Is Digital Culture Damaging Us? Ask a Technoskeptic Techie.

Computer scientist David Levy thinks digital culture is damaging us at a deep level

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There have always been dissenters from the digital revolution: technoskeptics who have raised red flags about the degree to which computer technology rules our lives. Arrayed against them have been the geeks who have mostly been cheerleaders for a fully digital future. But these days, voices of dissent are beginning to emerge from the computer industry itself. Some high-level techies are questioning the value of the very genies whose lamps they’ve rubbed.

One skeptic is David Levy, a Stanford-trained computer scientist who’s coined the term information environmentalism to describe his desire to at least stop and think about the consequences of pervasive computing. He worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the Vatican of digital technology, from 1984 to 1999. If you work on a computer, you’re using technology developed at PARC: personal workstations, laser printing, networking, and much more. Though Levy hasn’t trashed his laptop—he’s on the digital grid “six days out of seven”—he’s articulate about the ill effects of computer-centric living.

Part of the problem, he says, is personal overload. “We’re feeling that we’re not on top of our lives,” he explains. “We’re trying to do more and more to stay ahead. Instead, it’s getting worse.” It is: A University of California-Berkeley study cited in The Economist (Dec. 6, 2003) estimates that we created a mind-boggling 5 billion gigabytes of new information in 2002—the equivalent of 500,000 Libraries of Congress. We’re losing our ability to focus, Levy feels, as well as our sense of our physical bodies. And, he adds, “our workload and speed [do] not leave room for thoughtful reflection.”

But Levy’s critique goes a lot deeper than this relatively familiar harried-and-buried scenario. He believes that computing is destabilizing the forms in which we have traditionally received information, and that this process is destabilizing us. He cites philosopher Ernest Becker, who wrote The Denial of Death in 1974. Faced with the literal senselessness of our own mortality, Becker believed, we construct “immortality projects” designed to fend off the inevitable. One of these projects is the creation of culture. And for Levy, one of the most important and stable products of culture is the document: the clay tablet, the papyrus, the sheet of paper covered with information.

When he was at PARC, Levy (who is a trained calligrapher) worked on the concept of the computer document—that thing on our screens that looks like a sheet of paper, and that we read or write on. This concept of documents became an important way that Levy and his colleagues translated the tumultuous, invisible streams of code that really run computers into stable forms that computer users could manipulate.

But in the past 20 years, and with the growth of the Internet, the idea of a stable digital document has grown much stranger. Can something as ephemeral as a blog be a document, even though it might look like one? What about a series of hyperlinks leading us “into” an interactive fiction site? What about a series of interrelated tables in a database?

One measure of the instability of digital environments is the rate at which we hit the print button. Levy believes that printing documents represents an attempt to turn volatile and mutable digital forms into something more stable and long-lasting. As the editors of New Scientist point out (Nov. 22, 2003), citing the same Berkeley study, the world’s offices consumed 43 percent more paper in 2002 than they did in 1999.

This effort at stability (and its failure) is at the heart of the anxiety we’re feeling in an overloaded society. If Becker and Levy are right—if culture is an “immortality project” we use to combat our existential angst, and if documents are one of the primary, stable products of that culture—then our anxiety is understandable. And just as environmental degradation disrupts our ability to rejuvenate, Thoreau-style, our psychic selves, information instability and excess short-circuit our ability to cope with our own mortality.

Levy recently organized a conference at the University of Washington-Seattle on “information pollution.” John Seely Brown, former director at Xerox PARC, and Bill Hill, a software developer from Microsoft, were among those who spoke at the event. The mere fact that techies of Levy and Brown’s stature are acknowledging the issue marks a shift in our relationship with technology, Levy believes. “There’s a growing sense that something is out of whack,” he says. “I have the feeling that we’re right on the verge of perceiving the extent of the problem.” He hopes that, just as we’ve taken steps to improve the physical environment, this awareness will impel us to mend our mental environment in the digital age.