This I Believe

Paul - Shippensburg, Pennsylvania
Entered on June 28, 2007

I believe that technology can be a force that makes our lives better, except of course for all those times that it makes our lives worse.

Don’t dismiss this as an old coot’s rant against newfangled contraptions. I’ve spent most of my career working with technology. I go back to the pre-Internet days of the 1980s, when you searched online databases by dialing a phone and then sticking the handset into an acoustic coupler. It was the technological equivalent of walking five miles through the snow uphill to get to school.

From microcomputers with floppy drives to today’s Internet, I’ve always believed technology could be applied in ways to make our lives better. I’m amazed at how easy it’s become to look up information, purchase books and CDs, make reservations and get directions. We can communicate more easily, listen to the music of our choice, or watch a range of movies and television programs.

So how is technology making our lives worse?

Some of the criticism is familiar. Devices are so complex that they are difficult to use. We pursue entertainment as a solitary activity, watching movies at home or listening to our own music with headphones on. Cellphones, laptops and Blackberrys keep us connected to work all the time.

Perhaps most importantly, technology gives us so many choices that it becomes a burden rather than a blessing. When we have hundreds of channels to choose from or thousands of movies to watch, how do we decide what to select? When we can carry our own music choices around, how will we ever be exposed to new music by different artists?

All these choices have, to a large extent, removed the element of serendipity from our lives. Serendipity is an accidental discovery of something we didn’t even know we were looking for. It can happen while browsing the shelves at a bookstore and discovering an author you hadn’t heard of, or listening to the radio and hearing music you hadn’t experienced before.

When I was a college student in Washington many years ago, the Circle Theatre was a big, old art-deco movie house on Pennsylvania Avenue just a block from campus. They showed a different double feature every few days and always had great pairings of films. One day it might be the Beatles in “Help” and “Yellow Submarine” and the next it was Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” A book of ten tickets cost ten dollars, making it affordable on a student budget.

I saw many films there that I might not have chosen specifically. I saw them because they happened to be playing, and I was exposed to dozens of great films that I may not have seen otherwise. That was serendipity.

The Circle Theatre was torn down in 1987 and replaced with an office building. And I’m afraid that Netflix and on-demand and video iPods just can’t take its place.