There’s a trope in New York City that you can identify tourists from their propensity to walk around staring up at the tall buildings. This isn’t necessarily meant to be interpreted literally, but rather it’s more about the fact that the tourists are taken aback by everything to look at, much of which is in the upward direction depending on where you are in the city.
I remember the first time I visited Manhattan, about a decade ago, and I felt overwhelmed at the time by the city: the lights, the sights, the sounds, everything happening all around all at once. It’s overwhelming to the senses, whether you look up, down, or sideways.
The tourists get something right, though: they look around. They look up, down, sideways, and stare at all there is to see. They take it in, experience what’s in front of them, and exist in the reality before them at that moment. Some of those who live here will walk around staring at their phones, scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or TikTok on the subway, constantly refreshing just in case they miss something while the real reality passes by right in front of them, while they avoid eye contact with strangers, perhaps unaware of the fact they’re in the experiencing one of the greatest cities in one of the greatest time to be alive according to a variety of metrics.
Internet-connected mobile computers and advertising networks (aka “social media”) tend to get blamed for just about everything these days, but this started long before we had cellular devices. It began with the radio, and then it was television, and now it’s reached a level of ubiquity and options that is well described by the brilliant Bo Burnham, who rightfully won numerous awards and accolades for this fine piece of work.
In the age of AI hype and scientism, it’s refreshing to see people who manage to walk around New York City looking up, but it doesn’t have to be only the tourists who take a moment to enjoy their surroundings. I won’t pretend I don’t stare at my phone sometimes, but I’m trying to be more conscious and aware of how addictive these pocket-sized advertising surveillance devices are, and I only grow more annoyed daily by how they interrupt and disrupt our reality by stealing our attention.
The proliferation of ad-based media (which includes “the news”, “social media”, and everything in between) is certainly high up on the list of Big Technological Mistakes, as far as humanity is concerned. Other contenders include industrial agriculture, the automobile, limited liability corporations, and the atomic bomb. You could reasonably argue that industrial agriculture kicked off the whole industrial revolution, so if I had to pick one, I’d start there.
It’s become a bit popular to complain about technology now, and I’m not really a luddite, but it feels as if the pendulum has swung a bit too far and most of the current new tech feels like it’s more harm than good. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the current incentives combined with the FOMO hype cycle (AI) and misuse of words like “science” to sell products that are not at all based on science leave me wanting less, not more.
Every time I see a website nagging me to install an “app”, or another self-checkout kiosk asking me to leave a tip for employees so the company can avoid increasing wages, I do feel a bit like we all need a break from computers.