Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Personal History and the High Tech Path

"Home Brew" Radio Transmitter
I've been involved with science and technology since about age 7. At age 14 I earned my amateur radio license, and at age 19 started my first paid job in the field of electronics, which was serving for 15 months as electronics tech on an oceanographic ship in the Indian Ocean. After that, I spent a couple more years in electrical engineering school, then worked for the University of Colorado in two different branches of the physics department, involving research satellites and radio astronomy respectively. Upon moving to Lummi Island in 1977, I started my own business, initially repairing TVs, radios, ship radars, etc. As consumer electronics became less economical to repair, I found myself designing various electronic gadgets, which I sold via mail order, or which I supplied to others who commissioned me to build them. In 1995 Joe Edwards and Robin Burnett, and I, started Mindport. Several of the exhibits I've built for Mindport incorporate electronic circuitry, and, in a couple cases, microprocessors.

Over the last ten years, or so, I've become increasingly interested in the ways that electronic technology (and other sorts as well) impacts our lives, particularly the downside. Having spent so much time working in technological fields, I'm well-aware of the upside, since that's what drove my youthful passion to become involved there in the first place. From early on, I was intrigued with the idea of automating things, a fascination that bloomed with the advent of microprocessors and computers. It was after an extended involvement with the development of a microprocessor-controlled espresso machine that it became clear to me that technology, especially electronic technology and electronic "information technology", are not just neutral tools, but ones with often unrecognized and undesirable social and economic implications.

The development of the electronically-controlled espresso machine demanded that I become more deeply involved with computers and microprocessors than I'd been previously. In those days, we were still mainly using DOS (the early computer Disk Operating System). Windows had not yet come on the scene, or was still in a rudimentary form, as was true of the Internet. My early computer involvement gave me a first taste of high-tech rage, an emotion that has only become more severe and prominent over the years, not only with me, but just about everyone I know who suffers any involvement with computers and related equipment. It's difficult to find anyone who isn't.

It's an odd feeling for me to realize that there are young adults all around me who have never lived in a world without personal computers. Cell phones came along a little later than the early PCs, so they're only slightly less internalized in the lives of a twenty-year-old than the computers are. I compare the perspective of today's youths to my own, when I was twenty, employed as an electronics tech. I worked with people in their sixties who had been young in a world where the "personal motor vehicle" was a rarity, and rudimentary, at that. Same with broadcast radio. TV, of course, was barely conceived possible when those people were young. Experiments in sending pictures had been tried, but no commercial application (mercifully) had appeared. I, on the other hand, had known radios and automobiles all my life, and took them for granted, just as today's twenty-year-old does computers and the Internet.

I was 7 years old when I saw a TV for the first time, and was completely enchanted. My parents refused to have one in the house until well after I'd left home, at age 17. Correction: someone did give us a junker TV, when I was 13. It received one channel poorly, lasted a year, and my brother and I watched the Micky Mouse Club on it. Nowadays, I'm grateful that my parents eschewed TV, because I would have spent a lot of time in front of it, instead of tinkering with radios and electronic gear, which activities eventually culminated in an effective means to earn a living.

I've written this post as a prelude to others I doubtless will write in the future about technological impact, especially of the electronic variety, on our lives. It's a subject that comes up for me more frequently than any other, so, to avoid repetition, I've summarized experience that I hope will lend credence to future critiques of technology coming from my keyboard. I don't want anyone labeling me an uninformed Luddite, in other words. We're heading toward a likely comeuppance if we don't start paying attention to the road we're apparently taking, technologically speaking. Electronic technology is SO seductive, and nobody is more aware of this than I am. Because I become increasingly uneasy about its impositions on my life, and on the lives of everyone around me, particularly the very young, I find ideas about it creeping into my daily awareness, and into much of what I write. There's a message there that I won't ignore.

My grandson is almost four, and technology asserts a pressure on his life, and therefore the lives of his parents, that concerns me. It brings up questions about the world he and his cohorts will be creating for themselves when he's become a young adult himself. We do have the option to make choices about what technology we adopt and how we adopt it, but powerful forces militate against our making those choices, including the very seductiveness of the technology itself and the pressure exerted by its purveyors to keep us hooked on it. We must also consider the possibility that high tech may disappear, since it does require large amounts of energy to sustain its associated infrastructure, and future energy resources are uncertain. You may be tempted to scoff at this possibility, but, on the chance we must revert to more rudimentary technology, what will be the price we pay for having allowed ourselves to become absolutely dependent on the level of technology we presently enjoy?

Reading suggestions:

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle
The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen Talbott

Kevin Jones

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