Sunday 21 September 2014

Scripted Lives

I've been mulling this over on the motorcycle side of things, but the idea runs throughout modern digital life, so I'm going to open it up further here.

Being a computer technology teacher I have a passing acquaintance with software.  I'd even say I'm pretty handy with it, but I don't really like where it's going since it has become an integrated part of modern life.

Since we started carrying networked computers around with us we have become scripted creatures.  Our devices wake us up, tell us what we're doing, and how to get where we're going.  They remove doubts and make memory redundant.  We no longer guess at unknown information, or watch media by accident.  We live in a walled garden of playlists and information at our fingertips, surprises seldom happen.  Technology gives us access to information and media, as well as allowing us to communicate, but it changes how we do it; the medium is indeed the message.

When we connect to The Network we are operating within a script, quite literally, all the time.  Software scripts dictate what we see, how we see it, and how we express ourselves. Complex human relationships are being reduced to scripted simplicity dictated by technological limitations rather than the full range of human ability.  This restriction has begun to redefine what people are capable of doing.

I struggle to find non-scripted moments when software isn't dictating my responses.  You'd think this only happens when you make a choice to connect on a device, but it happens constantly in the world of action.  I can't stop my car in heavy snow as quickly because a computer steps in to keep the wheels spinning, even when I'm making a conscious choice to lock them.  Scripts are written for the largest possible population.  We're all being held to the outcomes of average thinking.

As Kenneth Clark states in Civilisation:
35:36: The obvious: "...our increasing reliance on machines. They have really ceased to be tools and have begun to give us directions..."
... and that was his angle on things in 1969.  Things have come a long way since.  Our brave new world of technology is levelling everyone off.  Individual ability doesn't matter when we are all just variables in an equation.

Students experience education, entertainment and interpersonal relationships through a digital lens whose singular intent is that of continued engagement.  When your world is housed within a simplistic digital process designed to constantly get your attention you have a lot of trouble dealing with your irrelevance in the real world.

How can you do that? They say, it's so dangerous, they say.
Fear driven risk reduction is a big part of why the scripted
world exists.  It's thinking pushed by actuarial accountants.
It isn't real if it's designed to be unfailable, if there is no risk.. 
When prompted into unscripted situations where I am asking them to critically analyze a piece of media, students long for a Google search to tell them what to think.  When given a opportunity to express themselves many students will leap into the same template to organize other people's material they copy off the internet.  When given a stochastic engineering problem with no clear, linear resolution they freeze up and long to return to scripted experience.

Technology is such an enabler, but it's also limited by its capabilities.  If friendship is now understood through the lens of social media then it isn't what it once was, it's less with more people.  More isn't necessarily better even though we're told that it is more efficient.  If communication with a student is primarily through screens then teaching isn't what it once was, it's more information with less learning.  Both friendship and teaching pre-date digital communication and have deep, nuanced social histories, but we are happy to simplify them into oblivion for convenience and the illusion of efficiency.

If you ever find yourself struggling against invisible limitations, fighting to express yourself but finding it increasingly difficult, you're up against this reductive technology.  That freedom of choice you feel when you put aside the digital and reclaim your full range of sense and capability is intoxicating.  It supercharges your mind and allows you to retain your humanity.  That I see so few people having those moments is a real cause for concern.

My son and I searching the tidal pools at Pacific Rim National Park on the edge of the world.  Carefully selected technology (a motorbike - so no digital distractions and out in the world) got us there, and then we put it all down and got lost in the world with no scripts telling us how to interact with it.  When was the last time you were unplugged?

This was such a complicated idea it spawned a number of others, including these thoughts of gamification.  The wise Skillen of the internet also shared this article on distraction prevention by a new media professor, which led to thoughts on distraction.