It strikes me as somewhat alarming how it actually seems unoriginal these days to talk about the ever-advancing encroachment of technology into our daily lives – like it’s a foregone conclusion that everyone just accepts. After all, it is no secret that we’ve been conditioned by technology and imprisoned by its power as though it were a potent narcotic.
By combining entertainment, social media and business tools all into one pocket-sized device, technological advancements have made it so that we can go an entire day without leaving our home or interacting with anybody face to face, and yet we are able to simultaneously feel as though we have socialized, learned something new and acted productively simply through the activities we perform on our phone.
Despite how blasé this seems now, it really wasn’t that long ago that things were much different. I’m only 27 years old, and even I remember a simpler time before technology inundated every aspect of our being.
I remember playing outside as a kid with a stick, pretending it was a sword, and running through the woods with no real purpose except to be outside and explore my surroundings. I remember logging into my parents’ Windows 95 PC with a keystroke command, and taking a lesson in middle school on this relatively new, exciting thing called a “search engine,” back when you were given a long list of alternatives to choose from, rather than just Google. Heck, back then you could get Google stock for about $50 a share. If I only knew.
More specifically, I vividly remember the first student in my class that got the very first version of the iPhone during my sophomore year at some point in 2008. At the time he was basically a celebrity, but looking back it was a clunky piece of junk compared to today’s magical pocket computers. Regardless, it serves as an important bookmark in my memory for when everything changed. From that point on, the smart phone race was on and the world would never be the same.
Now we have smart cars, smart wallets, smart houses and smart kitchen appliances. Everything has to connect to the internet now, because how would we survive without being plugged in? We might miss some important news event while we’re cooking dinner, or we might wake up in a cold sweat realizing that we forgot to buy nutmeg – but thank goodness because you can just text your fridge to buy some off Amazon, and now you can fall back asleep with a comforted smile knowing it will be on the doorstep tomorrow.
As a millennial, I truly think our technology is incredible. To go from my childhood – a period I sharply remember with dial up Internet, VHS tapes and staticky, tiny televisions – to where we are now is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a testament to humankind’s intelligence and ability to exponentially improve upon the accomplishments of prior generations. It inspires us to wonder what’s next, and allows us to reasonably believe that, truly, anything is possible.
It also comes with a severe, frightening downer of a downside. Let me share a little anecdote to summarize what I mean.
Recently I was out shopping with my fiancée for a friend’s birthday. We were browsing through Bass Pro Shop and came across an incredibly niche, unique camping item we both thought was equal parts hilarious as potentially useful. I think I said the name of the item out loud when she showed it to me, but neither one of us Googled it or searched for it on Amazon. It was a purely analog experience between two people, in person. We put the product down, kept shopping and forgot all about it.
You can imagine our collective surprise when my fiancée turned her phone screen towards me a couple days later to show me an advertisement she was now receiving on Instagram. You can guess which product it was for.
It was a profound experience for me. For years, as the development and widespread dissemination of voice-activated technology like Google Home and the “Alexa” brand of Amazon products has grown, I would make jokes with friends and colleagues – “Welp, Big Brother is finally here and we’ve invited them into our home.” Or, “Good thing I’m not a criminal because you literally can’t hide in your own home anymore.”
We joked like it was a conspiracy theory. Everything has a microphone nowadays, so of course that’s going to develop into a totalitarian state with Thought Police and everything you say winding up in some database somewhere to be used to blackmail you at a later date if you ever cause a problem for the “people in power.” Crazy, tinfoil hat talk, right?
And yet there I was. Looking at a targeted advertisement for a product that absolutely no advertiser or company should have known I expressed even a jovial, passing interest in. The only way that could have happened was if our phones were listening, storing data that was made available – likely autonomously – to an advertising algorithm that is used to deliver me the most up-to-date adverts that the algorithm thinks I like. That it thinks I need. That it thinks I will buy.
Even just typing it out – despite knowing that to be the only logical way that advertisement showed up – sounds ridiculous. But it’s not ridiculous. It is very much the reality we live in.
If you have a device capable of accepting voice-activated commands, which is pretty much every smart phone today, you have a device that is listening to you all the time, storing your data for whatever purpose the corporation that made that device, or the corporations that work in conjunction with the device developer – you know, those fun little upstart, multi-billion-dollar companies like Facebook and Google? – deems appropriate.
To say we are unprepared for the implications of such a world is a vast understatement. To say that we are not being careful enough about who has access to our data, how they store it and what they do with it is even more of an understatement. More education – of our children, of our politicians, of ourselves – is essential to safeguard our society from going too far, too fast, without adequately factoring in the possibility for abuse of these technologies.
We must continue to march forward in our quest for more knowledge and technological advancement. Let’s just take a second to make sure that march isn’t leading directly off a cliff.