Do we rely too heavily on technology?

GPS Locator Device

Technology is a wonderful thing. In many ways it’s why we enjoy a high level of comfort in our lives, improving our working and living conditions. But do you think our reliance on technology goes too far? Or is technology merely a tool for social development?

As a writer I’ve explored the moral and ethical use of technology quite heavily in my work but I’ve always had a favourable view of technology. However a recent experience has made me question that. I was shopping the other day, getting a couple of DVDs, and I was thrilled when I saw they were on sale; buy two and get 20% off the second. Perfect! So I grabbed both and queued up.

The woman who served me took the DVDs; the first one was fine but the second scanned up at full price. She didn’t know it was on sale, so I told her it was 20% off and she scanned it again but it was still the same price. She started to do it manually but said she didn’t have a calculator, so she didn’t know the price.

I was stunned. First, how can you work there and not know what’s on sale? But even worse – didn’t have a calculator? It was 20% off $30, hardly rocket science. Do we rely on calculators that much? Finally she fixed it and I paid for them and left.

I know it’s just a small thing but I can’t help but think that it’s symbolic of a larger problem. Just because technology is there and makes something easier doesn’t mean we should rely on it so much that we can’t think for ourselves. What happens when the technology fails? In April this year the London Stock Exchange was closed for 8 hours when a glitch shut down its system. They lost millions of pounds and all they could do was sit and watch. Should any piece of technology be so important that we can’t function without it for 8 hours?

It’s not just the way we use technology, though, but the way people obsess over it. Have you noticed how people can’t live without their mobile phones? If they’re not talking then they’re checking for a message that wasn’t there two minutes ago. Can’t we be out of touch for even a few minutes? And that’s not even mentioning the hype surrounding the iPhone. Or the Kindle. I don’t understand the fuss about the Kindle. I like ebooks but I can’t justify the price of a reader and I’m sure long-term I’d miss the touch and feel of real paper.

My point is that technology seems to have become more of a convenience than a tool. Let me ask you this. If civilisation were to fall tomorrow, could you survive without technology? How would you cook without electricity? How would you get clean water and travel without working transport? How would you stay warm? How would you protect your family and teach your children?

I’m not sure I could survive in that world; I doubt most people could. The civilisation that survived would be very different… but isn’t that the same argument pessimists have used against change since the beginning of time? Weren’t there doubts that other inventions would destroy society and take away our humanity just as people talk about computers and the net now?

I guess I’m conflicted. While I do feel that we’re starting to lose ourselves, I am also a big fan of the potential of technology. I have an extreme sensitivity to noise and being outside is like torture when I’m not feeling well. But a few years ago I found a pair of earphones that use sound isolating technology to block noise and they’ve been a godsend. So I know firsthand what technology can do for someone’s life.

If you think about it, the advances in technology (particularly recently) have been astonishing. Technology has brought us DVDs and iPods, microwaves and cameras. It’s taken us to the Moon, brought us images from Mars. And then there’s medicine. It’s not just the instruments and techniques but the way medical science has advanced. We’ve cured diseases, mapped the human genome; our quality of life is better than any generation’s and we live longer than ever before. And people who never believed they could have children now can. Looking at technology that way, how can anyone deny its impact?

And that’s not even touching on cyberspace. There are a lot of bad things about the net – porn, viruses, spam – but its benefits are far greater. While the net is primarily an information resource, its true power lies in that it connects people in ways we’ve never seen before. Previous inventions have brought us closer together (trains linked cities, planes linked nations) but the internet is the world’s first global community. The net is the future and that’s the real power of technology, to show the way forward.

But even in moving forward it’s still important to hold on to our values. Some advancements make me feel uncomfortable: gene therapy makes my skin crawl and I find the developments in artificial intelligence, while impressive, ethically troubling. Are we ready to create life? Like many people I’m also worried that our social skills are deteriorating. I’ve heard of people texting each other when they’re in the same room instead of speaking – and then there’s the Euricase, which allows you to propose to your partner without even being in the room.

So I guess when people say that we’re losing ourselves to technology, I agree to some extent. But I see the benefits as well and I don’t see why there can’t be a balance. If we can respect our past but embrace the future at the same time, I don’t see why we should ever lose who we are.

