When you spend any time at all on social media, you quickly get accustomed to people complaining about their expensive new technology. Often, the only reasonable response is to take to watching Louis CK’s now-famous rant on the topic as a kind of mental balm.
Most recently, it’s the new maps on Apple’s latest software for iPhones that have elicited the chagrin of the chattering techno-classes. Apple’s new maps application was a significant downgrade from what was there before, so much so that not only was the product widely ridiculed online, but CEO Tim Cook also offered a public apology. The example, however, is but one among an unending litany of, well, whinging about what is in actuality, incredible, mind-blowing technology.
At first glance, the reactions seem defined by a sort of petulant entitlement. At second and third glances, it can still seem that way. It would seem that if we are so dependent upon a maps application—or Wikipedia to find facts, Netflix to entertain ourselves and so on—then perhaps it is not our technology that is the problem.
But if the exasperation we feel when our tech doesn’t work seems like a sign we’ve grown too reliant on gadgets, it’s therefore also a symbol of the inverse: that technology is simply part and parcel of modern life. If that’s true, the maps on your smartphone aren’t just bonuses or crutches; they are more akin to electricity, cars or books: elements that define, characterize and constitute modern life, rather than simply making it easy.
Our normal view of technology is that it’s a tool we use to accomplish a certain task. In that mindset, the better the tech, the easier certain tasks become to accomplish—but the tasks themselves stay the same.
But way back in the 1950s, philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out the flaw in that idea. He suggested that new tech, especially the machine sort that came to prominence in the twentieth century, isn’t simply a tool. It changes how we look at and approach the world. His most famous example was about the Rhine River in Germany. Once you can do things like build hydroelectric dams or cut down entire forests, the Rhine isn’t just this thing that’s simply ‘there’ in nature. It’s become a source of power for an electrical grid that is much bigger than that lone river. What the Rhine actually is to us has changed.
Looked at it that way, technology isn’t just a tool to do the things we’ve always done. It’s something that, in its capacity to let us do entirely new things, reshapes how we relate to reality.
Today, the smartphone is probably the best example of this phenomenon. Remembering facts can seem less vital when Wikipedia is always at your disposal. Documenting life can become a more urgent imperative, as putting things in aesthetic wholes and getting immediate social feedback affect both what and how we remember.
It’s more than just that, though. When an application for finding your way doesn’t work, as happened with Apple maps, the frustration isn’t simply about doing what needs to get done. It’s that we have to think about the city in a way that, in a few short years, we’ve become unfamiliar with. Without digital maps in your pocket at all times, the holographic layer of information placed atop streets is harder to recall; there are, instead, landmarks and street signs and the unique cadences and rhythms of differing routes. We see the world through our smartphones, even when they’re tucked away in our pockets.
It would be both easy and trite to say that this is over-dependence. It’s a mistake to say we’ve become too reliant on technology, because our sense of who we are as humans and our technology are two sides of the same coin. Our choices are not simply between more or less technology, but different ways of living.
It’s not just smartphones, either. Books, for better and worse, contributed to the spread of ideas. Some of them were good and constructive, while others helped cause immense harm. Once they had arrived, however, the only choice was to deal with the new normal as it was. Unfortunately for us, despite the many advances in mapping technology, there is yet no app to tell us how to proceed—or, more importantly, to tell us how we should.