Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Doing Virtually Nothing.

Computers are great at keeping us busy doing nothing. Powerful tools they may be, still many applications seems to be meant to entertain, distract or otherwise leave us as long as possible in that state of almost ineffectual existence that is virtual reality. Our bottoms leisurely sunk in whatever chair, futon, bench or sofa we may have chosen, our eyes fixed on the monitor, our minds engaged in this highly addictive surrogate of life. Lab mice, given the choice between activating their brains pleasure cells by hitting a button or eating, starve themselves to death. So would we.

The only way to keep track of our lives, and establish whether our computing habits are healthy or worthwhile, I guess, is to keep track of the input and output in analogue or real terms. Easy enough if you are at the office or workplace, and use the machine for work. Useless as the product of your job may seem at times, your computing toil generates at least your monthly income in very Real terms. Some applications are also easy to grade in this respect, as they directly control the physical world, such as flying a plane, or operating an instrument or a manufacturing machine, some scientific or medical apparatus. The information relates to the physical actual world and is as such relevant, the machine just a clever and efficient way to deal with it. Virtual reality, as applied in computer models to simulate phenomena and processes is in itself a good thing and a cost saving environment. But can it be trusted completely? Let’s leave that to the experts.

Two areas strike me at first glance as dangerously virtual, in the sense that they can be a great waste of time and have a tendency to excite delusions: computer games and internet social networks. Gaming seems to me a self-evident risk, social networks less so. A surrogate of real life they may not be, but it is tempting to connect with others in this apparently unobtrusive way, and alluring to “score” as many connections as possible, regardless of the depth, interest and frequency of the contacts. We are living in a time of economic crisis, and many are left unemployed or under employed. Often joining an Internet network is seen as a way to try to break the isolation that this state of affairs implies, and maybe get another job. Is this wishful thinking, or is it the way to go to establish contacts? Phone calls obsolete – after all we are all too busy computing and can’t be bothered to answer – e mails flooded with spam or limited to trusted acquaintances by draconian filtering, only the window of facebook, linkedin, twitter and the like is left ajar for strangers and friends of our friends to approach us. And can be readily shut too, creating a new and potent “cyber snobbing” effect, such as denying an invitation to join or ignoring incoming messages thus causing all too real offence and frustration.

I welcome the development if it is to deliver us from the hell of having either to receive or perform cold calls on the phone. Still it is troublesome that we should be encouraged to become socially inept without the machine – technology doesn’t seek to expand our lives, but to make us dependent - and worrying that spam makers and other even worse evil doers constantly infiltrate the chat boxes with bad intents. Again, input and output are the key words. Processing is just a tool.

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