Google pursues a chip that promises to make machines more like humans. It’s about time they atoned for making humans more like machines.
Google’s most annoying legacy is the search-engine expert, the know-nothing know-it-all, often encountered in online message boards and article comments sections, who types and clicks his way to facts but never wisdom. In an earlier incarnations, the Google Expert boasted a library of dog-eared Cliffs Notes sharing shelf space aside books with uncut pages. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations acted as his speechwriter. Now Wikipedia Brown offers decontextualized bits of information, just like Google does.
Johannes Gutenberg’s press gave rise to literacy. Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s replacement undermines it. Just as Google skims the Internet for key terms, readers increasingly skim what they used to read. We mine facts better than at any point in history. We understand them less. Advertisers report that their studies show that people don’t really read online. They scan. “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle,” Nicholas Carr dares in his outstanding book The Shallows; “that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”
Socially, the devices purporting to keep us in touch in fact serve as a wedge separating people from people. Digital intermediaries keep humans away from each other and hypnotized by screens. Facebook Friend is another way of saying stranger. Tweets announcing visits to the grocery store, a bad hair day, or the mood swings of a pet really announce loneliness. YouTube, like its idiot-box antecedent, broadcasts loud cries for attention. Social media fills a void created by social media.
So, too, does Match.com, OKCupid, and eHarmony. Heaven forbid a man cold-ask a beautiful woman for a date. That’s so 20th-century creepy. Better to have anonymous strangers, without submitting to the criminal background check that female eyes invariably put male faces through, pursue over the Internet.
Alas, ugly individuals, as Kate Upton, Hayden Panettiere, Jennifer Lawrence, and a hundred or so other beautiful women recently learned, lurk in the shadows of the world wide web’s diseased glow more than they walk exposed in the sunlight of the world.
Large numbers of young men prefer to look at pixelated versions of women instead of meeting the genuine article. By the time they converse with a girl in person it turns out she’s nothing like the ones on their screens. Some young women, rather than communicate with the suitor across the table, opt to thumb away at their devices. SMH.
Computers have deformed their users physically just as they have done socially and intellectually. Video games transform virile young men into drooling, stultified, obese amoebas. Boys play Madden more, football less. Buzzard-like necks cranked downward pay homage not to Barney Fife but Bill Gates. Hundreds of thousands of years passed before homo habilis morphed into homo erectus. In less than two decades, laptops have slouched our shoulders and forced our knuckles closer to the ground.
In so many ways, technology, even if one just limits it to the ways in which this article is produced if not consumed, improves our lives. But as Judy Collins once beautifully sang without the aid of Auto-Tune, “Something’s lost but something’s gained.”
William Powers humbly proposes a screen Sabbath in Hamlet’s BlackBerry. Taking leave of computers for one day a week, and perhaps for a few hours a day, gives one time to reflect, breathe fresh air, and enjoy people without the digital distractions. Reserve the painful sounding but pleasantly experienced time in your iPhone’s “reminders” section or Google Calendar for best results.
A computer resembling a person, like people-moving sidewalks and Jetsons-style meal preparation, remains a nice fantasy. A less ambitious dream imagines human beings more closely resembling human beings.