One of the most overused phrases in my household is actually borrowed from the title of a Blur album: Modern life is rubbish. This tends to be used in the context of technology that is not behaving in the way I think it should. The dead zone in my kitchen where my iPhone won’t work, intermittent cable TV, high speed broadband that grinds to a halt, autosave that didn’t when a deadline was looming… They promised us jetpacks and robot butlers, but what did we get?
My husband, a network engineer, takes such irritations in his stride, while I am prone to uncharacteristic episodes of rage. I’ve destroyed more than one (computer) mouse while slamming it down on the desk, yelling “Why are you doing this to me?” Some days, I think I’d be happier living in a cave.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that this week’s film ‘A Digital Tomorrow’ struck such a chord.
This is the most believable account of the future I’ve seen so far; it’s the future that I’m anticipating. I just hope that when the future arrives, I can muster the same magnanimous and zen-like calm demonstrated by the characters in this film. But I suspect that one of the biggest barriers to my own seamless integration with technology is my refusal to play along with the whims of the machine.
Some might accept them as the price of progress, but the curious gestures and rituals portrayed by the characters in ‘A Digital Tomorrow’ remind me of an account on animal superstition written by animal behaviourist Tempe Grandin .
Grandin writes about farming practices in which pigs are fitted with electronic collars. These control the pigs’ access to feeding pens and also signal to the food dispenser exactly how much food each pig is entitled to. Often, says Grandin, hungry piggies can be seen performing curious rituals beside the food troughs. Much like our own rituals, these are the product of ‘confirmation bias’ – a learning mechanism in the brain that correlates actions with outcomes. If event 1 is closely followed by event 2, confirmation bias leads us to assume that event 2 was caused by event 1. This is often true, but because we are hardwired to treat correlations and coincidences as causes, irrational behaviours arise with surprising regularity, too.
So what does the digital future hold for us? Will we be happy as pigs in the proverbial? It’s not my idea of utopia, but so long as I’m able to take off the collar from time to time, I think I’ll be ok.