BEHIND A SCREEN

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Not an anti-technology article

German Version / Deutsche Version

This will not be an anti technology article. Simply because I am not an anti technology person. But I do believe that inventions are per definition like babies, it depends on the nurturing of a newborn, on the emphasys, the surroundings, the way the society reacts to the new.

And I believe that technology has reached a point where it is not just changing appearances, having effect on the way we travel, produce, transport, build or any of those other practical implementations.

But that technology has reached a point where, essentially through the way she influences or – sadly – one can say increasingly defines communication, has a profound effect on human evolution (whatever that signifies).

One symbol of this is the device we commonly call mobile phone. Or, surprisingly, smartphone. While maybe the item itself could, at least theoretically, be defined as smart, possibly based on specs and operating system complexity – is our application of this specific technology smart too?

A phone on the wall. No comfort, no chair - and no way of taking it with me. Not smart. Or, actually, smarter than what we use today?
A phone on the wall. No comfort, no chair – and no way of taking it with me. Not smart. Or, actually, smarter than what we use today?

Phone on the wall

Until I stopped being a teenager, a black phone with a dial, that, as I remember took some muscle power and patience to use, hanging on a wall in the hallway, that rang maybe once a week, a persistent bell that nearly woke up the dead, was my only technology based communication medium.

And its main purpose was having one minute conversations that went like “Hello”,”How are you”,”Lets meet”,”Good bye”. Which ended uncomfortable standing and consistently initiated a full blown meeting in reality.

While, what is reality? Facebook, Whatsapp and other so called social platforms – and exactly how social they are is open to discussion – have become possibly more ‘real’ nowadays than meetings in person once where. This kind of old fashioned person to person communication where one can see, touch, smell, observe, in summary, fully interact with another person is not the common option anymore.

Looking into a screen, while sitting, walking, standing, while travelling, eating, waiting, while doing the most improbable things imaginable has become the ‘norm’.

I keep trying

I got a mobile phone. I admit. When I recently arrived in Switzerland – probably only to depart soon again – I got myself I cheap non-smart tiny thing for nearly nothing that could only do calls and SMS. What a revelation. Finally nobody sent me notifications, links (often for nothing and really to explain nothing at all). But then, alas, my bank told me that in order to use their services I needed to adapt (how often do we actually have to adapt to technology and how rare it is that technology adapts to us?) to their authorisation rule and have to devices, and two apps.

I tried to resist but then, in London trying to reactivate my UK phone, I was told that I needed 3G and that my tiny superthing was unable to adapt (even technology experiences obviliation). So off I went, sad and enslaved, to a new smartphone. Only now, there is no Whatsapp installed, no email retrieval activated. I keep the phone in a wanted ‘prehistorical’ state of on demand limitation.

And I thought about the fact that people are on their oh so smart-phones everywhere. So my one just stays in the pocket, or off if I am not wanted, which I prefer. I am with all my 5 senses in reality. If I can’t change the world, I can at least show with my own little self that I prefer this reality to that… wait…

What is reality?

The reality behind a screen is also a chosen reality. As is the reality in those apparently very addictive games that has even got some humans dead by simply forgetting to eat and drink, or by heart infarct.

We call the reality behind a screen virtual reality. As easy and convenient this sounds in a strict – possibly somewhat philosophical sense, any reality is as virtual or real as we experience it. In Shamanic Lucid Dreaming dreams are seen as more real than what we call reality. Experienced with all 5 senses.

And the reality behind the screen can – and indeed became – for some humans possibly also ‘more’ real than the ‘real’ reality. Virtual reality, taken to the extreme, can become not only a replacement of the reality we are used to call real, but actually a more realistic representation of ‘real’, or maybe better a more important one.

Thus, in essence, it is not about the objective reality value of a specific reality one is living but about the subjective importance of that reality the invidium perceives. Thus, suddenly, human beings who physically die because of playing a game and also a teenagers who kill their parents because they take their smartphone away are horrible and alarming, but on a psychological level make sad – very sad – sense.

