the digital age – be careful what you wish for

i’ve been thinking a lot about the way that the digital age has changed our world over the past 10-15 years and i’m slowly reaching the conclusion that not all of the progress that we have made has been for the better.

the digital age

i think the events around the Boston Marathon bombing started me on this line of thinking.  after the fact, every news service on the planet went into high alert and strove to provide the facts as they learned them as rapidly as the mobile internet age has come to expect.  the problem is that facts are difficult to discern and they take time and scrutiny to separate from conjecture and speculation.  however, when freshness of news is measured in milliseconds rather than days, there’s just not enough time  for the sifting of perspectives to gel into a consensus on the true unfolding of events, and what ends up being reported as news are abruptly presented single points of view that never tell a complete story.  this leads to misrepresentation, mischaracterization and a panoply of pictures of history that are all biased and unsubstantiated, leaving us wondering what just happened… really.

consider how things used to be.  mail used to take the form of words written on paper that were transported by mail carriers.  it took time and demanded patience, but you knew where and how you would receive correspondence and you could compartmentalize those expectations and focus your attention on other activities.  if you wanted to talk to someone far away, you walked over to your phone or a pay phone and you tried to connect to a phone number.  if they didn’t pick up, that meant that they weren’t available and you had to try again later or try and resolve your problem with your own ingenuity.  if you wanted to know what time it is, you looked at your watch or at a clock on the wall and were never distracted by the commercial that accompanied it or the stock ticker that appeared beneath it.  and if you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you had to wait until the evening news or the morning paper to learn what journalists who had spent their whole day learning and prioritizing and researching had determined was a fair and honest description of the day’s events.

and now think about how things are today.  my smart phone gives me instant access to the internet where i can get mail that was sent seconds ago from a business contact.  it allows everyone who has my number to reach me everywhere i go all the time.  i don’t wear a watch because it’s redundant – my phone always knows exactly what time it is, although looking at it is the same action as checking for text messages, so neither i nor the person i might be talking to knows for sure which is my real motive for checking.  and if something happens anywhere in the world, no matter where i am, i type a few words into a search box and expect that what i read there will be true.  that all sounds quite good, when i put it that way, right?  that was the promise of technological convergence – that it would make accessing information easier and make me more efficient – putting everything at my fingertips all the time everywhere i go.

everything is everything

something that bothers me about this evolution of information is that convergence has made everything into everything.  we used to have billboards for advertisements, thermometers to tell us the temperature, and newspapers to tell us the news.  now, every single television, monitor, screen, phone and sign gives us all of those things all of the time.  every news channel has sponsors, advertisements, and corporate interests to serve.  no message can possibly demand our full attention because we receive dozens of noisy distractions that interrupt our train of thought from every direction all of the time.  the subconscious sifting of ubiquitous messaging comes at a cognitive cost and quite frankly, even though i was raised in the MTV-ADHD era of communication, i find the whole enterprise simply exhausting.

nothing is excellent

when you reduce everything to ones and zeros, you bring all creations and thoughts that employ the medium to the same level.  everything is a blog post or a tweet or a meme.  i think that is why theatre and live music and performance art are so impactful by comparison – much as it has always been – because that is actual human experience.  some of the greatest ideas and achievements of the modern age have been created in the digital medium, but how can we ever elevate them above the level of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video if they don’t get a billion hits?  excellence has been replaced by viral consumption and that elevates only mediocrity and shock, and penalizes artistry.

i can’t feel anything

for all of the effort and money and billable hours that are spent on digital media, we still can’t find anything that is as truthful or enduring as the works of William Shakespeare – an obscure Elizabethan playwright in the middle of western history who reworked some classic stories for the popular culture of his time.  my girlfriend and i went to a Stratford Festival kick-off event yesterday evening (not too coincidentally on the birthday of the Bard – April 23) that celebrated Shakespeare as a singular creative force in the classical sense, his populist and sensationalist works, and his broad cross-cultural and ahistorical appeal as a raconteur of the human condition.  you cannot escape a Shakespeare play or sonnet without being moved by its emotion and its sublime beauty and craftsmanship (assuming you groove on iambic pentameter).  in Shakespeare, unlike in the “Twilight” saga, you feel the passion of the artist and the genius of the author. the digital age simply doesn’t give you the time to internalize that kind of gravitas and i think that as a civilization, we suffer as a result.


i’ve come down pretty hard on the digital age, because i am one of the people who is a custodian of it.  i work smack dab in the middle of the information industry and my current job title makes me imminently responsible for how that industry manifests progress and success.  i wish that it was within my power to tell clients, “the way to send a message to your employees is to have a town-hall meeting where you gather everyone into a boardroom and deliver the message face-to-face.”  But that simply isn’t an option.  i wish that i could design solutions that if you want to communicate and collaborate more efficiently that you should all go into an empty meeting room and debate and evaluate all of the relevant issues in person.  i wish that i could tell my friends that if you want objective news that you should read so-and-so’s editorial in the daily news.  but alas, that time has gone, and i am not sure how to instil confidence in the media of the future.  but i feel like there may be an opportunity there for the one who can solve this problem.  i hope that i can be the kind of person who will work to make technology serve us better, rather than the other way around.  🙂

– g