Saturday, September 19, 2009

Technology and Post-Modernism: My identity crisis as spawned by the iPhone

What started out as an ambitious, well-researched hate-rant against certain elements of modern technology has since been forced to my backburner for a number of reasons. The first is that I’ve been overwhelmed this week and haven’t really had the ability to put the time or effort into backing up such a challenging piece. The second reason is that, as mentioned, it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which means I spent last night and most of today at Services.

The effect that the High Holiday has had on me has been two-fold. Obviously, it took away precious time that I needed to hone my piece into a finely-tuned argument, but it also forced to step back and see things a little bit more philosophically and a little less aggressively. What started as an unfounded crusade against the Apple  iPhone will now change tune a little bit and become an unfounded inner monologue about my personal crisis. 

My Synagogue is Reconstructionist, though unique because our Rabbi was originally trained as a Conservative and our community sprang up in the very progressive city of Portland. Much of the congregation's community service work focuses on bringing environmentally-friendly projects to impoverished countries and started eco-friendly co-op groups in the inner city in a tradition called Tikkun Olam.

This year , however, the Rabbi changed his theme a little. While not particularly groundbreaking in its innovation, I noticed that his ideas fit rather well with my recent sense of discomfort with the rapid pace of today’s post-modern technological world. In his speech, the Rabbi offered a very academic (and at times vague and evasive) discussion about the speed of the gadget-saturated environment of the 21st century. He offered the High Holidays as a way to step back, slow down, and catch up to yourself with some personal reflection.

So in my reflection, I chose to think about what it might really mean to live in a world where The Next Best Thing emerges almost every month. I thought about the implications of one tiny device being entrusted with every major personal detail and functionality that you might ask for. I thought about the multiple conversions and compressions that we put our data through, and how mathematics has shown me that every conversion causes a small amount of information loss. I contemplated what it was that we might be losing. I wondered if my hatred of the iPhone was more about what it represented and less about its functional details.

Now I’m absolutely not technologically retarded. I can navigate software and hardware with relative ease, I know how to hook one device to another, I can independently troubleshoot when something isn’t working right without rushing to call tech oversea tech support, I’m up-to-date with terminology, and I was a physics major for God’s sake.  And yet I am disturbed that at 23, I still feel like the technological world is already screaming past me. I often remind myself of those 60 year olds who refused to learn how to use computers when they first came on the market for home use.

New Technology becomes outdated so quickly. When I can put a cell phone (commercialized in 1984), a mobile internet access device (the hard-line internet started gaining momentum in 1994), a digital camera (1999 saw the arrival of the 2.7 mexapixel Kodak model for just under $6,000), a music player (the first mp3 playing iPod was released in 2001), a mobile gaming platform (the black-and-green, two-dimensional Game Boy took America by storm in 1989), a digital video recorder (I bought my own dedicated DV recorder with DV “tapes” for $250 in 2005), a Personal Schedule book (the first mobile phone with full PDA technology was manufactured by Nokia in 1994), and a High Definition video player (can anyone remember when we actually started making the transition to widescreen HDTVs or have they just always been around?) into one, 3.5-inch device, that can process multiple avenues of information simultaneously at stunning speeds which all can be input through a touch-screen interface, I’m floored. Did I mention it has a rechargeable battery lifetime of 24 hours and weighs less than five ounces?

I would estimate that over 98% of all operators of such devices don’t even have the slightest idea how the simplest of these technologies works all by itself, let alone how it operates when combined into such a delicate, portable wonder. How can we possibly keep up with the pace of technology when we are merely individuals, trying to stay afloat in an sea of collective intelligence and high-speed communication. The water is getting deeper every day, and the volume flow is accelerating.

I feel like I used to say “That’s so 80’s.” but now it’s just as sensible to say “That’s so 2008.” Last year’s devices fade away like old fashions. Us nerds and geeks and technophiles used to be so confused by the manufactured tastes and whims of the fashion industry, and now it seems we are swamped in just the same quagmire.

I wonder, on this New Year of mine, how we can possibly maintain an identity when our present becomes our past, our past becomes old news, and our future is hurtling toward us like a steam train on ice tracks (excuse me, steam trains are an out-of-date symbol). How do we keep our grip on this technological rollercoaster without slipping off and falling behind? Should we even worry about slowing down, when innovation has brought us such fortune in the past? Should we bother stifling our collective intelligence or should we  just suck it up and dig in. Does anyone else ever feel this old at such a young age?

I should just suck it up and go buy an iPhone, especially now that it’s marketing to space-cadets like me.