“a 16-year-old killed his father for taking away his mobile phone while he was playing an online multiplayer shooter game. In another incident, in Bengaluru last August, a 15-year-old girl murdered her father with the help of a male friend after he attempted to curtail the amount of time she spent online”
Source: Deccan Herald

Those people completely immersed in their smartphone world, in the reality behind screens, which are not just some, but – at least in my subjective experience- daily more and possibly soon the majority, in buses, trains, shops, on the street, or even in Saunas, have effectively, I suppose, at least in some cases, defined the reality behind their screens more essential than the reality around them.

This is the information super highway that Clinton happily proclaimed, the secret service unfiltered space of virtual reality. The world behind those screens is made possible by the internet, the WWW, a network with roots in the Military. Made possibly since the initial comparative free times for the exact reason that it now reflects. Total control. But those thoughts are another story altogether. Another one I would like to talk about soon.

“Think of it, instant access to information will increase productivity, will help to educate our children. It will provide better medical care. It will create jobs. And I call on the Congress to pass legislation to establish that information super highway this year.”
Source: Bill Clinton

Filtering it out

This ‘superior’ virtual world of digital exchange has its limitations, in my humble eyes. But for the many immersed in that reality, the advantages seem to outweigh them. Virtual friends top physical ones. Virtual encounters don’t intimidate, virtual friends don’t smell, don’t have viruses (at least not body based ones), virtual friends don’t object (or they get blocked without remorse). Virtual friends don’t force you to go out, walk, take time. Virtual friends are easily exchanged, virtual friends can be communicated with in extreme parallel, virtual friends don’t need food, don’t have to be asked if they would like a coffee, virtual friends don’t break the omnipotent barrier of the magic smart(-phone) screen.

Fortnite. I frankly even had difficulty writing it. I have no clue about it. I tried playing SIMS (10 mins and bored), tried Second Life (same effect). Not for me – for you?

But not only the endless bliss of the internet is part of this world. Communication itself, even by voice, seems to have changed fundamentally. While I, old school, keep private conversation private, more and more are telling me, not asking but decidedly looking the other way and proudly assuming, that their most intimate life has and needs to be shared publicly with me. Family arguments, hour long video calls with their mother, of course over the loudspeaker and with me playing bokeh background, the most extreme arguments and deeply sad tearful end-of-life discussions – all right here in the open public. Is this smart? I can’t judge for others, but I do observe. And me, I find it too sad to shed tears – indeed.

Melancholically I dream of those ‘good old times’ when this black dial phone on the wall was my only technology based medium of communication. Where people would meet, not chat, play in the woods, not in massive multiplayer. Have a coffee, not place likes and dislikes strategically in a new, shining, amazing, glittering, infinite, speed of light, ever changing, ultra immersive, omnipotent virtual world behind screens that even happen to kill or get one killed.

But then, if the virtual identity is all that remains of importance, then dying in the real world might not matter anymore?

Shift in reality

Whatever ones personal inclination, that for an increasing number of us the perception of reality shifts into the virtual seem to be a fact.

Not that I haven’t experienced exceptions to the rule. I met people, yes, also young people, who have taken a conscious decision to limit their online reality. Have switched from virtual reality back to physical one. Have met others who still don’t – and never plan to – own a smartphone. And others still, that through suffering and with psychological help, have been able to find a way back into this reality from a situation of massive addiction to the world behind the screen.

So the future is not set. It is actually never set. But what matters, what seem to me to be of extreme importance, is that we collectively stop to see technology as a benevolent miracle. Technology is, has and will influence our reality to a yet unknown extent in the future.

Technology is not just to be consumed without critical thinking, one needs to be awake to make technology something that helps humanity evolve and not make it into something that enslaves the human being.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, it has been documented exactly where which infected person was when. Officials are questioning patients, what routes they took and who they contacted. They’re checking surveillance cameras and matching credit card and cell phone records. The routes are then published to prevent further infection.
The German Spiegel, about South-Korea and the Corona virus

This whole story reminds me of the Goethe’s ‘The sorcerer’s apprentice’. A poem that symbolises in a smart way what happens if one plays – out of commodity – with forces one cannot control.

I don’t really know if this is funny – but as I don’t smartphone in public I have time to observe. These are some of the strange impressions I got. Types of smartphone lovers.

