Technology and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I consider today an article that appeared in the New York Times on Jan 25.  One whole day ago.  It is by Cal Newport, “a computer scientist and author”.  He claims that “Steve Jobs would not approve” of the way we use the iPhone in 2019, contrasting the typical user of this moment in time with that of the user of 12 years ago.  This, after all, was the purple dawn of the smartphone in the West.  (I guess they had them in Korea and Japan a few years before that.)  This is not a coincidence, as it’s apparent to anyone who looks at the laws of social dynamics that such a device is a perfect fit for the thoroughly collectivist cultures in the Far East.

Newport claims that Jobs never saw what was coming.   Newport relates that in a speech Jobs gave introducing the iPhone, he characterized it as “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” Then Newport goes on to say that “he doesn’t dedicate any significant time to discussing the phone’s internet connectivity features until more than 30 minutes into the address.”  Oh, that proves it.  because he delayed speaking of the internet connectivity aspect of the iPhone until the metaphorical page 12 of Section One of the New York Times daily (“buried in the back pages”), that must mean that he had no idea that internet connectivity would be a significant aspect of the iPhone’s operation.  Could it not be instead that he wished to downplay this aspect of its performance?

But this is all from a man who could safely be said to occupy a place on the “Natürwissenschaft-Geisteswissenschaft spectrum” (my term) that favors the former and disfavors the latter.  For those unfamiliar with this concept, it refers to the age-old quarrel between the traditional spirit of science and that of poetry.   Wilhelm Dilthey recharacterized it in the 19th century as the quarrel between science and the humanities in general.  Geisteswissenschaft, humanities, Natürwissenschaft, hard science.  In undertaking a course of higher education, one typically chooses one path or the other.  It’s possible for one individual to take hard science courses and English literature courses, and many do.  But the predominant trajectory will involve one category or the other.  How many humanities courses did Mark Zuckerberg take?  Of course it all comes down to money.  Where is the money in majoring in English literature?  And then ask the question, how much money has B. J. Fogg made in the last 12 years?  (See the link to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab on this site for more information on B. J. Fogg and his Behavioral Model).

So Newport comes at the question from the perspective of Natürwissenschaft, certainly.  I argue that this creates a blind spot concerning the whole question of technology, masking off the wider implications of understanding the trajectory of the phenomenon in question.  Of course this also works in the other direction.  Critique must be unsparing as regards the whole Natürwissenschft-Geisteswissenschaft question.  But we are here concerned with the spectre of rampant technology.  Even Newport concedes that the average person is no longer the master of this technology but that the reverse has occurred.  It seems to me that the only effective antidiote would be to attempt to redress the balance which is so far in favor of Natürwissenschaft that the opposite tendency is all but ignored.

My overall reaction to this article by Mr. Newport is one of incredulity:  How could he not understand that the smartphone would develop in any other way than the way it did?  “Mr. Jobs seemed to understand the iPhone as something that would help us with a small number of activities–listening to music, placing calls, generating directions.  He didn’t seek to radically change the rhythm of users’ daily lives…[p]ractically speaking, to be a minimalist smartphone user means that you deploy this device for a small number of features that do things you value (and that the phone does particularly well), and then outside of these activities, put it away.”  The ludicrously unrealistic tenor of these remarks beggars belief.  Basic concepts in psychology illustrate that this is pie-in-the sky thinking about the basic tendencies of a psychic organism that is contantly being molded into less and less autonomous configurations.  We are speaking here ultimately about compliant efficiency as a religious phenomenon.  The dictates of the operation of the apparatus determines our morality.  We”should” repond to the push notification immedately because the device makes it possible by redefining reality.  The red dot on the incoming email means urgency.  One can ignore it.  One can turn it to greyscale.  But the dictates of the apparatus insist that it is otherwise.

Newport goes on the make pathetically weak recommendations to combat the smartphone’s march to ubiquity in the psyche of the captured user.  “[I]f your work doesn’t absolutely demand that that you be accessible by email when away from your desk, delete the Gmail app or disconnect the built-in email client from your office servers.  It’s occasionally convenient to check in when out and about, but this occasional convenience almost always comes at the cost of developing a compulsive urge to monitor your messages constantly (emphasis mine–dw)”.  Now, suddenly, Newport understands what psychic forces are in play here.  This phenomenon, call it FOMO or operant conditioning or whatever, which is far stronger than most people realized before 2007 in the minds of those who are most susceptible to it (which is 90% of the population it seems), necessitates one solution and one solution only, if the desired outcome is some moderate measure of autonomy in this increasingly mechanized social environment–ditching the smartphone entirely.

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