They are the animals or plants that are non-specialised in terms of their ecosystem. As you have mentioned there are consequences from the technological development. One of my greatest dilemmas as an active member of contemporary society is that I ethically believe in the ownership or responsibility for the consequences of the technology we are generating and using. To me this film is not just about technological development; it is asking us to question the consequences of our choices of what we do with the technology available to us. We must ask ourselves is this the kind of world we want our future to be?

    • I agree that urbanization has significant and negative impacts on nature that cannot be repaired. However, even in urban environments, humans still seem to seek green, natural elements (e.g., the rise of urban or roof-top gardening). And, in the world of Thursday, birds and plants did co-exist in the metropolis.

      In a related question, can technology help us preserve nature? For instance, as people move back into urban areas and commute less via car, will that have a positive or a negative impact on the natural world? What impact will the local food movement have? Can technology facilitate driving or traveling less frequently to connect with colleagues?

      I also agree that your closing question “is this the world we want our future to be?” is an excellent one. The challenge is that aspects of the future world may be totally unpredictable.

      • Thank you Margrethj for your probing discussion! And yes, thankfully, there are instances where technology is being used to support and preserve nature. Such as biological control methods for feral pests, electronic tagging and camera surveillance for gathering data on threatened species and of course breeding programs. All these are positive applications of technology, attempts to reduce the impact the technological consequences have on the natural environment.

        In terms of the urbane sustainability movement, the knowledge about the impacts of exhaust fumes, resource management, urban sprawl and habitat reduction is out there for all to learn and act on. Those that are changing their lives to live more locally and more green are attempting to own the responsibility for their choices and the consequences. I only wish I saw it as a dominant movement. Unfortunately where I’m living I see developers still rorting the system, filling in wetlands, building satellite suburbs on farmland. These communities are isolated and car dependent with non-energy efficient housing. Unfortunately human nature is often greedy and they don’t always make conscientious choices just because they should.

        Back to the film. To me Thursday didn’t show a future where sustainable lifestyles had been developed. From space the whole world was covered with the pulsing metropolis. No green roof gardens, no parks. I find it interesting you saw the birds and plants co-existing, because I didn’t. I saw a small family of birds, isolated and struggling to exist in the metropolis. They tried to get some food off the road but missed out because of the street sweeper. They couldn’t build a nest out of twigs, because there weren’t any, so they used wires from the machine. To me it was a sad future.

        I find it fascinating how people can interpret information in different ways. I guess that is one of the greatest challenges about a technological future where information is delivered and processed so rapidly and often through the written word. We are communicating without body language, vocal tone and facial expressions. I wonder if our interpretations of information is changing along with our method of communicating? Have you read the paper by Prensky (2001) from the week 1 reading about the Digital Native & Digital Immigrants? I found the idea that the brain is developing in a different way fascinating. And because it is a relatively new phenomenon we don’t know what the consequences will be. Possibly a generation of children like in the Corning glass ad, from this week, where they are content to view a fantasy natural environment. After all is it possible we will have a future generation that really don’t value the natural environment and what it represents the same way as we do? If this is so then Thursday could be a realistic prediction.
        Regards Anah

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