Our Robot Overlords
My semester has ended, all grading is done, and I'm back to writing something other than comments on research papers. Here's what I've been thinking about after eight weeks of virtual teaching.
A consequence of the current pandemic is an increase in computer use. Almost everyone’s feeling it: students are doing classes by Zoom, employees are online for team meetings, musicians are performing to their phones, consumers are ordering food, clothes, and a hundred other things to be delivered, television shows recorded in front of live audiences are now being filmed in living rooms, and streaming services and even porn sites are seeing increased usage.
I’m at the computer more than I used to be. My classes and office hours have all shifted to virtual formats, which means a mix of standard online and real-time activities via Zoom. The fifteen to twenty hours I spent each week walking around a classroom, writing on the board, sitting next to students and going over work – these are now spent at the computer.
There are several consequences of this increased time at my computer. The most noticeable is tendonitis in my upper arms from mouse use: first in my right arm several years ago, at which point I taught myself to use the mouse left-handed; now in my left arm as I mouse and click hours a day. This is debilitating, but as far as work-induced ailments go, it’s better than black lung or mercury poisoning. Other physical effects are decreased flexibility from sitting in a chair all day, back strain, eye strain, poor circulation – you know all of them, I’m sure, and depending on your work and leisure habits, you probably experienced them even before the pandemic called for many people to stay home.
I’m interested in the psychological effects as well as the physiological ones. The chief psychological effect I observe is that happiness is now located in a place, in an object. Amusement, connection with others, intellectual stimulation, information, employment, and relaxation are all derived from the same thing: the desk in my spare room with the screen on it. An umbilical cord has begun to grow between me and it, and I can feel myself getting restless if I’m away too long. Maybe someone’s emailed me or sent a chat message. Maybe there’s a new comment on a blog post. Maybe there’s news I should read. Maybe Netflix has new movies posted. Cat memes, gossip, travel photography, even church services are all calling to me, and – if I’m not careful – time spent away from my robot overlord leaves me anxious and bored. My brain is being trained to expect instant gratification. It used to be, for example, that the once-a-day mail delivery was something to look forward to; now mail can come at any time, and, if I leave my speakers turned on, can summon me to look at it no matter what I’m doing. And this would all be much worse if I had a smart phone and carried it with me everywhere – which my employers would like me to do.
Over the years I have resisted being tied to a computer, because of these physical and psychological concerns, but I’ve had diminishing success. I avoided teaching online classes whenever I could, but I could never avoid them completely. I read books rather than watching shows (although Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Shetland sucked me in for a while). I never even intended to write for a blog, and certainly I never intended to start my own blog.
While I enjoy reading a few blogs and had mostly positive experiences writing for InternetMonk over the years, I have never felt that blogs, while great for immediate experience, are the best way to communicate information. I would write something on InternetMonk that would stimulate much discussion, then several days later the same topic would arise, and the same people would weigh in afresh to the discussion, with no reference to anything that had been discussed earlier. The blog form is by its nature ephemeral, and the information my readers absorbed had all the longevity of a soap bubble. However, when I published many of the same essays in book form, they gained a solidity in the minds of readers that they hadn’t had before. I’ve had acquaintances come up to me several years after reading my book and quote passages to me that meant something to them. I have never had that experience with my blog writing.
So, a few years ago, I completed a book manuscript about sane living, which dealt at length with keeping one’s distance from encroaching technology. The publishers who looked at the manuscript, and the advice I subsequently researched, were unanimous: no one will publish a non-fiction book unless the author has a “substantial online presence.” Publishers don’t market authors as they used to, preferring to jump onboard someone’s already moving train. The irony of their recommending that I start a blog to gain publicity for an anti-digital message was not lost on me, but modern life consists of ironies, and I started the blog.
I’ve enjoyed it, actually, and I feel my thoughts have taken better shape as a result of the exposure and feedback. But it’s one more obligation that requires me to be sitting by myself staring at a screen. And yes, that’s what I’m doing right now.
Mankind is at a crossroads. First global warming presented an unanswerable argument for unplugging much of modern industrial life; now the pandemic and its resultant restrictions have shown us an alternative to the way we were living. In many ways the pandemic has been a disaster, ranging from the loss of life and health, through threatened economic collapse, all the way to the necessity of sitting at the computer all day. But we’ve seen the brighter side, too: with fewer people commuting, skies are clearer and waters are cleaner, slowing the effect of climate change as a result. People have also been reminded that physical contact with people and the outdoors is precious, and neighborhood interaction is a blessing and not a burden.
I’m not sure which way enslavement to computers will go in the next few years. It could be that people will wake up and think, “Sure, computers are convenient, but online education is infinitely worse than face to face, online relationships are unsatisfying, and shopping, parties, and physical gatherings are important.” Or their robot overlords might have insinuated themselves into their brain chemistry to such a degree that life disconnected from the internet feels irredeemably dry and dull. And it might be hard practically as well as emotionally to unplug: both employers and employees may opt for the lower overhead and shorter commutes of working from home; consumers may prefer shopping online, particularly when local businesses fail because of having to stay shut for so long; and people in general may grow even more uncomfortable with awkward physical contact than they have in the last decade or so of social media, texting, and, well, blogs instead of conversation.
It seems to me that we stand at a great divide, a great point of change, comparable to the transition between human-scaled industry and the Industrial Revolution. Our homes, our family structures, our work, and our economy may shift as drastically as they did in 1800. There will be suffering whatever path we take, but I believe that while there are many paths that lead to greater harm to the environment and to human beings, one of the paths open to us will ultimately lead to a more human-shaped society in balance with nature, and with a whole lot less time on the computer.