Macleans.ca | Top Stories | Technology | A High-Tech Ghost Story
So here's how it goes: a reclusive fifty-three-year-old man, estranged from his family and living alone in an apartment in Winnipeg, goes to bed one night and dies of natural causes. Nobody knows, and because his medical condition keeps his body from decomposing, he isn't found for two years. Afflicted with MS, he has been receiving a disability pension that is deposited directly into his account. Likewise, his bills are paid automatically from his account, so all the databases and programs assume he's alive and keep chugging away depositing and deducting the whole time until a relative somewhere thinks, "Gosh, it's been at least two years, maybe even three or four (where does the time go?): maybe someone ought to check up on the guy."
Interesting tidbit, yes. A little creepy, mildly disturbing, perhaps, to imagine those neighbours in the condo living next door to the mummified remains. A little sad to think of this man so reclusive and alienated that no one notices he's gone. It's not a new story, really. Lots of people are alienated from their families - in fact people have been alienating families and friends throughout the centuries, sadly enough, and lots of people have had members of their families disappear. They never know what happens to them. It's not nice, but it's the way of the world.
But hold on there! That's not all there is to it, not at all. The "chilling fact" is "that new technologies like electronic banking have created a system in which it's possible to become so physically disengaged from the day-to-day administration of your own affairs that your life can effectively go on without you, perhaps indefinitely." You become a ghost, virtually alive, says Lianne George of Macleans.ca. Ha ha. That's a good one.
Oh wait. This person is being serious. Terence Moran, professor of Media Ecology at New York University is the quoted authority: according to Moran, a) the man's life was virtually extended by technology (in the McLuhanesque sense of extension) and, moreover, b) the media critic Neil Postman would've said that "what you have here is a lack of community." To a) I say: horsefeathers! Poppycock!
I'd even go so far as to say: bulltweedle!
To b): well DU-U-UH.
This is exactly the sort of pseudo-analysis I am referring to when I say that reactions to technology have to be read in terms of a history of literary resistance to it in fiction and film. The "proof" is embedded in dystopian stories. This article is informed by literary tropes (psst! hey! The guy died, he had an unfortunate (and truly sad, possibly tragic) rift with family and society. He was not a ghost in the system. Technology didn't cause his lack of community; he did. The guy did.) News flash! This man did not die alone because his bills were automatically being paid.
And of course, we now get further evidence from...what? Some intellectuals who the writer at least acknowledges are crackpots of despair (oops, sorry, I meant "prophets of despair"). OK, fine. What else? Oh, right: books and movies. I quote:
"What you also have is Exhibit A for techno-skeptics -- the artists, intellectuals and other prophets of despair (most notably McLuhan, U.S. cultural historian Lewis Mumford and French philosopher Jacques Ellul) who've long warned that too much reliance on technology will result in a whittling away of human virtues and freedoms in ways we can't begin to understand. The dark, inevitable and unforeseeable consequences of technology were an inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as well as Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy. This is what Postman called technology's Faustian bargain. 'It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect,' he wrote. 'Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.'"
Quite aside from the fact that it's debatable whether Shelley was making a point about the unforeseeable consequences of technology or about the abandonment of a "child" by its parent, there is a real problem with presenting fiction (and here I include McLuhan's fantasies) as some sort of definitive evidence.
There is an attempt, however, to be empirical about all this. Two studies have concluded that "frequent Internet use leads to a decline in social support, family communication and the size of one's social network, and an increase in depression and loneliness." We are informed that this means people are connected electronically and virtually, but in actuality they're home and they're alone and they're anonymous. This is just so much horseshit. So were monks or hermits alone in their cells silently memorizing the word of God. So are solitary readers communing with Sylvia Plath and contemplating death by gas oven. And what evidence is there? What proves that Internet use leads to depression and loneliness? In what cases? How do they know it's not the other way around: i.e. people who suffer from depression and loneliness tend to spend more time using the Internet? Were these studies quantitative or qualitative? Interpretive, or backed by solid evidence?
Just to see what I can find out, I google the name of one of the researchers, Robert Kraut of Carnegie Mellon University. What do you know? He is in fact doing some very interesting research on every-day use of the Internet in The HomeNet Project
. He has indeed discovered that in some circumstances loneliness and depression are associated with increased use of the Internet (note "associated with" not "caused by"). And, he concludes, "These declines are especially strong during the first years online, but may drop or even reverse with time or as the services available on the Internet improve." In addition, he specifically states that the effects of Internet usage vary depending on what it's being used for
. Many people use it, for example, to communicate with friends and family. Using the Internet to try and meet people, however - not surprisingly - is associated with symptoms of depression. He has also found that "using the Internet for entertainment is associated with declines in depressive affect," though this fact is mysteriously missing from the Macleans.ca technoghostie article.
There is, to George's credit, one paragraph suggesting that new technologies might do just the opposite, that is, encourage social ties and strengthen relationships. The author's conclusion, of course - we could see it coming a mile away - is that the downside of technology is undeniable and this poor guy's lonely death attests to it.
No. This lonely guy's death attests to the fact that MS is a pretty awful disease. It attests to the fact that when you estrange yourself from your family and friends, you are putting yourself at risk.
The funniest part of the article is the conclusion. We're told the heartwarming story of two of the poor lonely fellow's condo neighbours who now realize the importance of "more direct human contact." They now phone each other every day.