We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Breadth and depth

I’ve always felt a little bit odd when people seem to yearn for “simpler times”: before telecommunications, before mass production…these fragments of an imagined past seem a tantalizing contrast to the present. For myself, I’m more often eagerly embracing the latest technology, learning how to use it to positive effect, and sometimes find it difficult to relate to this point of view.

I can certainly understand feeling nostalgic for an earlier part of one’s own life, a particularly enjoyable time, perhaps embellished further through remembrance. But what of periods which ended well before we were born, of which we have no first-hand experience?  Do we truly believe that our lives would have been better in another age?  Is this even a meaningful comparison?

Can we even compare our own experiences of childhood to our adult life?  Certainly, the world was a different place, but then, so were we.  Do we even remember what it was like for us?  Can an adult mind still relate with the experience of youth deeply enough to compare it with the present?  Similarly, it puzzles me that some parents seem to want future generations to repeat their experiences.  Shouldn’t we want them to make the most of their world, rather than trying to make it like ours?

I encounter these attitudes regularly when talking with people about technology, some of whom seem to feel that technology is depriving them of something.  I find this puzzling, since most of the time, I see technology as offering more choice.  At least, I used to find it puzzling, until I considered how more choice makes us less happy.  It also seems that we adjust to being happy with our circumstances.  This process can take some time, though, and if things are changing too rapidly, we may continue to feel dissatisfied until our expectations “catch up” with us.  We can also feel this way if we adapt too quickly, as we may take our world for granted.  It all seems to indicate that they are having trouble coping with changes in our environment.

Or, perhaps, the critics are right, and technology is corrupting our virtue.  I decided to take up this position myself to see if I could better understand it.  What better way to explore the question than through baseless conjecture thought experiments?  Here’s food for thought:

Thanks to advances in communications technology, we have immediate access to the people in our lives, wherever they are.  This enables us to maintain a certain level of social connection with people we never see in person, and therefore our social circles can be presumed to be much larger than they were in the past.  However, we have not been similarly blessed with more time to devote to these relationships, and so the average amount of time available for each of our “friends” is reduced.  The natural equilibrium in such a system might be to have a large number of relatively shallow relationships, rather than fewer, deeper ones.

A similar effect could be imagined for information.  With instantaneous access to a vast breadth of information, all similarly presented, we can lose sight of important differences between sources.  With so much unfiltered information, it all starts to look the same.  Is one point of view really worth more than another?  Do we even take the time to understand whose point of view it is?  It is all too easy to seize the first answer which presents itself, or worse, the most popular one.  We’re exposed to a lot more information, but are not yet equipped with a proportionally better ability to process it.

These patterns point to a common trend of increasing breadth over depth.  If such a trend does exist in technology, what effect is it having on us?  Is it a progressive trend, or will we eventually regain balance and see it reversed?  Personally, I am confident in the capacity of the human system to adapt and maintain order. The fact that people can sense an imbalance is an indication that we are healthy, and will in time find ways to cope with the change. We may not know what the solutions will look like, but we are already looking for them. Perhaps some aspects of our life will be temporarily worsened until we find them, but I believe the solutions lie ahead of us, not behind us.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 6, 2010 at 12:21

Posted in Uncategorized

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7 Responses

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  1. The problem is that technology adoption is not even across society. Our politicians seem unbelievably ignorant of technology, despite wittering on about its importance all the time. A hundred years ago, the great technological achievements of the day were written about in detail in the newspapers. You were not well read if you knew nothing of science. The difference in wealth between the richest and poorest may have been greater, but the difference in the ability to use and understand the technology of the day was a lot smaller. From an individual point of view, being able to do more is great, but from a social point of view, we are leaving behind a large proportion of our population, and we don’t think there is a problem because no-one is tweeting about it! Maybe this is what the less technology literate are yearning for from the past, and I can understand that. I would prefer to live in a society where no-one is left behind. We have a lot to do to get there, and I appreciate the good work Ubuntu does in this respect. I can’t excuse the lawmakers’ ignorance though.

    Jim Price

    April 6, 2010 at 13:34

  2. I don’t think having more or less technology/information can make you happier or lead to a “better” life. Just recall some of your own happy moments and I doubt you will conclude that those moments were due to more (or less) of something in particular, let alone technology/information. I do believe that human beings are the most happy when they are completely engaged in something (it doesn’t matter what). Some people can engage 100% with their laptop and some people can only do the same with some earth and seeds. YMMV.

    Peter Matulis

    April 6, 2010 at 20:40

    • This is a reasonable view, and I think I agree with it, but how does it relate to what I wrote?

      Matt Zimmerman

      April 6, 2010 at 22:24

  3. if we lived 100/150 years ago, myself and many of the people i know would be dead of something relatively trivial like appendicitis…

    what good it is to be “more virtuos”, or have less but deeper social connections (opinable at least imho), if at 19yo you weren’t even there anymore to enjoy it?

    Dario Bertini

    April 7, 2010 at 14:43

  4. Here’s a good Jonah Lehrer article related to these ideas: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/06/the_shallows.php

    Matt Zimmerman

    July 3, 2010 at 16:50

  5. Superb post. Short and simple.

    Tshepang Lekhonkhobe

    December 2, 2010 at 23:04

    • The Youtube link is now broken.


      December 11, 2013 at 08:02

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