The ever-changing norms of technology

CogniK_Personalized_TVAmerica hit an oddly poignant milestone this year: For the first time, adults here are spending more hours a day on their digital devices than they are watching TV. For anyone who grew up doused in reproach for their “Love Boat” and “Diff’rent Strokes” habits, this minor and inevitable statistical event sends a funny feeling down the spine. TV was always a guilty indulgence. Now, suddenly, I feel guilty for neglecting it.

By rights this milestone should signal progress. One absorbs media over the computer or phone more actively; on a TV, “Love Boat” bleeds into a “Gomer Pyle” rerun and you just let it happen. But I can’t help feeling like we’ve nevertheless slipped down another civilizational rung. At least with TV you watched it together. Even at its worst it somehow felt healthier than the best of “The Intern.”

Oh god! Did you see that? I started to forgive TV! TV is often great, but come on, we all know it rots our brains. Which brings me to my point: The cruddiness of a new technology ought not absolve an old one.

I mention this because lately I’ve suspected a digital version of shifting baseline syndrome is at work. My friend Jon Mooallem hipped me to the shifting baseline concept in his new book, Wild Ones. It’s an environmental term, referring to our endless ability accept new norms — say, a generation’s acceptance of depleted fisheries as a normal amount of fish. But it’s the kind of phenomenon you soon start to see everywhere; me, I’ve begun to detect it in our relationship to the ones and zeros.

With every newly addictive gadget, it seems we mellow our critique of previous ones. How could we not, given the inevitable march toward greater and greater saturation? Suddenly spending 23 hours a day on our devices feels healthy, compared to the kids who’ve upped the average to 24, and so on.

How do we hold the line on certain values, rather than creeping ever forward through baby steps of acceptance? Another milestone will be announced one day — say, Americans now spending more hours per day hooked up to our Coma Simulation Chips (CSCs) than on our digital devices. A familiar nostalgia will descend on us, and we’ll mourn the good old days of merely hunching over our phones and laptops nonstop. Those were simpler times, we’ll say. Then we’ll plug in our chips and dream of technologies to come.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About, as well as What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and Blindsight, named one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture