We are what we consume


Theoretical speculation: what would Shakespeare think of life under a digital Cloud?

Writing at the advent of mechanization, the Bard incorporated the idea of machinery into some of his plots and characterizations, raising the idea of man as machine or as subject to the force and power of machinery.

He also expressed themes of nature and what constitutes the unnatural in everyday life. What did it mean to be human in a world governed largely by non-human forces? The witches of Macbeth would tell us that fate is inevitable. The fate of modern humanity is intertwined with a technology far different from the seafaring and land-borne mechanical marvels Shakespeare’s characters encountered. While we no longer believe in fate, modern existence requires buy-in to a host of technological marvels, most of them digital, that seem fatalistic.

It’s inevitable, some say. You can’t stop technology, and in these times, you can’t even slow it down. You can, however, give up, and that’s what many people are doing.

Consumer behavior speaks volumes. People are ditching cable TV in favor of carefully tailored streaming choices or analog pursuits. The board game is alive and thriving, and unless you play Chutes and Ladders with Alexa, you can still maintain a private game night.

People of all ages are re-discovering, or in some cases discovering for the first time, the benefits of vinyl records. Some say a passion for authentic sound drives this quest. The bottom line is this-even after years of marketing toward the conveniences of compact discs, music lovers are turning in droves to old-fashioned, analog vinyl. Consumers are discerning; we want what we really like, not what the embrace of technology marketing tells us to like. In some powerful ways, we truly are masters of our fate.

So many digital advances are front and center of every area of our lives, but there are qualitative differences between technological products. Robotic surgery is one thing, full-on androids that interact another creature entirely. A recent headline in an academic journal posed the question, “Are you ready for artificial intelligence?”

How does a proud human answer that question? Well, yes, of course, in some ways AI technology is of clear benefit. Robotic knee replacements and computer-assisted dentistry creating precise crowns are easy to embrace. Devices that talk to us from their spot in the living room, or microwaves that cook on voice command, or “smart” refrigerators that send us messages to inform us of a dire shortage of milk seem unnecessary at best and even downright spooky.

The warehouse for an awful lot of digital bits and bytes from music sites, appliances, electronic gadgets, writing and presentation programs, and-you name it-is The Cloud. Millions of pictures occupy it. Essays of all sorts take up space. Information is archived and accessible in seemingly infinite quantities. What we buy, where we buy it, which retail cards cluster around our keychains-it’s all out there in measurable packages, our digitized consumer selves shadowing our human essence.

To the extent that we can choose what we buy, we are able to master our fate. But hardly anyone exists without casting off a digital imprint. Most people own or use at least one computer, and to do so is to select from a narrow range of choices. To the regret of music and video lovers, the handy disc drive is becoming increasingly hard to find on a new computer. Is it our fate to stream all music and videos? Is it our fate to rely on The Cloud to store our creative output for imminent and distant use alike, thereby creating a manufactured lack of demand for external storage devices?

The great issue before us is how to integrate the inevitable march of technology into our natural, God-given humanity. The claim of inevitability justifies all technology as a “because we can” sort of fatalism. But there is an ethical imperative as well; casting a modern outlook on Elizabethan notions of natural existence invites us to remember that we are still biological beings with analog needs.

If we go forward wisely, we need never worry that “something wicked this way comes.”

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com