Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 17, 2000
Unrepentant Luddite's view of new technology
A couple of years ago I was asked to give a two-hour lecture to multimedia students at the University of Calgary. The idea seemed as preposterous as inviting a blacksmith to address a gathering of astronauts. Nevertheless, I accepted.
The last time I had seen a multimedia show was in the '60s at the Jubilee Auditorium. Our senses were bombarded with visual and audio overkill. Several slideshows and films were projected simultaneously along with the psychedelic images of coloured liquids manipulated on an overhead projector.
The audio presentation was a mix of poetry, news, music and animal sounds. And if I remember well, strobe lights and electronic beeps were thrown in to give an outer space flavour.
That was the age of Marshall McLuhan and "the medium is the message." We all tried hard to figure out what message the medium was conveying besides the obvious that modern life is a cacophony of competing noises and images we either ignore or pay attention to.
After the exhibit the audience was invited to comment. A member of the faculty of fine arts approached the mike and dismissed the experiment as "an elephant giving birth to a mouse."
Little did he know how prophetic his statement was. Within a decade or two "the mouse" began to rule the world and has us trapped in modes of communication we could barely envision then.
From the start I was slow to embrace the new technology. The move from a fountain pen to a ballpoint pen had been enough of a concession to expediency. Only in the mid '80s did I learn to peck away at a typewriter.
But as computers were introduced into the workplace, it soon became apparent that job security started to depend on some rudimentary knowledge of the new technology. Almost overnight the computer became the preferred teaching tool.
In the NGO community we were constantly urged by government departments to get online and upgrade as fast as the old ways became obsolete.
My resistance to this not-so-subtle coercion faltered and I reluctantly invested in a machine of my own to show my good will to at least investigate what I was rejecting. The machine frizzled in a couple of years and someone donated a replacement from an agency which had been downsized.
As you can see I was not totally green about electronic media when I was asked to make a presentation to the folks with "all the right stuff." But just to make sure, I consulted some 20 hefty books on the information age and its ramifications.
What struck me about the students was that these were not college youngsters or whiz kids, but adults preparing for their second or third career, anxious about finding employment.
Even the "right stuff" is but one of many commodities for sale to the highest bidders who will use whatever talents they can buy on the open market for their own purposes. I essentially cautioned my audience not to prostitute themselves and urged them to hang on to their ideals if they had any.
This last year I have been receiving phone calls from friends and strangers encouraging me to get on the Internet, to get a website and at least get wired for e-mail. I admit I am still skeptical about the claims that the electronic media have democratized the dialogue about global concerns, but I could be wrong. I am a Luddite at heart.
Then again, the recent show of strength of civil society representatives at the Seattle WTO meeting is an indication that maybe there is a power shift in the making. Perhaps we all have a responsibility to contribute to the debate on how to shape the future of our children. Even blacksmiths have opinions.
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