Oct/Nov 2002 Salon

View from the Left Coast: Technology and Time Compression

by CE Chaffin

Forecasters say the coming weekend will be "sunny" again-- which I interpret as "hot." I hate the heat. As Mark Twain said, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." Yet with rare exception, as in football-sized hailstones falling from a clear sky, most weather changes give our species time to adapt. Given their gradual onset, we made it through at least two ice ages. Same with global warming. We'll survive it if it continues gradually. But we can't keep up with technology-- and it's driving us crazy.

Since Toffler's Future Shock and before, social philosophers have opined that technology's acceleration has far outstripped any capacity by which we might adapt to it, let alone any persistent cultural tradition by which to interpret it. Technology is neutral, it's true--"it has no mind or mouth." Yet its evolution is not gradual but exponential. Given it took man eons to adapt to his natural environment, that civilization is no more than 6000 years old, the industrial revolution but 200 years old, and the PC roughly 20 years old, one gets the feeling we are rising in an overheated hot-air balloon while the past disappears in clouds below.

Technology has widened the chasm between past and present irreparably by shortening the gaps between generations. Now only ten years or less separate generations culturally. My oldest daughter cherishes classic Nintendo; my youngest daughter, Sarah, scoffs at it as antique. The other day she remarked about the big portable phones in movies from the '80s. I explained to her that some models from that era included a very heavy, large box as a power source. "And people used to carry those around?" "Yes," I said, "I even thought of buying one." She looked at me as if I were crazy.

Since retiring from medicine, a field whose knowledge doubles every ten years, I have often wondered where working people find time to deal with the nonsense that a modern life, embedded in technology, demands. When do they choose between alternate phone plans? Program their cable reception? Select a cell phone? Get their cars serviced? Update their computer software to guard against new viruses? Weigh the dangers and costs of incandescent vs. fluorescent vs. halogen lighting?

And what about going to the doctor? How do they keep up with all the screening exams recommended--the sigmoidoscopies, mammograms, cholesterol checks-not to mention full body CT scans now offered over the radio?

And when was your last tetanus booster? Did you know you should have one every ten years, five if you have a dirty wound? Did you know joint replacements themselves must be replaced every ten years? And that your first bypass surgery may not be your last?

Feeling guilty or plain overwhelmed?

Have you rented a late model car lately? I drive a beat-up 1993 Hyundai; it's all I can afford, but even it has gizmos I don't understand. Transmission can be changed to either "power" or "economy" by one button, to "overdrive" or "normal" by another. Pushing these buttons only makes a difference on a clear freeway, a phenomenon nearly extinct here at any time of day or night. If I'm coagulated into another LA traffic clot, overdrive seems of limited utility. The car is ten years old and thus, according to my argument, designed for a previous generation, but I have yet to catch up.

Anyway, to return to my (latest tangentially belabored) point, a new car is a frightening thing. Where's the headlight controls? Dash or steering column or foot-operated? What's does this button do? How does one adjust the seat? What is ATS? How come there's no Dolby on the CD player? Why does the engine compartment look overcrowded with a million tubes, wires, sprockets and especially, black plastic computer-chip boxes?

Take one of these wonders into your repairman and he's likely to say, "That's $150." "For what?" you ask. He shows you one little black box that doesn't work anymore, and where he plugged in the new one. "But what does it do?" you ask.

"Errr… it helps regulate the intake of air for fuel injection, automatically adjusting for humidity and the smog factor, and furthermore..." "Can you prove it?" "I can show you the manual." "Don't bother," you say, "I don't want to know." Things didn't used to change this fast on the dashboard or in life.


When I say technology is neutral, no matter the level, it is also similar in method and thus suffers the same problems recurrently, albeit at different levels. For instance, when I used a modem, I got spam no matter what I did. Now that I have broadband, I get spam and annoying "pop-ups." The pop-up ads defeat the very point of broadband: my surfing is no quicker, as the screen is constantly being hijacked by ads. I pray there are no subliminal ads.

I've read about the Mercedes wrecks in the Saudi desert, abandoned for a single part because no service was available: more convenient for a sheik to import a new one than try to understand the old. Disposable Mercedes. That's a nice concept, especially when you consider most people can't even tighten the screws on their eyeglasses.

I spoke to a 24-year-old man yesterday and he'd never heard of Wilt Chamberlain. He had heard of Ted Williams, but likely only because Ted's recently been turned into a liquid nitrogen popsicle.

Santayana said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." As history is compressed by technology, we may be unable to learn anything useful for a grander timeline. V. S. Naipaul's writings are often concerned with place, as in his native Trinidad, where history has been taken from the people by colonization, immigration and "progress." In speaking with the young, all too often it appears that history goes back only one generation-their own.

Time Magazine had a recent cover story on the earlier occurrence of manic-depression, often misdiagnosed in childhood as ADHD. If one ignores increased detection, could it be that overstimulation by our increasing rate of change is triggering more illness? Being bipolar myself, I often wondered if my illness would have shown up if I'd been raised on a farm in Montana. I have to wear sunglasses in supermarkets because the cornucopia of colors mutated by fluorescent lighting makes me nervous. Lately the predictability of a formula show, Law and Order, has been a comfort. Its format is so predictable-right down to the timing of Detective Briscoe's wisecracks about the corpse in the opening scene--that it makes me feel safe. I even watch repeats for the comfort of increased predictability.

We all know life isn't as neat as this show, but once it was simpler, if not easier. Think: at the turn of the 20th Century, 90% of Americans were farmers. Now it's below 5%. And take insurance. Insurance companies have more cash than any other commercial entity in the world. Did you know they did not exist until shortly before 1900? Just like lawyers and doctors, insurance companies essentially feed off human tragedy, making sure their profit margins exceed payouts. It's a giant protection racket. Or perhaps it's simply an admission of widespread fear of the rate of change: people want to protect themselves against the incomprehensible future.

George Allen, a perfectionistic football coach recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, had a saying: "The future is now." As the future, always technologically sooner, approaches "now," history may eat its own tail. A child born just a year later than another may develop an entirely different world view. My youngest brother, just eight years younger than I, was into video games and REM, and the majority of his Reagan-era Gen X friends were preoccupied with material advancement. I, on the other hand, was a hippie.

Remember when there were receptionists instead of phone menus? When self-help and full-service were not options at a gas station, much less automated payment by magnetic stripe? Remember when the shift lever was on the steering column? When cars had carburetors? Ever use a slide rule? Remember AM radio with music, not talk?


In complaining about the rate of change I've only touched upon its social impact. But here's one of my favorite examples: before 1960 Kennedy was told he couldn't win the presidential election if Jackie divorced him. By 1976, three members of the nation's first and second couples (Betty, Nelson and Happy) had all been divorced. And no one batted an eye.

The greatest human cost of technology, in my humble opinion, is loss of community and increasing personal isolation. The more technology available, the fewer people one must actually encounter. With online banking, grocery delivery, drive-thru restaurants, working from home or long commutes in personalized transportation bubbles (I once saw a man practicing an alto saxophone during slow-moving freeway traffic), it may be the only person one encounters anymore is a repairman. Phone skills, that mastery of the disembodied voice, have become more important than composition.

Paul Tournier, a little-noted Swiss psychiatrist, promoted the psychological doctrine of "Personism." He thought relating to persons the most important human activity. No doubt Carl Rogers would have agreed. Dr. Tournier even encouraged us to name machines in order to more personalize them, a practice I have followed since (my Hyundai is named "Winifred").

More and more the persons in our lives are becoming objects to service other objects, which puts more pressure on the relationships in what's left of the nuclear family. And community is harder and harder to find. It's not just alcoholics who go to AA meetings anymore.

Lastly from Dr. Chaffin's dictionary:

Networking: A term for regarding all human contacts, including family and friends, as sales prospects, or means to an end.


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