09 May 2010

Brave New World

I am reading Googled:The End of the World as we Know It (Ken Auletta, 2009), and I find I am in turn fascinated and appalled, impressed and alarmed. To begin with, I am not quite sure how to take the title: is it supposed to be sinister? Or is it meant to be a practical statement of the fact that life changes, has changed? I guess I am precisely the generation to which this question must inevitably arise, if one thinks about such things at all. Older than me, and the use of the internet is somewhat limited and abstract. Younger than me, and it is taken for granted, much like expressways, ATMs, cell phones. (Yes, kids, there was actually a time when you drove south to Florida on a two lane road. I remember taking my passbook into the bank and having a land-line phone on a party line. Heaven help me.)

I realize (with a little jolt) that I am the swing generation, the pivot in time. Not the kids who speak Internet fluently, almost as a native language. I know that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are about the ages of my kids. But their world changing concepts changed my world, not theirs. Whatever their college experience, they did not fully function in a pre-Google world. They grew up in cyberia.

My generation was, for good or bad, in the driver's seat in the 90s. Look around at the societal infrastructure of the time: my generation peopled the government, ran the multinational corporations, controlled (perhaps in a less-than-desirable way) media, communications, utilites. We were band-parents and active in the PTA. Here's the interesting/ironic part: we were the 60s flower-children, the freethinkers, the color outside the lines folks. It's our kids who took the notion to a dimension we would never have imagined. And however liberal we had become over the make-love-not-war heyday, we are playing big-time catch up in this dizzying new world.

Google is a little like the new drug that can clear up your toenail fungus, but could also harden your liver like a marble and cause it to fall out. There is great good to be had, but at what price? We can have every scrap of science, history, art, pure knowledge and the wide world at our fingertips. Exhilarating! But can't Google lie? We will also have pornography, drivel, misinformation. What do we do if the grid goes down and all our eggs are in this cyber-basket?

Are we okay with having our every keystroke followed, every purchase noted, every browse analyzed, watched and stored? It's worth pointing out that your bank account is online even if you never are. Will we hand our brains (and our finances) over to the monolith, like sacrificial virgins? If you haven't, read 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) and Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1946). Think about what it means to consolidate all information in one powerful source.

Just before you conclude that I am anti-Google, let me note for the record that I am a realist and I truly do see it as useful. This is new technology as was the telephone, the car, the airplane, electricity. Each seemed unnatural in its time, but we take each as the blessing of its potential. We recognize that each has its drawbacks: survey-takers at dinner, air pollution and traffic jams, volcano delays, fire. All are dangerous when mishandled. We accept some risk not because we are willing to trade danger for convenience, but because we see the inevitability of progress and we expect that we must adapt. So it is with this new technology. We accept that with much good comes much responsibility. It is good to remember that even online, not all that glitters is gold.

So, drive carefully, soberly. Be alert and watch the signposts. Know the road ahead. And for goodness sakes, know when to use your brakes.

And may you see wonderful things along the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment