Such is the advance of communications technology that our computers, cell phones and other devices now enable watchers to see where we go, what we buy, what we Skype and what we write. The watchers are apparently government bodies, corporations and hackers. The fact is, as soon as you go online, you’re a potential open book.
The vast communications network that now covers most of the world is a wonder. At the Pan Am Games in Toronto next year, 40 venues spread over a 200-kilometre radius will be linked to a feed that will instantly transmit high-definition images of the athletes in action. Every bead of sweat, every taut muscle, every grimace and every triumphant air punch can be beamed live over the Internet to millions of viewers worldwide.
Maybe I’ve read too many dystopian novels. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and more recently Collins’ The Hunger Games, all have a population kept malleable and dulled by a constant diet of entertainment – life lived vacariously by watching others suffer on a screen.
There has been much discussion recently about the impact of electronic communications on our brains. Books warn that our thirst for distraction creates shallow thinking. Multi-tasking is counter-productive, they say.
Others agree that constant connectivity is indeed changing how our brains are wired, but that it could be a good thing. An article in Maclean’s (July 21) entitled “Get Ready for Generation Z” quotes pediatrician Michael Rich of Harvard. He says that while children today are “rewarded for not staying on task, but for jumping to the next thing,” this frenzied activity is useful. “What we’re actually watching is adaptive reflexes – faster switching and more active working memories.”
Baby boomers are awed by young people’s ability to multi-task and swiftly navigate the digital world. During a panel discussion at the ACEC Summit in Winnipeg in June, a grey haired presenter said how impressed he was to find his son up at midnight writing an engineering proposal while simultaneously playing chess online with someone half way around the world.
So why am I so uneasy with all this digital chit chat and creativity? Why do I recoil from the idea of Michael Jackson revived as a hologram, or Arup’s computerized human OVE that “has a skeleton, a respiratory system, sweats, gets hungry and even has a heart.” Why does it seem a little too strange that doctors are treating patients with anxiety disorders in “caring rooms” where they are surrounded by walls projecting colourful electronic images of flowers, stars and “colourful bubble making machines.”
And what’s wrong with surveillance? After all, if you’re not a criminal, not a terrorist, and if you’re not viewing child pornography, what is there to fear? Don’t the watchers simply keep us safe? And isn’t the Internet helping to open up all our minds to different cultures and countries?
Yes, but at the same time I can’t help thinking that we are losing something deeply human within ourselves when we become obsessed by the digital world. And an organization capable of monitoring your every move, is also presumably capable of subtly controlling it. That might seem far-fetched today, but please do remember that it is possible.