That’s what I try to do. I think I’ve found a balance and I’m not afraid of an iPod or an ebook; I just try to buy a CD and go to the library as well. I send emails and texts, but I don’t forget to say hi to my neighbours and turn off my phone. If we can do that then I don’t think we have anything to worry about.

The future will take care of itself.

Australians All Love Ostriches

I had another post planned for today but I couldn’t let the WordPress upgrade go by without saying something. I’m a little confused. I don’t hate it but I wish they’d given us some warning. It caught me by surprise and I spent about two hours having to fix my widgets after everything disappeared and then getting used to the interface; if I’d known I’d have copied everything first to be safe.

I’m torn on the upgrade. I like the new features; the gallery and being able to upload several images at once is a big improvement and I’m warming to the layout. The main reason I’m confused is I don’t see why it was necessary to do the upgrade so quickly. Most users aren’t going to know how to use the new features right away; a gradual introduction (like the way themes are added) would have been more successful, in my opinion, and allowed people to adjust.

The main thing I don’t like is that the edit comment link has disappeared from the dashboard; you have to click on the avatar every time to edit it and that’s a pain. Also the font is smaller but overall I don’t mind the new version… I just wish they’d waited a bit longer and ironed out some of these problems first. And the blog surfer.

I spent so long looking at the new features and fixing problems that I haven’t had time to finish the post I’d planned. So I thought I’d post some of the strange search terms from my blog instead. I call them Googleages after Alynda’s old posts and some are bizarre (and not just the grammar). Kind of like my blog, don’t you think? 😉

One of my favourites is this one: sulz define. I don’t know how we could possibly define sulz… she’s funny, interesting, talented… sulz is sulz. It’s just weird that the search ended up on my blog instead of sulz’s. Wouldn’t you go to the blog which actually has sulz in the title? Or maybe that’s just me.

Let me know if you have any favourites. 🙂

  • unique ideas for a million dollars
    Ah but if I told you then it wouldn’t be unique now, would it?

  • australians all love ostriches
    A line in our national anthem is often misheard as “Australians all love ostriches”. It’s true, though, we do love ostriches… perhaps too much…

  • new job new sleep pattern no need for al
    OMG! You’re going to kill Al! Why?

  • two words that don’t make sense together
    Actual reenactment. Think about it; there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one. Insane logic and pretty ugly. Recorded live‘s another one.

  • cj is special in a bad way
    Finally, someone who gets me! Deep down I make Voldemort look like a muppet.

  • i want to hold you until i die
    But we only just met. Can’t we have more time?

  • i waste too much time dreaming of you
    I told you, I need more time… it’s not you, it’s me…

  • you occupy my thoughts, dreams and hopes
    Stop pressuring me! Look, the truth is, there’s someone else… Keri. She’s an ostrich.

  • more sleep helps you get longer fingers?
    No idea what post that search must have turned up. I assume it’s not true… if it is I really need to get rid of this insomnia.

  • youre only afraid of death when you real
    I have no idea what that means. You’re not afraid of death if you’re a ghost?

  • cj is gone forever
    No, I’m still here. See?

  • drink myself to happiness poetry
    I don’t know what’s more disturbing – the drinking to happiness bit or the idea that my poetry might drive someone to drink!

  • Is it cut the muster or cut the mustard?
    Cut the mustard, obviously. They mixed it up with to pass muster which is similar. I just liked it that they started with a capital.

  • we make smiles happen
    You’ve been hanging out with the poetry guy, haven’t you?

  • shia labeouf’s penis
    I have no idea where that came from. I mentioned Shia LaBeouf once about Indy 4 and suddenly I’m running a porn blog! 😉

Is beauty dying?

One of my favourite novels is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s one of the most beautiful, haunting novels I’ve ever read and it holds up amazingly well when you think it was published in 1949. Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel but it’s really more than that. It’s a lament for civilisation; human history unravels, devolves. But even as humans shrink, nature reclaims what it’s lost. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the novel where Ish looks at the hills and knows that soon he shall return to the hills and the earth, and so shall his children, and the world they leave will be nothing like the one he knew. But life will go on; earth abides.

