Digital Witness

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of seeing Grammy-Award winner St. Vincent perform in Rochester. After the opening act an seconds before the performers took to the stage, an automated voice requested that we refrain from digitally recording our experience so we could thoroughly enjoy it. This is presumably related to their hit song, Digital Witness, (listen below!) which was ranked 24th in Pitchfork’s top 100 songs of 2014. The catchy tune conveys a darker, relevant message about technology’s way of taking over our lives and turning us into iPhone zombies, as you can see in the video below. 


The idea of technology taking over our lives is prevalent in pop culture other than music, presented more humorously in Portlandia. This clip shows how greatly invested in technology we are as a collective society, that if we were to separate from it, we’d almost cease to exist. Portlandia is a funny show, but here it got #real. Another recent presentation of technology taking over our natural lives is the 2013 movie Her, where a man falls in love with his operating system. It has clear parallels to Kurt Vonnegut’s older short story EPICAC (summary), yet it is still relevant enough to be made into a movie today. In this media, technology is shown as a substitute for actual human relationships, which social media facilitates today.

Over spring break, my brother introduced me to a British television series entitled “Black Mirror.” He called it the British Twilight Zone. Sounds pretty cool! Google provides a concise and spookyimage-1 summary: “Suspenseful satire with a techno-paranoia bent, the ‘Black Mirror’ is all about personal technology.” Even cooler! I watched the 6-episode series in a day. The irony of being hooked to my laptop watching a series about our future damnation due to technology was almost unbearable, but log onto Netflix and I bet you’ll do the same. I found these futuristic societies simultaneously familiar and foreign. Each episode, in some way or another, revolved around a screen. The abilities of technology exceeded our own, but the interaction of people with their devices was no different than the typical individual with an iPhone.

The three episodes that in particular haunted me the most were S1E1, “The National Anthem,” S2E1, “Be Right Back,” and S2E2, “White Bear.” “The National Anthem” explores the idea of cyber terrorism in what appears to be a modern day UK. If you asked me to define cyber terrorism Black-Mirror-s2e22prior to watching, I would’ve guessed hackers or a virus. Something regarding information or money, maybe. This episode explores humiliation and a life-or-death kidnapping situation as a method of promoting cyber terrorism. Technology is a weapon in the digital age and we need to be aware of the danger that lies in the internet’s anonymity. “Be Right Back” seems more futuristic than the previous episode. The young couple featured regularly use social media, as many people do today. The information they shared via social networks is able to help recreate the husband after his death by reading through old messages, learning how he types, and automating a response. To me, the eeriest aspect of this episode was not the life-like robot, but that programs like this seem feasible in the future. Sending automated messages is already possible, tailoring content from existing users doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch in the near future. What I find to be to most intense episode, “White Bear” shows how maxresdefaulttechnology inhibits us from being helpful, and actively illustrates technology users as useless, mindless zombies. I don’t want to spoil any of the episodes, but if you choose to watch them, you’ll see! I find social media and technology today helpful, but often see instances where it can become a crutch for actual interactions or weaken our abilities. Would cyberbullying, isolation, increased aggression/violence or decreased sense of boundaries/social skills could make a compelling episode of Black Mirror? Yes, probably. And they’re all effects technology has on us today.

We can laugh about this, sing about it, cringe at it or even turn it into a twisted romance. From all angles, it’s clear that technology is taking a bit of us from ourselves. Technology is supposed to simplify our lives, not control them. And while it’s easy to blame this problem on technology, why do we keep using it? Maybe the problem is with us. Are we an addicted generation that will spiral into an uncertain future?

Are Books Better?

I love books. I love the smell and texture of a fresh page. I love picking out a title from the library just as much as buying a new paperback from Barnes and Noble. I love the art on the covers and the satisfaction of turning page after page until there are none left to turn. And while some may disagree, according to recent science, I am not alone. While at it’s surface reading seems to be only a visual and imaginative process, the physical relationship of a reader to their book is important in many ways. 

According to recent research, there is a “tactile sense of progress” we experience as we read. To put it simply, as we read, we track our progress with the pile of growing pages under our left thumb. To test this, researchers had NorReading_in_Practice_MAwegian teens read from paper and PDFs. The students were dived into separate groups and then they were tested on plot summary. Guess who did better? Of course, it was the paper readers! The use of paper gave them a sense of progress, and although it was unconscious, it helped them map the plot better than those reading from a screen. 

In addition to the tactile benefits of a book, books also tend to elicit a more emotional response in the reader. However, kindle reading has its own benefits. You save space and money by downloading these digital books. Both are perks which I think would persuade Thoreau to be a digital reader himself, had he been given the option. While plot summary may be more difficult coming from a PDF, the same study showed the medium for leisure reading had little to no impact on text digesting ability. Most don’t endorse reading Ulysses on your kindle, but encourage you to download Gone Girl when you’ve got the chance.

While he battle of superior reading experiences seems centered around paper and kindle, there are other contenders. iPads are equipped with an iBooks app, and there are websites dedicated to digitalizing literature. Digital literature is undoubtedly important in immortalizing texts and making them accessible  to everyone. However, reading from a computer screen or a device with a backlight-such as an iPad-can have consequences.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 1.59.05 PMThis observation is by no means a cry to end the digitalization of literature, rather a caution on how and when you use your device to read. Reading in the 2 hours before bed, as 90% of Americans do, is a terrible idea. The backlight on iPads and computers is blue, which we are very sensitive to. Overdosing on this light, which the digital world forces us to do on a daily basis, can decrease our melatonin levels and harm our sleeping cycle, particularly in these hours before bed. Rather than prescribing patients to put down their devices, doctors have started endorsing the use of orange lens glasses while utilizing a backlight screen. The complementary colors supposedly cancel out and minimize the effect of blue backlights. Instead of limiting computer time, we go and get glasses. Progress.

While unlimited titles available online is amazing progress, the health risks are are real step back. In addition to endangered melatonin levels, cortisol levels spike. Risk for obesity, diabetes, and other disorders jump as well. This is, of course, in the extreme case of computer use. I don’t believe digitalizing literature is going to make everyone sick, but considering the time we already spend on our computers, we need to be wary.

Reading, regardless of the platform, is an enriching experience. If you choose to reap the benefits of a digital library, be sure to do so in short bursts of time and carefully monitor your comprehension. Or, you could go old school, and just enjoy a good old book. (x)