When Barack Obama won the presidency, one of the first things they did was take his BlackBerry away. My first, horrified reaction was that The Onion had it right, a black man really has been given that nation’s worst job. But after a few minutes I had changed my mind to: lucky guy.
On a related note, here are some items that have been in the news recently:
• A British man was divorced by his wife after she caught his Second Life avatar hugging another woman’s avatar.
• A Florida teenager committed suicide live on the Internet, while hundreds of idiotic Web surfers taunted him and egged him on.
• Twenty-five people were killed when two L.A. commuter trains crashed headlong into one another. It turned out one of the engineers was sending text messages at the time.
You could fill this magazine with similar examples: every day brings more facets of the same diamond-hard problem, which is our increasing inability to control the influence of new communications technologies.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. A decade or so ago, a Stanford law professor named Lawrence Lessig wrote a number of books arguing that a lot of what we value in our everyday lives was at risk in the coming information age. From basic personal privacy to the absence of total official surveillance, he showed that many of our freedoms were as much a product of the rough architecture of our world as they are a matter of law or morality. Putting the porno mags behind opaque barriers up high on the magazine rack was what protected the purity of our children. The sheer expense and difficulty in following and monitoring hundreds of millions of people is what keeps the police state at bay.
Lessig’s insight applies just as well to problems like virtual infidelity and txtng wile drivng. Thanks to cheap, ubiquitous and instant communications, we are more distracted at work and at play, we cheat more on our partners, and it turns out that favourite playmate Google is not a search engine, it’s a surveillance engine, giving anyone powers that the Stasi could only have dreamed of. It’s an unhappy state of affairs, and unless we do something it is only going to get worse.
So what’s to be done, beyond registering with the local branch of the Luddite Underground? Google got a bit of a laugh a few weeks ago when it introduced “Mail Goggles,” a tool designed to prevent embarrassing late-night (and possibly drunken) emailing. Enabled only at night on weekends, it asks you to solve a few simple math problems before you can send an email. Mail Goggles was intended mostly as a publicity stunt, but it suggests how we might manage the most pernicious effects of constant connectivity via forms of control called “self-binding.”
Probably the oldest and most literal of self-binders was Odysseus, who knew that he wouldn’t be able to resist the song of the Sirens as they tried to lure his ship onto the rocks. So he had his men lash him to the mast ahead of time, and with their leader safely bound they all sailed safely on by.
There are other forms of technological self-binding floating about, such as a software program that limits the number of times you can check your email each day. But this is small stuff compared to the scope of the problem. Our issues with technology are not individual but collective. Ultimately, what we need to do is put some friction back into the system. The laws some provinces and states have passed banning the use of cellphones while driving are a good start, while in Ottawa, some departments of the federal government have tried (with limited success) to ban the use of email by managers after 7 p.m.
We can do more. For instance, we should run some experiments in collective self-binding, denying ourselves our cellphones, BlackBerries, and laptops in certain places. The key is to make their use not an option—restaurants and theatres, say, could install electromagnetic jammers that make these devices inoperable. To reclaim the attention of students, universities should turn off the campus-wide WiFi connections they foolishly installed. This isn’t nearly as radical as it seems: we already self-bind every time we get on an airplane. For many people flying has become sanctuary. The trick is to recreate these sorts of havens in our everyday lives.
The most obvious objection to these proposals is that people, especially the young, love being online. They loving texting and Twittering, Facebooking and webcamming. But that love is precisely the problem. Technology is a modern-day Siren who promises the same temptations that lured Odysseus: wisdom and knowledge.
Barack Obama is being called the first president of the Internet age, swept to power by the money and votes of a great digital grassroots. He must now spend the next four years, perhaps eight, without the addictive glories of email and instant messaging. In our search for an escape from the corrosive effects of technology, it would be deliciously ironic if Obama were the man to show us the way.