Friday, June 8, 2012

Karl du Fresne: Confessions of a Luddite

I happily admit to being a Luddite. Technology often baffles and infuriates me. I assume this is one of those left brain/right brain things. The people who create computers and write the incomprehensible instructions that appear on my screen obviously think in a fundamentally different way from me. As exasperating as this is, I realise I must learn to live with it. I have come to the view that the people who transcribed the Gospels got one vital letter wrong. It is the geek who will inherit the earth. 
But I also willingly confess to sometimes being proved wrong. Back in the 1990s, I was deeply suspicious – contemptuous, even – of the Internet, which was then making its presence felt. Yet I’ve become increasingly dependent on the Net and these days couldn’t function without it. It enables me to live in a quiet provincial town, far from where the action is, yet still make a modest living as a journalist.
I was similarly sceptical about texting in its early days and dismissed it as a mere passing fad. My conversion to the benefits of texting came on a holiday in Europe in 2002, when I embraced the novelty and convenience of being able to communicate instantly and cheaply with my family on the far side of the world while sitting in the sun outside a café in Warsaw or Rome.

More recently, of course, we have learned how invaluable texting can be in emergency situations such as the Christchurch earthquakes, when the cellphone came into its own as a means of communicating with people trapped in wrecked buildings and locating missing family members in the chaos and confusion. 
I have also become a regular user of Skype. With children and grandchildren living in other countries, I’d have to be crazy not to take advantage of technology that enables me to speak to them face-to-face via my computer screen, and at no cost.

I haven’t yet succumbed to the siren call of the iPad or iPhone, though some of my friends – even those of a mildly Luddite bent like me – are hooked on them.
I can certainly see their virtues. Only a fortnight ago, my wife and I were camping with our son, daughter-in-law and grandson in a state park at Big Sur, on a wild part of the California coast, when a discussion arose as to the origin of the name of a nearby restaurant. There and then, at a campsite where there wasn’t even electric power, my daughter-in-law casually googled the name (Nepenthe, from Greek mythology) on her Android phone and came up with the explanation.

I can’t begin to imagine how my technologically inclined father, who died before the first clumsy mobile phones appeared on the market, and even before the compact disc began making inroads into vinyl record sales, would have marvelled at what we take for granted today. Yet I remain deeply sceptical about some aspects of the digital revolution.
Take Twitter, for example. It has now been in existence for nearly six years and we have yet to see evidence that it serves any purpose other than as a vehicle for statements of unutterable triteness and banality. Twitter’s popularity hinges on the deluded belief of its users, most of whom seem barely literate, that the world is fascinated by the mundane details of their self-absorbed lives.

Then there’s Facebook. I’ve written here before about my unfortunate experience with Facebook several years ago, so won’t go into it again. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled beyond description when the much-vaunted launch of Facebook shares on the open market several weeks ago collapsed like a punctured balloon.
Like almost everything related to Facebook, and social media generally, the share float was grossly overhyped. It was a bubble primed to burst.

For those capable of looking beyond the media frenzy that preceded the float, there were straws in the wind. Perhaps the most significant was the announcement, not widely reported, that General Motors had pulled all its advertising from Facebook because it wasn’t selling any cars through the site.
This fatally undermined a fundamental premise of the Facebook float – namely, that in the bold new digital world, social networking services like Facebook would unlock boundless commercial opportunities.

It was surely no coincidence that only a short time after GM’s announcement, it emerged that some of the founding investors in Facebook had substantially increased the number of shares they were putting on the market – in other words, getting out while the going was good.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from the anticlimactic outcome of the Facebook float, it may be that the corporate world has been too readily sucked in in by the social media phenomenon. I wonder if this serves as a warning to some media companies, including the one that publishes this paper, that they risk putting too many of their eggs into the digital basket.    

One last point about the technological revolution. It may have transformed our lives in positive ways, but like most advances it can have negative consequences too. We were reminded of that by the inquest last week into the death of a 15-year-old Rotorua girl who fatally overdosed on her father’s heart pills after being harassed with text messages from the wife of the man with whom she had been having an affair.
The coroner decided against a verdict of suicide, which seemed rather puzzling, but called on the government to pass legislation that would make “cyber bullies” culpable for their actions. Justice Minister Judith Collins seems sympathetic and has instructed the Law Commission to consider whether “incitement to suicide” should be made a criminal offence.

Notwithstanding the tragedy of the Rotorua teenager’s death and my general aversion to technology, this seems an over-reaction. Technology shouldn’t be made the scapegoat for human failings.
Politicians find it hard to resist the temptation to pass new laws to cover every risk, but it’s impossible to legislate for every terrible thing that happens to vulnerable people who get into bad situations through immaturity or poor judgement.

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 6.)

1 comment:

john austad said...

as usual, karls maturity, wisdom and commom sense delight and remind us of what real life consists. keep educating the public in this age of otherwise opinionated, ideologically slanted journalism.