Monday, 14 November 2011

Our digital world

This week has been so full of stupidity, dishonesty, illegal political takeovers, ignorance, financial misdealings and political deceit that I simply don’t know where to start. So I thought I would try and stand back and take a sideways view.

I grew up in an analogue world. Radios, for example, had simple round knobs on the front, one for volume, one for tuning and for the better off listeners ones for bass and treble. Need a bit more treble? Just jog the knob round a bit until it sounds right. Moving out of radio range from one fm transmitter to another? Just jog the tuning knob.

As we moved from our analogue environment into the digital environment everything became more complicated. Need a bit more treble on the car radio? Hold down and repress the setup button and select the treble setting. Check what number is shown. Press a different button to increase the number by one or two.  Moving out of range of the transmitter while you drive down the motorway? Did you programme the next region on a button? No, then find the tuning menu? Enter the frequency or scan? Up or Down? Thus a simple analogue action, which had instant feedback judged immediately and directly by our senses, became more complex and came to require a decision requiring much more knowledge. How many adjustment steps are there? How do we access the menus? Get out of the menus? What do all the buttons do?

For many older people many things that used to be easy like the simple analogue telephone, kitchen appliance, radio, TV have become a trial of memory. Of course the appliances do much more now, often do it much better, but the mental cost is significant. 

But changing to digital thinking may have helped create a far more insidious change, one of attitude. In an analogue world there are shades of grey, there are nuances. You don’t have to choose two or three, you can have two and a bit. You don’t have to follow a rigid selection sequence to get something done. Digital thinking and design has vastly increased functionality and accuracy but at the cost of freedom. To use digital equipment you invariably have to follow a correct sequence of actions, in the right order, then you have to choose one of a range of pre-ordained options. Digital equipment forces simplistic pre-ordained alternatives and is inherently authoritarian.

Looking at society this structured, limited choice scenario has leaked into almost all walks of life. Years ago if you parked on a yellow line Mr Plod would come along and find out why.  If you were thoughtlessly blocking the traffic you got a ticket, if you were picking up great aunt Mabel from the opticians in the pouring rain you probably wouldn’t. Nowadays the CCTV sees you stop, the operator sends a fixed penalty. No nuances, no balance of needs, no humanity in the process, just box ticking yes or no. The questionnaire from the prodnoses asks do you drink, expecting a yes/no choice. No chance to say only on your birthday and Chrismas, you must make the binary choice, a drinker or an abstainer.

Thus I believe we have moved from a society that treated people in an holistic way to one that increasingly defines people, and controls them, in a simplistic and often very unfair tick-box manner.

OK, I’ll try and get back to more mundane stuff soon.

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