Digital Dilemmas What Wireless Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know

By Taha Ghayyur
High-speed communication, personal security, accessibility, and information management are the main reasons users cite for owning cell phones, PDAs, and wireless Internet. We experience our share of the “wireless situation” on a daily basis. These wireless waves have engulfed our social landscape by a storm, revolutionizing our communication in the past decade in ways that baffle a social scientist’s imagination.iPhones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as Blackberry and HTC, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi hotspots are some of the latest wireless technologies that have gripped the young and old by the throat in the developed and developing countries alike.
Digital devices are our devoted companions: They accompany us at work, travel with us on commuter trains, ride with us on country roads, and attend our meetings, prayers, and even our washroom trips.

As with the advent and development of any technology, wireless technology brings its own baggage of ethical dilemmas and social challenges. One wonders: Is the thrill around wireless just another case of manufacturers hyping up a technology? Or are the people consciously embracing the wireless revolution? Despite the increase in messaging speed, do we actually have a meaningful communication with our loved ones? Do the digital users in developed countries enjoy a better quality of life than their brothers and sisters without access to wireless technology in the underdeveloped world? Why such a blind fascination with the mobile medium?

Drugged to Speed

“Much of wireless gadgetry today has been developed for the sake of competition, technological adventurism, and economic gains rather than the welfare of humanity”

The mystery behind the fascination with wireless technology in our culture is similar to excitement around most other technologies: Speed and productivity. As Mark Kingwell, an author and professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, states, “Speed is a drug.” (Kingwell 37) In pursuit of enhancing productivity and growing profits, speed is what drives the capitalist North American culture. As Kingwell would argue, our obsession with wireless gadgets is due to our love for speed, our desire to be “velocitised.” (Kingwell 37) No wonder, Research In Motion (RIM) boasts that its BlackBerries save users an average of 53 minutes a day, such as time in transit bus or waiting at a doctor’s office that can instead be utilized for urgent business communication.Ironically, however, with these “time-saving” devices, people end up losing more time – such as time spent reading and deleting spam messages on the handheld, waiting for someone to respond, tuning the device to enhance signal in poor coverage areas, and troubleshooting when something goes wrong. Most wireless users do not think of such untold time-consuming factors. This state of mind of our society is described by Arthur Kroker, a Canadian author and educator of technology and culture, as “a crash culture,” one in which we are always speeding up to a standstill, leading to a terminal shutdown. (Kingwell 48)

Fear of Boredom

“But save time to do what? To play with more gadgets.”

But once we get used to carrying the speed-devices we discover that we can’t live without them. Suddenly, life becomes boring and depressing in the event we are stranded without a connection to the digital world. Evidently, the fear of boredom is at the heart of our new speed-driven society.

In sharp contrast to the hectic lifestyle of the modern corporate world employee, the elite of the past would consider leisure and idle time a privilege. Today, having a demanding schedule is considered a social-status symbol. We see the obsession with counting seconds and with efficiency even in the Baby Boomers’ generation, and the wireless industry is catering to this market segment with the hopes of promising returns. We don’t want to be bored or lonely, or so we are told by these corporations. We are being sold the idea that by owning a wireless device, not only will we be able to “escape” boredom, but we will also save more time.

But Save Time To Do What?

To play with more gadgets. It seems we are buying time to save more time to live. Yet, we find it challenging to accommodate few minutes every day for spirituality, meditation, prayer, or reflection, which is imperative for a healthy lifestyle. As Erich Fromm, who was a renowned psychologist and philosopher of the 20th century, said, “In the nineteenth century the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century the problem is that man is dead.” (BrainyQuote.com)

The emphasis on instant gratification and entertainment in the marketing blitz often obscures the deep purpose and priorities in an individual’s life. The void created by removing the absolutes, the meaning of life, and the concept of God in our consumer society, has to be naturally filled with something that offers an instant inspiration. Wireless technology promises us just that.

