This winter, I had the unwelcome opportunity to think about how much the world had changed over the past century when my grandmother died unexpectedly at age ninety. In the decades since her birth, there has been an extraordinary explosion in invention.
Along with two world wars and a man walking on the moon, she witnessed the rise of new industries, like commercial aviation, photography, personal computing, radio, television, mobile devices, and nuclear energy.
She saw the introduction of antibiotics, radar, the Global Positioning System, electron microscope, microwave ovens, Scotch tape, Velcro, and ballpoint pens change how we healed, navigated, saw, cooked, wrapped, fastened, and wrote things.
Over the years, the invention of credit cards, barcodes, and scanners changed how we paid for nearly everything and how the vendors that sold it tracked and sold it. Audio and video cassettes, along with the devices that archived music and movies and played them, profoundly changed the way we could record our experiences, remix it, share it, and take it with us.
While my grandmother had a cell phone, she never logged on to Facebook or received pictures of her grandchild over email from me. While we talked about my work over the past decade (which has been published almost exclusively online), I know she didn't read much of it, including the more than 95,000 tweets I've sent.
When we discussed the rapid rise of search engines, social networks, mobile devices, and video sharing platforms like YouTube, I could sense some unease with these unknown platforms and technologies. Her feedback was similar to feelings I've observed elsewhere around the cultural changes in norms around how we share data, information, and knowledge about where we are, what we're eating, reading, watching, or how we're feeling.
In 2014, we've now had years of anecdotes about people being embarrassed or worse when their behavior was recorded and shared online, from Congressmen to criminals. I know my grandmother didn't care much for texting at the dinner table, much less exchanging more tawdry communications that way.
On that count, there's a clear cultural change around the etiquette and social mores of using mobile devices around family and coworkers, from dinners to meetings, accompanied with copious commentary regarding the potentially corrosive effects of all of this connectivity.
While some people I know have chosen to turn off their devices at dinner and leave the smartphone behind when they go to bed, a majority of Americans under 25 are sleeping with their devices. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that keeping the glow of blue screens and the information streams available through them would be healthier for us in the hour before bed as we prepare for slumber or if we awake to depart briefly from its delicious environs. The pull of social networks, games, and viral media is strong, however, given that the designers of these platforms have every incentive to keep us coming back for another hit of dopamine.
At we go further into the 21st century, an increasing number of observers are examining what it means for us to have part of our attention continuously captured by the neverending pulse of information coming to us over tethered mobile devices.
Some authors worry about potentially socially corrosive effects of these changes, like Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone or more recently, Sherry Turkle in Alone Together or Andrew Keen in Digital Vertigo. Other researchers, like Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, suggest that technology is not driving us apart, highlighting the ways that we can now easily keep families, friends, and coworkers updated during work, play, and crises.
The rise of mobile phones, wireless Internet, and powerful laptops has enabled millions of people to work wherever and whenever they are connected, shifting and blurring the boundaries between work and home, changing both the expectations for responses to inquiries or service, at once liberating people from an office and tethering them to an email account around the clock.
More cameras and sensors in phones, public spaces, and survey vehicles also are changing how we experience time together, along with shifting our expectations for privacy. When mobile devices and telecommunications passively collect and store meta data about whereabouts, contacts, networks, and communications, the patterns in our behavior can be enormously revealing — a brave new world that we've been thrust into that the public is now beginning to understand. That awareness has been driven by great reporting on the predictive power of data analysis by both commercial and government actors and then vaulted into high relief by the disclosures of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies.
As with previous generations of technology, the panoply of devices and services of today have been pitched to be liberating. Unlike labor-saving devices of the past, it's not always clear that our newfound connectivity is actually saving us time in the way that a washing machine, a microwave, or a dishwasher did my grandmother, born long before such appliances become ubiquitous in American homes. Anyone who has spent much time with a balky printer or a slow workstation may also be skeptical of promised productivity enhancements, despite the improvements in integration and interoperability.
While those of us who are lucky enough to be connected to vast pools of information and data can now navigate the world in ways that my grandmother's generation would have situated in a Jules Verne novel, billions of people have yet to be connected. From north Africa to the Middle East and southeast Asia to South America, the social disruptions we can see around the world now inevitably have a technological component.
While the impact of the connection will vary from country to country, based upon pre-existing cultures and contexts, it may be greatest in autocracies where information and communication have been held in tight control. Powerful mobile devices, streaming video, and social networks are connecting people not just to information from outside of their countries but to one another. Sometimes the images that result put the lie to false claims by government officials and corporate spokesmen. Sometimes lies and rumors race far ahead of truth, even in countries with strong traditions of press freedom and a vibrant civil society. Everywhere, however, the same digital platforms that enable free expression may also be used to subtly or unapologetically filter, censor, track, and repress dissent.
In this moment, with such promise and peril, the digital divide is not only about access to the Internet or broadband speeds but how such access is used. Online, a teenager or a senior citizen can choose to learn how to play the guitar or to play games, watch documentaries or funny animal videos, trade jokes about an awards show, or give feedback regarding proposed legislation to a Congressperson. Some people might do all of those things in a given day.I'm not sure what my grandmother would have thought of me wearing Google Glass or tracking my vitals on an iWatch. I suspect she would have preferred that I would take them off and power them down at the dinner table. I do know that I'll dearly miss the opportunity to talk about it with her. Sadly, no technology can change the finality of her departure.
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.