technologyvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Chipping away at our sanity, byte by byte

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In the overall scope of human history, we are a prosperous people, us Americans living right now. Yes, the rich are getting richer, the economy is looking bleak, and there are sit-ins and protests around the country — the world could always stand a few straightenings — but if you take a moment you realize we have more, and more access to, things than anybody else ever has. With apologies to the diehard pessimists and the political gain they hope their pessimism brings about, Americans have it pretty good.

In fact, American children growing up today — no matter whose health care plan we end up with — will have opportunity, health, and safety at levels unimaginable to children born at any other time.

Yet somehow, vast numbers of these children won’t be happy. They aren’t even happy now. No, I’m sugar coating it: Many of them are going to end up depressed, malaise-ridden, suicidal.

It’s disturbing. I look at the vaccinated, vitamin-rich, bully-shielded children around me and wonder why so many will end up this way.

I once wrote a dissertation. If you are like every person in the world save maybe four, you haven’t read it. In that epic work, I looked at what I described as “subtle technology”: My way of thinking about digital tools and devices. It was over-complicated in that classic dissertation style, but I tried to work out our psychology in response to the fact that commonplace digital technologies and the structures and bureaucracies they enable operate at the micro level: We can’t directly interact or fix them.

Perhaps this example will help: While you may not want to change your oil or even change a tire on your car, you could if that was the difference between getting away or being eaten by rampaging zombies. When something digital goes wrong, it breaks at a subsensory level that is hard to get at with screwdrivers and elbow grease. You often need the interface of the computer to fix the computer itself.

I am no technophobe, especially in my professional sphere, where I am a big advocate of teaching technologies. But like those thinking about “digital depression,” I wonder if our continuing slide into the digital can leave us with a sense of being out-of-control, a daily, simmering frustration about all the things we can’t easily and tangibly handle.

I thought this during a recent unlucky run I had with the digital bureaucracies my life orbits. This may sound familiar to you:

  • Like most, I manage my benefits and insurance on the Web. With a keystroke, my dental insurance changed. I never realized that my current dentist was now off my provider list. In fact, I never knew this until after a routine visit, I was sent a bill.
  • I paid for parking in Philadelphia with a credit card. The machine spit out a receipt prematurely — but the receipt was measured in end time, not amount paid. I bought another block of time, and I placed both receipts side by side so the parking officer could see I bought two of them. No surprise here, I guess, to those familiar with Philadelphia parking: Ticket. However, bless the PPA’s  heart, I did get the ticket dismissed, but only after writing a careful letter and sending it with copies of the receipts. And waiting — pensively.
  • My health care insurer had my primary care physician’s office address wrong so I got hit with an out-of-network fee after a well visit. I called the insurer and spoke with a helpful person who got to the bottom of my problem. But two weeks later, I got another bill.
  • At work, I get paid via Direct Deposit. However, in an accounting glitch, I was paid by a real, live check. This paper check sat in a bursar’s office, unknown to me. I wrote a personal check against money that wasn’t in my bank account and of course got hit with a bounced check fee. After one of those menu-heavy phone calls, my bank graciously removed the fee. My next bank statement, though, included a mystery service charge.
  • Then I had to call the people I wrote the check to, trying to assure them I wasn’t a scofflaw. I slogged through their voice menu; the real person I ended up talking to (said she) believed me.
  • My relatively new computer suddenly decided it needs broadband authentication when I power up. Then it decides I’m okay after all. I don’t know why.

Again, I enjoy many aspects of the digital part of my life (I mean, I’m writing a blog), but this list of troubles in the land of digital bureaucracy took me hours to resolve, and even in my moments of triumph, I felt that creeping helplessness. You know the feeling: You want to yell. But at who? The voice-activated menu? “I’m sorry, but ‘Arghhh’” is not an option.”

Where is the problem? In the little blips of life that are my accounts, my records, my life?

I wonder if our digital natives are running themselves headlong into a world cloaked in the guise of digital user-friendliness, which makes it even more shocking when they discover their lack of control. And I wonder if that looming, intangible pressure sets them up to be collectively more frustrated, withdrawn, and perhaps even depressed.

Millenia ago, when a sabre-toothed tiger came bounding after you, there was no time for self-loathing or poetic neuroses. The brilliant machine in our skulls said, “It’s time to move.” Now, our antagonists float, subtle, ephemeral bytes that can often jump the digital boundary, destabilizing our atoms, that real stuff we’re made of.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “Chipping away at our sanity, byte by byte”

  1. I can suggest a solution to your computer problem…

    I think that along with a lack of control is a lack of agency and/or production — at the end of the digital day, it’s sometimes difficult to look back at what you’ve actually created or accomplished (yet at the same time there’s so much that can still be done). Something to be said for working with simpler tools…

  2. Its funny because, as you might know, I’m a pretty “even” person. I don’t think my kids have EVER seen me really angry until this year when my laptop broke. I had purchased a Dell *refurbished* model and so jumped on the phone to set up a repair with them figuring they would be best suited to such a repair.
    The short version is the anxiety and anger build up was seemingly beyond my control as I worked through layer after layer of voice activated “customer service” options. Every once in a while they’d sprinkle in a real person – a real person not on this continent – but a person just the same. They, of course, did NOTHING to calm my panic or to even solve my problem.
    In the end I was literally screaming a the person “You’re not listening to me!!” and I hung up – all because I could not function in my life without the information and access contained on that computer.
    My son looked genuinely afraid of me at that point, which I hope to parlay into parenting credits down the road should he stub his toe in life.

  3. Scott, I think you are on to something and I could write my item list of similar woes. We should think more about the little experiences of every day life that make life livable our not. Oh and thanks for the primer on your diss. :)

  4. Wow, do I love any sliver of validation regarding my technological ineptitude. Sometimes, I think it’s just a late onset attitude problem. But I would be incorrect. Humans are set apart from other species by langauge, the vehicle to advanced interaction. We are, too often, preferring to communicate electronically. Our “advances” have not shown themselves, to me, to enhance my skills in dealing with people. As I spend time mastering the next thing, I miss an occasional moonrise, rainfall, spider weaving his web, etc. Aren’t these the unmatched creational wonders of which we are such a small part? Where was I? Oh yeah, typing this bleeping rant…

  5. Thanks to all of you for a very timely reminder for an IT support person – its not about fixing the problem, its about hearing the customer.

    I have to agree as well, there is less tangible, less satisfaction in what we create, what we communicate and how we interact that leaves the human being craving more.

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