Reading all the posts about Blog Action Day has reminded me of Earth Abides. We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now about the environment ourselves. 20,000 blogs were involved in Blog Action Day and people are angry, worried about what world we’re leaving to our children. I’m concerned as well but I don’t think we’re at the final tipping point just yet; we have to accept our role in the problem, change our policies and the impact we have on the environment, but I still think if given the chance nature will reclaim what its lost. That’s evolution, the way of life; earth abides.

But having said that, responsibility is key. We need to understand that we all have an impact on the world we live in and accept the responsibility to make changes in our lives. If we all put off the changes, say someone else will do it, then the effect is negated. Likewise we need governments to be responsible for making changes, for making industries to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. And the only way politicians are motivated to make changes is if they know it’s a community issue, something they can’t ignore. That’s why Blog Action Day was a great initiative; it got us talking about the environment in ways that matter to us, and hopefully we’ll keep talking about it.

Blog Action Day also got me thinking about something else: Beauty. It was MusEdition’s great post which started it; she described her surroundings and it sounded so beautiful, to turn and look out the window at mountains and birds. Then I read Sulz’s entry and I knew just what she meant about walking through the woods or a park as the sun rises; one of my favourite pastimes is to walk along the beach, see the tide and the sun reflecting off the ocean. It’s something I take for granted sometimes and I shouldn’t; I’m going to try not to from now on.

But then I looked out my window. I don’t really know how to describe it; I live in one of the nicer residential parts of Sydney but I’m surrounded by cakeboxes. The street is filled with blocks of flats and the occasional house; I live near one of the largest parks in Sydney but I can’t see it from here and I’m high up in the flats. In fact, I can’t see trees at all; it’s just a concrete and brick jungle. Well, there is this one scrawny thing opposite that looks like it should be put out of its misery, but I don’t know whether that counts or not.

I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (and I do mean that) but today it just struck me how manufactured a lot of it is. And how manufactured our society is. We seem to have this idea of beauty that nothing can really live up to; a person has to look a certain way to be beautiful, our clothes are in fashion one minute and ugly the next, our homes have to have the latest trends, our gadgets have to be new and shiny. If something doesn’t match our standards, we don’t just get it fixed, we remake it in our image; cosmetic surgery, makeup, renovations, there’s always something which can make us or our possessions more “beautiful”.

I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same. And I’m wondering if this is spreading to how we think about the environment as well. When was the last time you saw a natural feature that made you stop and appreciate it? Not something you planned for, but just saw by accident? I know the last time for me: it was a sunset that caught my imagination just the right way. I took a picture of it. But before that I’d gone weeks, maybe months without even thinking about it, without even noticing what was around me. I think that’s true for a lot of people living in large cities.

It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the environment when you feel like it’s just your surroundings; when you’re so busy with your daily routine that you barely notice anything outside of it. That’s apathy and that’s the biggest danger of all, that we just exist and don’t care. We don’t see it so we don’t care that cities are taking over more and more land to cover growing populations; we don’t see that animals are being displaced from their homes by bulldozers for a new shopping mall to go up.

That’s why Blog Action Day was a good initiative and hopefully will continue to be; it’s got people thinking about it, noticing again. And as I said, I believe that if we play our role, nature will recover, and that’s why having a message of hope is a good balance. But something which concerns me is the thought that we might save the environment but replace the beauty that surrounds us in the process, and we might not even know what we’ve lost.

One of the biggest problems we’re facing now is overpopulation and crowding. How do you deal with it? With an ageing population and a steady birthrate, how do you extend a city and manage resources without impacting the environment? You can’t spread out further; you can’t take over new sites. The only viable option is to build up and make better use of the space we have; for more apartment blocks to be built, taller and with more vacancies, and for more people to live together, sharing costs. I think that’s the only way we can do it… but it means knocking down more houses, replacing them with flats. It means in 30 years that cities would become much more uniform, dominated by cakeboxes and dull towers, and what beauty we do have around us would be even less noticeable. I find that a very sad thought.

Perhaps it won’t be like that; perhaps I’ve simply used my imagination too much and envisioned something more like Blade Runner than a realistic future. But with the way we value our own ideal of beauty and the trends that come with it, it seems like something that might happen; that we’d place even less value on real beauty, artistry and design. That’s probably a worthy trade, but I find it sad just the same.

Still, life goes on. And earth abides; that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what Blog Action Day was all about, spreading the message and making people think. It’s certainly made me think and I was proud to have played a small part in the day. Congrats to everyone. 🙂

5 ways you can help the environment

Today is Blog Action Day, a day encouraging bloggers to unite about the environment. Thousands of bloggers are taking up the challenge, including Lifehacker and Treehugger, writing about the environment in a way that suits their blogs. I’ve been torn between a couple of topics, so I thought I’d cheat a bit and do a couple of posts, one today and another tomorrow to follow up. This first one is about some simple ways we all can help the environment. I’m not going to claim I do all of these all of the time, but I try to be mindful of them, and they might give you some ideas on how you can help too. 😉

5) In your home
You’d be surprised by the amount of power appliances consume even in standby mode; just having half a dozen appliances on standby is the equivalent of a 60 watt bulb. If you turn appliances off at the power point and unplug them, it can save a lot of power. Turning off lights when you’re not in the room can also save a lot of power, as can washing clothes in warm or cold water instead of hot. Using the half-flush cycle on toilets, installing a low-flow showerhead and washing dishes when there’s a full load can save a lot of water as well.

4) While shopping
Making sure your tyres are well-inflated can make a big difference in preserving the life of your tyres and saving petrol, and bringing your own shopping bags for groceries is a simple way to cut down on plastics. Buying items in bulk also reduces the need for packaging and costs less. If you drink a lot of water, using a bottle and refilling it will help to stop wasting water and buying more bottles; likewise, buying rechargeable batteries saves you money and stops metals in batteries from leaking into the soil.

3) Changing your habits
It’s probably one of the hardest things to do but changing your habits can have a big impact on the amount of waste you produce. Showering for a minute less each day can save a lot of water, as can making sure the water doesn’t run while you’re cleaning your teeth. Walking, bicycling or carpooling to work also cuts down on the amount of cars on the roads and pollution. Many people still prefer CDs over MP3s, but downloading music from somewhere like iTunes is a very simple way to help the environment; manufacturing CDs uses oil and CDs are not biodegradable, whereas MP3s only use hard-drive space.

2) Being more responsible
Being aware of the impact we have on the environment makes a big difference. Understanding that our actions and habits have a consequence means we’re more aware of the ways we can avoid them as well. Doing something as simple as recycling is a great place to start and get children involved in the process. You can actively seek out materials which are recyclable or have a lesser impact on the environment; refill printer ink cartridges or take used ones to businesses to dispose of; use recycled wood chips in your garden; put leaves in a compost heap. You can be proactive and try to make sure your taps don’t leak and make sure you keep the oven door closed so the heat doesn’t escape. Using fluorescent lighting rather than incandescent bulbs will save you money and use 1/4 the amount of energy. They’re all simple things but being aware of them, being more responsible and taking notice, makes a huge difference.

1) Sending a message
The final and perhaps most important thing you can do is to let people know how you feel. The Australian electoral campaign has just started and there’ll be elections soon overseas; don’t underestimate the power of writing to your politicians and newspapers – every letter they receive speaks for more than just your voice and while they know it’s an issue, they’ll continue to support it. Ask what your school and workplace are doing to be more environmentally friendly, or make small changes yourself to set an example. If you feel especially passionate, join a local community organisation; volunteer some of your time to help clean up beaches and parks or to talk to other people about the environment. Join WWF Passport and join with people to speak about issues and conservation. There are so many things people can do; what matters is raising environmental consciousness. And that’s what Blog Action Day is all about.

Have you heard the Wilhelm Scream?

I found this video through Net@Nite, one of my favourite podcasts, though I had heard about the scream before. If you don’t know what the Wilhelm Scream is, it’s a distinctive scream that’s been used in Hollywood movies for over 50 years. For studios it’s easier (and cheaper) to recycle the stock scream than to pay voice extras to record new sound effects; it’s become something of an in-joke among sound designers and lots of movie fans try to keep track of where it’s been used. The current count is at over 130 films!

