Slaves of the Machine

I was fast walking a steep incline on the treadmill at the gym the other day and all around me are people BBMing, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, emailing, and sometimes talking on their mobile devices.  I thought, ‘this is Play Blocks With Letterscrazy, can’t people escape their devices for even an hour?’.  It occurred to me that perhaps people are becoming ‘slaves of their machines’ – they are becoming obsessed.

We often read about the decline in readership for magazines and newspapers.  People have moved over to reading on their machines.  TV viewers have become Internet viewers and participants, via their machines.  Entertainment has moved to becoming machine orchestrated through XBox, Kinect, PS3, Game Boy, World of Warcraft, and ‘apps’, etc..  We can’t travel without a Google or Bing map, a GPS, or a cell, er smart-phone (for safety of course).  We use stoves, ovens, microwave ovens, toasters, griddles, irons, washers, dryers, furnaces, freezers, drills, saws, coffee makers, computers, phones, and lawn mowers…  Wherever we go, machines are in our lives.

People invent machines to serve their/our needs.  I’ve written previously about the progression of interdependence leading to ever more useful inventions and how this has made us prosperous.  I’ve also written about the amazing complexity in our society.  Those societies that become interdependent, specialized, and complex create huge benefits for their citizens.  Machines are a very important part of these stories.  They serve our needs very well, make our lives richer, easier, more interesting, more comfortable, and more prosperous.

I wonder though if there there is a point where we start to cross some imaginary line where we slowly become slaves of our machines.  Machines appear to have an addictive power about them.  In a complex society, we honestly couldn’t live without them.  Their labors are hidden behind construction of our buildings and roads, distribution of our goods and food, distribution of our water, sewer, garbage, heating or cooling of our homes, etc.  Machines are pulling us into digital worlds – youtube, twitter, facebook, and texting.  Ask a typical middle school student who has a mobile device to not check their Facebook friends updates for a entire day and see willing they would be.

I often write about the exciting possibilities that technology creates for us.  Think about how medical science has developed and innovationimagine that happening without parallel, or in fact leading, work in information technology (IT).  IT drives lots of positive change in our society.  Imagine building a modern 50 story high-rise office tower without machines or IT – impossible.  The pyramids were created through human slave labor but our modern structures would not be possible without machine labor and IT.

As our machines become more sophisticated, more ‘intelligent’, and more essential to our lives, who will serve who?  When they become more like us, what then?

“Moreover, a recently created robot called CB2 or Child-robot with Biomimetic Body may follow moving objects with its eyes. File:HONDA ASIMO.jpgCB2 can dangle its legs, raise its shoulders and fall with rhythmic breathing.[2] CB2 may recognize the human touch, which is possible thanks to the 197 film-like pressure sensors that are placed under its rubbery skin. Asada, the team of engineers and brain specialists together with psychologists and many other specialists in the related domain created a CB2 that may record emotional expressions, memorize them and then match them with physical sensations.”, Wikipedia Japanese Robots

I think it is important to think about the future of our relationship with machines and how that will evolve.  Schools and homes are great places for conversations about the pervasiveness of machines and how to ensure we find the right balance between dependent iStock_000005861579XSmallon and being slaves of our machines.  Our education system should prepare children to think about, plan for, and shape the future.  The future is a maze through time that we have some power to predetermine the outcome of.  But we need a futuristic curriculum that anticipates the impacts and possibilities of IT accelerated changes in our world.  Hopefully in BC the ‘personalized learning’ agenda will get us there.


  1. I would like to think that schools and homes are where we talk about balance and the importance of unplugging at times, but unfortunately, I don't think we're there yet. Those important conversations are unlikely to occur in schools that ban mobile devices, or in homes where children have unlimited, unsupervised access to the internet.

    I think that the group of people who understand your argument is still small, but thankfully, it seems to be growing more every day. I can't emphasize enough the importance of the influence that educators 'in the know' such as yourself can have to help spread that understanding to parents, other educators, and most importantly, students. Great post!

  2. @Errin: yes it's like any disruptive change in history, there is a period of time where we adjust. The interesting thing about the 'information age' is how quickly the changes are washing over us - not 100's of years or decades but in a few years whole new technologies are created and we have to figure out how to adapt, quickly. We'll get there!

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  3. I find humour in the fact that you were on a machine-created exercise hill when you made this observation.

    To the fish, water is invisible. We don't see technology as an add-on anymore, it is part of our expected environment. Have you left your phone at home by mistake? I did recently and it took over an hour before I was comfortable without it.

    There is convenience such as designing your own exercise terrain, and then there is obsession such as, "What will his response be on Facebook?" which becomes more important than getting exercise, or a face-to-face conversation with friends, or sharing dinner with family.

    Interestingly, I've been somewhat disconnected recently, and yet I chose to throw things onto Facebook and Twitter to share my little weekend trip, and I also notice that I haven't necessarily been more productive, despite tweeting less, and reading less online, as of late.

    The balance between efficient tool user and slave seems to be a bit hard to define these days. I don't think the lines are clear and in fact it is where overlap occurs that we tend to judge others and make assumptions about who is 'in control of' or is 'controlled by' technology. This is probably most obvious with the parent-teen gap in technology use, but it is pervasive beyond that.

    I can't remember who talks about how we live in the nearly-now, but that space is getting bigger. More and more people are spending a large portion (do I show bias and say disproportionate amount) of time in that digitally connected, digitally social space that isn't here and now, but rather nearly-now... including myself at times.

  4. @David: Ah good point, I was thinking about this while assisted by a machine... ironic hey.

    I forgot about that phrase "to the fish, the water is invisible". That does fit more and more for our machines. We do take them for granted and they are becoming extensions of our person.

    I think for me it's less about judging others for their use of tools and more worry about where it leads us. We're breaking new ground in that machines are becoming us - this is different... is it bad or good? I'm not entirely sure but I think my point is always that school systems and families aught to be thinking about this proactively...

    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts.

  5. A great observation, many people are becoming somewhat obsessed with their mobile devices. I have noticed in university lectures that many of the students are checking their e-mail, organizing photos, browsing the internet etc. When I was in university we listened to the lecturer and took notes. It seems now students are multitasking during classes.

    A friend of mine noticed at Canuck games many of the fans, in the lower section, are constantly texting or tweeting. I wonder if they realize that not everyone is interested in the minutiae of their everyday life? Just enjoy the hockey game. This year we have a great team.

  6. @Jens: I think multitasking or fast task switching is okay depending on the context. Sometimes focus is necessary. I think we need to figure out the new norms - right now it seems to be a free for all.

    Interesting Canuck example. A counter comment would be those that can't attend get the benefit of what those who are there are sharing. I've enjoyed pictures, comments ppl have shared while at games. But I agree, for me some people cross the line with what they share. Again, we need to find some new norms and a balance.

    thanks for sharing.

  7. These devices are keeping people apart more and more, if ya know what I mean..Many Kiwis, and I am a Kiwi born n bred, NEED to go bush more I reckon, say for a week, no cellphone, no laptop, no smartphone, etc...brings back down to earth and real!...Oooh and I hate Twitter, neva been on it and neva will!.


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