More Communication, Lower Quality

The astonishing growth of communication technology in the past decade begs an essential question: Has the quality of communication and information also improved with the rise in the quantity of virtual information and speed of communication? It can be argued that the quality of conversations has not improved, if not deteriorated.

“The ease of dialling a number or typing away of an SMS text has significantly reduced the face-to-face interaction with our family members, friends, and neighbors.”

No doubt, digital devices allow us to remain in contact with multiple networks of people. As Rudi Volti, an author and professor of sociology, suggests, wireless technology has certainly enhanced our communication system by compensating for human shortcomings. While some sociologists may cite such phenomena as a sign of progress, it can be disputed that digital revolution has often rendered the relationships and interactions with our kin and neighbours impersonal and weak.

We often observe people using wireless devices solely for useless talk; most users call or text-message others to “kill” time. The ease of dialling a number or typing away of an SMS text has significantly reduced the face-to-face interaction with our family members, friends, and neighbors; physical and personal get-togethers have been traditionally considered an essential part of our natural social life. The robotic scripts, such as “I Love you” or “Hello,” that we utter over the cell phone are often more artificial, even trivial, than meaningful and personal. The absence of direct feedback in e-mailing, text-messaging, and Facebook communications encourages some people to write obscene messages to other people that we would rarely say in person. (Wellman 650)

Ironically, with such advancement in the science of communication, people in the developed world do not have much to communicate to one another. From would consider cell phones contributing to the alienation of society as the meaningless spoken words threaten to replace the living experience. (Fromm 45-46)

Decline in Courage and Selflessness

Since virtual interaction requires less physical commitment on our part to the person or community involved, as time progresses, we lose the human touch, the sense of belonging, and even the sense of responsibility. Moreover, the overwhelming effect of the information flow reduces our motivation to maintain valuable ties that traditionally required a great deal of time investment and selflessness.

To this extent, Tom Sorrel, an author and philosopher, lists four steps in which technology, in the disguise of leisure, leads to the decadence of a society:

1. Technology initially provides people with daily sustenance (I can’t survive without a cell phone while traveling);

2. then allows people to save labour and pursue other interests and not just the necessities of life (after composing an urgent business message to a co-worker while commuting, I want to play a game on my PDA);

3. development of other arts and sciences further contribute to idleness (more online chat rooms, facebooking, and youtubing!);

4. this leads to the decline of physical and moral courage (don’t have time and energy, after exhausting myself with the gadgets, to do some social or welfare work). (Sorell 87-88)

Whether we are obsessed with wireless technology or use these devices primarily for important communication, evidently wireless waves have become a major part of our social landscape. We can’t live without them today. Of course, technology has improved our efficiency and enriched our lives in many ways. Indeed, the majority of the ethical dilemmas associated with the wireless industry have to do with the lack of understanding on the part of users about the nature and philosophy of technology, its limitations, and its potential role in solving some social ills and creating many new ones of its own.

However, one thing is certain. Much of wireless gadgetry today has been developed for the sake of competition, technological adventurism, and economic gains rather than the welfare of humanity. Is our thrill about the wireless technology based on the alluring advertisements and persuasive salespersons selling us the hollow promise of speed, liberation, and escape from boredom? Or are we embracing it with a genuine belief in the benefits and capacity of wireless revolution in connecting us virtually with anyone, anywhere, anytime?

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References

BrainyQuote.com. “Erich Fromm Quotes.” Accessed 5 Apr. 2008Fromm Erich. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970.

Kingwell, Mark. “Fast Forward: Our High-Speed Chase to Nowhere.” Harper’s Magazine (May, 1998).

Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. London: Routledge, 1994.

Wellman, Barry and Keith Hampton. “Living Networked On and Offline.” Contemporary Sociology 28 (1999): 648-654.

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Taha Ghayyur is the Development Manager at Sound Vision, an Islamic multimedia company. He is also a freelence writer with Word Matters. Being a graduate from the University of Toronto with specialization in Religion, Ethics and Technology, he writes extensively about issues that affect our society.

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