The list in the video only goes up to about 1999 and I know a few more since then; the Wilhelm Scream features in both LOTR: The Two Towers and The Return of the King, as well as King Kong, Sin City, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Hellboy. It’s been used prodigiously by Ben Burtt and Skywalker Sound as well, so it’s also in the other Star Wars prequels. Whether it will be in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or not will be interesting – Burtt has said he’s not going to use it as much now it’s so recognised, but it’s in the other Indy movies so he might go out with one last bang… or scream.

It’s just a fun piece of trivia, but I like it because it shows not so much a lack of originality as a respect for Hollywood’s past; it’s keeping some of the history alive 50 years later and in this digital age, that’s a nice touch. So have a listen the next time you play a DVD; chances are you might be listening to a little piece of movie history. 😉

Podcast of the Week: WebbAlert

WebbAlert Logo

Podcast of the Week: (8/10/07)
WebbAlert
Rating:
5star.jpg

WebbAlert with Morgan Webb takes an informative look at the latest in online, tech, gadgetry and gaming news. Morgan Webb is the host of X-Play on G4 in the US and a former web developer, so she’s well-suited to analysing the latest in digital trends and culture.

Webb is a confident host and one interesting aspect is that WebbAlert tends not to source content from traditional news outlets, instead focusing more on blogs that break news stories. It creates a different dynamic and Webb often shows snippets of the posts and articles she’s talking about as well, so you don’t have to go to the shownotes to get more detail.

Something people might consider a drawback is the advertising, usually plugs at the start of the show and halfway through. The ads don’t bother me that much; podcasts require significant bandwidth and I don’t find the ads that intrusive anyway, but what’s really interesting is that Webb has already received notable sponsorship (HP has been one sponsor), which is unusual for such a recent podcast. Perhaps sponsors anticipated Webb bringing some of her G4 audience with her.

WebbAlert presents a fun look at the online world and is probaly a podcast people will either love or hate based on Webb’s style, but one that’s definitely worth checking out. You can subscribe via iTunes or watch episodes at WebbAlert.Com.

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.

Mac or PC?

You are a PC

You’re practical, thrifty, and able to do almost anything.Appearances and trends aren’t important to you. You just like to get the job done.

Are You a Mac or a PC?

Damn it! It’s done it to me again. I know I’m not a PC; sure, I have a beard and like Star Wars, but I’m a big supporter of open source software, despise Vista, won’t touch IE or Outlook, use Open Office and listen to Leo Laporte. I am so a Mac at heart, I just can’t afford one yet! But these damn quizzes never agree. Seriously, the last one I took was for PC or Mac and I got Linux! It wasn’t even mentioned as an option! It’s a conspiracy, I know it is… 😛

Site of the Week: Faqqly

faqqly.jpg

Site of the Week (17/9/07)
Faqqly

Rating: star4.jpg

Faqqly is a social networking site with a difference. Unlike other sites which focus more on how you present yourself than getting to know other users, Faqqly is all about creating your own questions page (FAQ) that people can comment on. Set up a list of topics and other users can drop by to ask questions about anything they want – your life, interests, what you’re reading, etc. It’s a bit like the reverse of Twitter; instead of you saying what you’re doing now, other people ask you, and the subjects are much broader. You can even strike up an ongoing dialogue about various issues and topics, exploring them in great depth.

Faqqly was founded by then 20-year-old UCLA senior David Liu, whose goal was to build a collaborative website based on real life community interaction. The social dynamic is definitely the strongest part of Faqqly, but its ease of use is also impressive. Setting up your questions page is as simple as editing your profile and adding the topics you’re interested in. People ask questions by typing in the ask box, and there are hourly questions of the moment to ensure updates are frequent.

Faqqly’s main drawback is the flipside of its being a community site; the level of interaction depends on the kinds of questions people ask. Questions like what are you doing? or what movie did you see? are a good introduction but won’t lead to much of an ongoing dialogue; questions revolving around social issues or specialist knowledge are more likely to form a dialogue but aren’t the kinds of questions most people are going to ask. Like anything, the conversation is only as interesting as what the users bring to it.

Whether Faqqly will be a long-term success is difficult to know, but it’s an interesting social experiment and one that’s definitely worth checking out.