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Examining our Techological Assumptions

An interview with Christine Rosen

Interviewed by The Editors

The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Christine Rosen, one of the most prominent writers on issues such as history of genetics, bioethics, the fertility industry, and the social impact of technology. Ms. Rosen is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. She is also senior editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. book cover imageHer most recent book is My Fundamentalist Education, a story of a Christian fundamentalist school in Florida, published by Public Affairs in 2005. She is currently at work on a book that explores our culture’s relationship with time.

University Bookman: Christine, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. What is the current focus of your work?

Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the University Bookman. Currently, I am working on a book that explores our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with time—why we feel we have so little of it, how we actually use it (compared to how we claim we want to use it) and the impact this has had on us as individuals and on society as a whole. It's a cultural critique that draws on behavioral economics, sociology, history, and technology studies, as well as reporting that I’ve been doing. I'll explore the way we use technology to attempt to master time (successfully and unsuccessfully), how we use our work and leisure time, and what we really mean by "quality time." I'll cover subjects such as multitasking, "time famine," and what our culture's collective sense of hurry does to things such as the family, friendship, art, and literature.

I’m also working on an essay exploring the history of the idea of convenience as well as an essay that revisits Emile Durkheim’s notion of anomie in the age of the Internet.

UB: What lead you to study these issues in the first place?

When a group of us started The New Atlantis more than five years ago, I wrote a piece about DNA criminal databases. In the course of my research I was startled to find a pervasive and uncritical enthusiasm for this technology—a technology that clearly posed significant challenges to privacy and individuality. The people who supported DNA databases were certain that this technology was morally neutral and indispensable to their work. From that experience, I became interested in our enthusiasm for other technologies we use on a regular basis—things like the cell phone, the iPod, the Internet, and videogames—and how our use of them is changing us as individuals and as a culture. What unexamined assumptions do we have about these things? Does our use of them change our behavior, and if so, how? Does every technology necessarily make a culture better—why or why not?

UB: You have written a lot on how new technologies cater to our own self-worth, and have used the word “egocasting” to describe its effects. What is that?

Egocasting is the word I conjured to describe the way our use of personal technologies has changed our behavior; it draws on the notion of broadcasting and narrowcasting to describe what we do today: egocasting is the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s own tastes. We live in a world where we exercise an unparalleled degree of control over what we watch and what we hear, thanks to devices such as the digital video recorder and the iPod, for example, as well as the Internet. We can consciously avoid ideas, sounds, and images that we don’t agree with or don’t enjoy, enabling an unprecedented degree of selective avoidance. But the more control we can exercise over what we see and hear, the less prepared we are to be surprised, and the less capable we are of engaging with difficult or different perspectives.

UB: What effect does this type of technological innovation have on children and the family? On how people interact with others?

The biggest challenge our new technologies pose for children and families is one of opportunity costs: too many of us are spending too much of our time in front of the screen instead of with each other in face-to-face communication, and this has adverse effects for families and for our culture.

A recent report by the National Institutes of Health (in collaboration with Common Sense Media) confirmed what experts and pediatricians have been saying for some time: too much time spent in front of the screen (television, computer, and videogame screens) is bad for children. Adverse health effects include obesity, tobacco use, and sexual activity, as well as statistically significant associations between excessive amounts of screen time and poor academic performance and drug and alcohol use.

More broadly—more and more families are “alone together” even when they are under the same roof, with children and parents retreating to their own screens to communicate, shop, and entertain themselves rather than spending time together as a family. The ease with which we now mediate even our most intimate relationships is worrisome. Finally, these new technologies have transformed the way we use and experience public space. None of us can avoid listening to someone else’s cell phone conversation in public space, or looking at the television screens that have colonized public space, from the doctor’s office to the train station. And our need for constant distraction has bred a kind of vast cultural impatience.

UB: What, if anything, can people do in being more aware of how technology impacts their sense of family, community, and self-identity?

We need to be more conscious of the way we spend our time with technology and the technologies we allow into our lives in the first place. The Amish are a good (albeit rigorous) model for this. They are not opposed to every technology; but before they decide to incorporate one into their community, they first ask whether it will bolster or undermine the core values of the community. So, for example, they do use telephones; they just don’t allow them in private homes because they know that that would undermine the face-to-face communication and connection that is integral to the health of their community. We could adopt a version of the same principle in our own lives. Our children might be required to use a computer for a school project, for example, but that doesn’t mean we need to put computers in their bedrooms, which they can then use to remove themselves from communal space in the home.

The other tactic that has been useful for some people is observing a “digital Sabbath,” that is, one day (or even a few hours every day) of ritual removal from all digital devices. No quick checking of our email on a BlackBerry after dinner, or half an hour catching up on the day’s gossip and news online once the kids are in bed. Rather, insist on a total disconnection from technology for a set period of time to give your mind a moment without the mediating influence of technology. I do this myself once a week (and for several weeks at a time every summer) and have noticed a huge difference in my ability to concentrate as a result.

UB: Do you see a connection between consumer technologies that treat people as interchangeable units and eugenicist reproductive technologies?

I don’t see a direct link, but there are some similar themes that emerge in both areas: rampant consumerism, for example, and the way the accumulation of individual choices can have an impact on society. As for the new reproductive technologies, people of a conservative sensibility are often accused of invoking “slippery slope” analogies when we argue for caution in embracing these new and powerful tools, but in the case of genetic testing, the slope is obvious—and we’re on our way to the bottom of it. Just a few weeks ago the New York Times featured on its front page a story about a company offering genetic testing for children to determine which sport they might or might not excel in. And parents are enthusiastic about it.

UB: What should people know about the current state of reproductive technologies and how they are being used?

It’s important to realize that each year brings scientific advances that will allow us to know a great deal more about ourselves—genetically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviorally.

But we should be careful not to mistake that information—which in many cases has brought cures and treatments for diseases and suffering—with knowledge of what makes us human. Human nature remains the most vexing of puzzles, and science alone cannot solve it for us.

UB: How do you see the debate in Washington developing on these issues with an Obama administration?

The debate will change dramatically after January 20. President-elect Obama has already signaled his interest in lifting President Bush’s ban on federal funding for stem-cell research, for example. On the technology front, I am cautiously optimistic about Obama’s attitude toward technology, particularly with regard to children. He said many times on the campaign trail that parents need to turn off the television sets and video games and spend time with their children. If he raises parents’ awareness even a little bit about the challenges posed by excessive screen time, he will have accomplished something important.

Posted: January 4, 2009 in Interviews.

A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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