Perhaps it's a fashion thing – one of those pop culture memes that appears and spreads without rhyme or reason – but there seems to be another upsurge in the idea that many technology products, particularly mass market consumer devices, have intrinsically undesirable social consequences.
I was just in an email conversation with friends on this very topic which was started by an AP article on Yahoo titled, "What happens when mom unplugs teens for 6 months?" The article opened with the line, "Susan Maushart lived out every parent's fantasy: She unplugged her teenagers."
The basis for this little experiment was a book Maushart wrote called The Winter of Our Disconnect (which reminds me of the sporting goods store in London some years ago that had a sign reading, "This is the winter of our discount tents," but I digress.)
Apparently Maushart took the Internet, TV, iPods, cell phones and video games away from her kids for six months and "The eerie glow of screens stopped lighting up the family room. Electronic devices no longer chirped through the night like 'evil crickets.' And she stopped carrying her iPhone into the bathroom" (which begs the question, did she still use her iPhone when not in the bathroom, despite having taken all of her children's gadgets away?).
The article went on to outline how "she and her kids rediscovered small pleasures — like board games, books, lazy Sundays, old photos, family meals and listening to music together instead of everyone plugging into their own iPods."
I suspect that the reason that this book, which I haven't read and have no intention of reading, gets any market "traction" is the popular idea that the enthusiastic use of the fruits of technology, to wit, iPhones, iPods, iPads, Xboxes, PS3s, and so on, engenders a real and problematic disconnect from some romantic vision of what "real life" should be.
Over the years there have been numerous books and articles outlining, as a friend wrote, "opinions and anecdotal experiences with geek culture and its destructiveness" and the idea that "when disconnected from technology, lives deepened, richened and most importantly, connected to fewer people but had better connections."
My problem with this take on our brave new whirl is that most of it is, indeed, anecdotal, as well as being based on an idealized romantic idea of how life should be lived. It is also usually not very scientific.
Consider a recent research report from a group at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine that argued teens who send more than 120 texts per day were more likely to have taken drugs, used alcohol, indulged in binge drinking, and done other things that their parents would likely go non-linear over.
A naïve take on that study would assume that texting was the cause of the behavior and therefore texting is "bad." A more critical take would be to ask if texting was, in fact, the cause, or were the teens who indulged in risky behavior more prone to use texting? To put that another way, if you took those same teens and examined their use of, say, pickup trucks, would pickup trucks appear to be causative in the same way that texting was assumed to be causative?
This blaming of technology for the social ills of our society is an easy and unthinking way to explain how our culture has changed. Taking away little Johnny's iPod isn't going to make little Johnny want to play dominoes with weird Uncle Silas any more than he would have 20 years ago. And don't tell me that little Johnny was happier 20 years ago with just his three-speed bike and his baseball mitt.
And there's one group that gets picked on as the cause of all of our perceived technology-induced woes and as examples of what's wrong with the tech world: The geeks. Next week, we'll consider how guilty they really are.