Smartphone lovers

The Smiler
Description:
He/she is always laughing, usually on video calls. 
Location:
Bus, tram, train, hotel lobby – everywhere where he/she gets public recognition
Communication level:
20% communication / 80% be somebody special, make sure the whole world knows

The Drama-Queen
Description: 
Or King…
Discussing very private stuff in public. Preferably for hours. Including shouting, crying, tears. Total drama.
Location:
Street and public transport. If he/she enters a bus or train, she will not even stop with those highly emotional discussions when exiting the transport. Non-stop. Second hand embarrassment par excellence.
Communication level:
50% / 50%? I really don’t know. Neither I understand why the whole world has all this extremely private matter.

The Loudspeaker
Description:
Preferably on video-call with full level loudspeaker. Often talking to his mother for 3 hours. Loves video calls. Does not know that loudspeakers can be turned off. And definitely does not care. 
Location:
Street, hotel lobby, restaurant, any public transport, hospital waiting room – anywhere.
Communication level:
40% / 60%. Needs everybody to know that he is loud, that whoever he talks to is sacred (his mother, whoever), gets angry if anybody interrupts. The world is mine.

The Chatter
Description:
Frantically typing in hyper speed on the soft-keyboard. Often with 10 people at the same time. And sometimes with the sound on: “Bling”. Message. Typing. “Bling”. Message. Typing. Endless chat going to nowhere.
Location:
Anywhere
Communication level:
30% / 70% ? As in multitasking: Extreme. As in quality: I don’t know. It just makes me sad. 

The Gamer
Description:
Female more prevalent. But males too. Immersed. 
Location:
Anywhere. Public transport preferred. While walking no problem.
Communication level:
Maybe through avatars? 10% / 90% would be a good assumption. 90% a virtual personality.

The Addict
Description:
He/she never is without phone. Always behind the screen. While walking, in the supermarket, on the street, under the bus. In the Sauna, while eating – when making love? The addict is 100% and 24 hours with his smartphone. His/her only friend?
Location:
Absolutely everywhere and in any situation.
Communication level:
As this type has no other communication with the world outside than through the screen, I assume t is communication. But in reality it is just a drug, like Cocaine or Heroin.

This reality behind the screen will keep evolving. ‘If one does not go back to the game, the character dies. That is why gamers need to go back’, I overheard in the bus yesterday. Understandable. And the same thing might happen to those whose identity and value depends on the amount of likes on some social network. And whose reality is defined by how fast they react to chat requests.

Thus we are looking as a society at a massive shift of realities. From my time of childhood with the uncomfortable black phone seldomly ringing from the wall – to a real virtual reality of endless connectedness – and often endless physical disconnectedness, from virtual worlds of PacMan to virtual worlds that may soon become even much more immersing than they are now.

Only that, unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice, there is no old man coming home to reestablish order, to speak some wise words, to get us free. We humans are alone. Alone on this Earth. Alone – often – in a world behind the screen. And alone with the indeed real danger of becoming lost slaves of technology.

Conclusion

There is no conclusion. This is probably one of the most inconclusive articles I’ve written. There are no wise words to counterbalance this sexyness of technology that makes it so profoundly potent and dangerous. And there is no ‘no technology’ option here. Technology is trains, technology is a washing machine and technology was my black brick of a a phone on the wall.

The only difference between the known technology of the past and the technology of the future is its potence. All kinds of technology have changed and will keep changing – in positive and negative ways – our reality.

And even if we would reach the conclusion that in essence technology did and does more bad than good, there is no way to turn back time. Virtual reality, artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things, the information superhighway both as a global communication network and a playfield for the world’s control crazy governments is here to stay.

“Both are running, both are plodding
And with still increased persistence
Hall and work-shop they are flooding.
Master, come to my assistance! –
Wrong I was in calling
Spirits, I avow,
For I find them galling,
Cannot rule them now.”
The Sorcerers Apprentice, Goethe

We are collectively playing sorcerer’s apprentice with no old wise man coming home. But do we really want to exchange the world of true friendship, of face to face communication, of awake conscious experiences in the real world around us against a synthetic, germfree and sadly also quite commitment free world behind a screen? And do we really want to throw the last remaining bit of privacy carelessly away in exchange for some blunt commodity in the form of ‘smart’ technology?
At the end, technology may get smarter and smarter, but we?

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