The only car I’ve ever owned was a 1999 Subaru Outback, and its most sophisticated feature was power windows. A couple of months ago, I borrowed my cousin’s 2013 Audi. As soon as I started the car (by pushing a button!), its onslaught of goodies began. The headlights and the front and rear windshield wipers went on. I backed up and the car beeped. My seat felt warm, and the radio played soft jazz. I arrived at my destination and locked the car, but when I tested the handle, the door opened. I locked it again; again it opened. Feeling desperate, I called my cousin and she explained that the system senses when you are near, and unlocks for you. Then she added, “Just assume the car knows what’s best for you.”
This uncomfortable memory came back to me a few weeks later in the Apple store. I had made an appointment to fix what I thought was a tiny glitch in syncing my iPhone and computer. Right off, my Genius was dismayed to hear that a) I had not upgraded to the latest operating system on my MacBook or iPhone, and b) I had not set up iCloud. He showed me the ease with which I could be working if I did this, but I resisted, hesitant to change what I had been perfectly happy with. To make a long story short, after seven hours of troubleshooting, deleting, restoring and replacing, I ended up with an up-to-date iPhone and a brand new MacBook Air, all humming with iCloud. When I thanked my Genius for his patience and expertise, he said, “Just assume the computer knows what’s best for you.”
I left the Apple store exhausted but relieved, my anxiety and confusion replaced with gratitude and even a sort of giddiness at the magic of the new advantages, but I was also uneasy. Instead of triumph, I felt a sense of dependency, a lack of self-confidence and a persistent feeling that I had surrendered.
The next day, new problems surfaced. The scroll bars on the windows had disappeared, and my screen was sweeping randomly left and right. Chunks of my mail program were missing. After a nerve-wracking hour on the phone with technical support, I learned that these were in fact not problems, but benefits that I had not managed to use correctly. The support person guided me along, assuring me I would be delighted with the results. I carried out every step. After thanking her profusely, I hung up and sat stunned as I recognized the same progression of emotions I had experienced the day before: anxiety, frustration, relief and gratitude, all of which were replaced with that lingering sense of surrender and dependency. Worse yet, I realized that she had convinced me that her suggestions would make my life better. To paraphrase John Gaventa from his 1980 book Power and Powerlessness
, the one in power exercises that power over another by influencing, shaping or determining his very wants.
I love my technology. I’m grateful for the ease with which all of my daily tasks are addressed swiftly and seamlessly. My newly upgraded calendars, contacts, e-mail, e-books, audio books, music and podcasts are up-to-the-minute and available on every e-device I own. The benefits accumulate, and every aspect of my technological life—from communication to creativity to research to entertainment to shopping—is faster and easier.
But I also know that I have bought into a system. My adherence and obedience are necessary not just for the technology I personally use, but for all the ways in which I communicate with others who have also pledged their allegiance. In order to get the benefits, I must adhere to the rules of submitting personal data, keeping up with upgrades and subscribing to the various “improvements” of Facebook, Twitter, etc. If I decline, I will lose out on the wealth of connections and features. Moreover, my most vital daily utilities—calendars, contacts, e-mail—will eventually fail.
And so, every day, I expect to see some offer or opportunity that appears without my asking. A software update pops up on my screen and I click “accept and continue.” When Groupon offers me a 60 percent discount on microfiber sheets that I happened to Google the day before, my credit card number is already there for the taking.
Do you express gratitude when technical support helps you to see that your devices’ “failures” have been caused by your own ignorance? Do you perform upgrades with devoted consistency? Do you accept notifications and bonuses that you never wanted in the first place?
Have you come to assume that technology knows what’s best for you? ca