I grew up in a town of fewer than 100 people and had no access to technology up to the age of ten. Up to that point, everyone knew each other on a first-name basis, and we lived off the land. The only thing I had at that time that might qualify as "tech" was a set of cans with a string that me and my best friend, who was my neighbor, used to communicate with each other.
I spent many hours taking the sheep out to graze, laying down on the fields, staring at the clouds, and wondering about what else is out there. Few people today will go through our world without touching some technology; it's practically impossible.
The first bits of modern technology came into my life when Communism fell. My father emigrated out and sent us money to buy a T.V. and a satellite dish. Communism, as I am sure you've read, was a dreaded system that gave us no freedom. The Communists wouldn't let us have any tech either; they didn't want us to see what was out there. The T.V. rocked my world; it immediately started impacting my life. I learned how to speak fluent Italian from the Italian channels the satellite dish would pick up across the Adriatic sea.
When a group of Catholic Nuns showed up on a mission to help our poor town from Italy, I was the only one that could translate and communicate with them. Had they come a few years earlier, we would have been pointing at things, expressing the way ancient civilizations may have done so when they ran into each other. I am ashamed to say that I have forgotten how to speak Italian now, as they say, use it or lose it.
At around the age of ten, I was brought over to the U.S., where my mother and father emigrated. I went from a town of 100 people to New York City, a city of millions. The explosion of information sent my head spinning. When I got here, I met relatives who were using a P.C., and they had attached it to a phone line that gave them access to something called the internet. They showed me video games, and I was hooked. I fell even more in love with technology, with every bit that I got a hold of.
Around the same time, my cousin's dad used to roll around with something called a Beeper.
One day he was driving us to the park, and the beeper went off. When a beeper went off, it would tell you what number was beeping you to call back. When it went off, he had to quickly pull over to the side of the road, grab a quarter, and run to the nearest payphone. After calling the number back, he found out there was a leak at the building where he was a superintendent; he had to turn us around and fix it. Before he got that beeper, we might've gotten to the park and had fun, oblivious to the problems of the world.
Today we all carry a smartphone in our pocket with all of the technology that came before it inside. All of yesterday's technology is now in one device, the cans with string, the satellite dish, the T.V., the radio, the beeper, the P.C., the internet, and so much more. There is no denying that this is an immense achievement for humanity.
The smartphone is not the end game for technology either, not by a long shot. The endgame is robots and A.I., but that is for a different discussion. Things are changing fast, and the rate of change is accelerating and causing what Nicholas Taleb calls black swans. The event's no one can predict that change the world drastically. These black swans, unforeseen events, lead to an even more massive change in our world and compound each other.
“A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
... the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated” -Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) (pp. 15-16).
We get bounced around from tech to tech, from string cans to P.C.s and P.C.s to smartphones. Fewer and fewer of us will ever run into strangers and point at things again for communication; we may never get to play without interruption. Few of us will ever get to sit there and wonder. Many of us struggle to learn and create because of constant interruptions. Unlike the beeper, most of our interruptions now are not even from other people but from notifications and more technology layers trying to grab our limited attention. It is easy to see how these back-to-back black swan events can bring us to an undesired place.
My love for technology led me to a video game called StarCraft; in it, there is a technologically advanced Alien Race called the Protoss, which is my favorite race to play. In the game's lore, the Protoss evolved to build a technology called the Khala, which connected the entire Protoss race. To them, it became more than a technology, almost like a religion. Like a mesh, it connected all of their minds; even after they died, it retained their "soul." They could even bring back their dead as robots called Immortals. In the early stages of their story, their leader says:
"For we are bound by the Khala...the sacred union of our every thought and emotion."- Hierarch Artanis
We are also told:
"Once connected to the Khala, permanently disconnecting from it was impossible unless the adherents severed their nerve cords."
However, in the story, the Khala itself gets infected and manipulated by evil, and all of those connected to it become manipulated by that same evil. In the end, the Protoss decide they have no choice but to destroy the Khala and disconnect their race from it permanently.
"Without the Khala, what will we become?"
Executor Selendis asks to which Hierarch Artanis responds
There is no denying that our world is wealthier than ever today; technology has played a large part in those efficiency gains. We are also more connected than we have ever been, and our freedoms suffer because of it; modern technology tries to keep us locked in much as Communism did. But somewhere between that world of string cans and the khala exists some balance where we can retain our individuality, our freedom and still connect on our own terms.
Perhaps today, with no one keeping "the evil" technology away and with the smartphone in our pocket, we have forgotten that disconnecting choice even exists. As someone who grew up with no tech and is in love with what it can do for us but not what it's done to us, I'd like to say that our choice is still there. We can put the phone away, disconnect and play, wonder, learn, or create and connect back in on our own terms.
Get my weekly email, The Postcard, with the best ideas from each week.