Technical Difficulties

When the popular sci-fi movie The Matrix first came out in theaters I had just turned thirteen, and I sneaked into the theater three separate times to watch it. In one of my favorite scenes, Morpheus is about to free Neo from the matrix when Morpheus asks, “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” Then Neo’s unplugged, and plunged into the arduous adventure of saving an oblivious humanity from technology’s enslavement.

Imagine an entire existence based on an artificial world, blinding us from the truth. But aren’t all the hours spent on a computer, TV, and phone—perpetually baggy-eyed—completely absorbed in a digital life the exact same thing? Now we can’t talk without an avatar and a catchy tag-line, and all the while, we haven’t really taken time to ask how healthy is this for us and the planet. There are issues that need to be addressed immediately, from physical and mental health, to environmental impact. I doubt humanity’s future will be reduced to the Duracell battery Morpheus presents to Neo, but we’re still faced with a paramount question: how are we going to power our digital technology without ruining the earth?

If you’re one of the millions who use Facebook, then your activity has been stored in a data-center. They’re huge facilities designed for the sole purpose of housing the servers that contain the internet. Peter Gross, the man who designed many of them told the New York Times, “A single data center can take more power than a medium-size town” (Glanz Nytimes.com). If you type “how many data centers” in the Google search box, the auto-fill completes it with “does google use” (the question’s obviously come up a few times). Hit Enter and watch the world’s greatest search engine fail to turn up an answer. Like Facebook, Google and others aren’t silent about their secrecy, they’re willing to talk about some technical specs, and promote sustainability, but the big question goes unanswered (Metz Wired.com). What we do know however, is that the internet was putting out 300 million tons of carbon a year as of 2010 (Clark Theguardian.com). Companies are quick to talk about clean energy, but the reality is always much more grim than the hype, for all we know Google might have a million data-centers—how are a few solar panels going to offset the energy needed?

Sustainability is only half the goal, we also have to consider ourselves. We dove headfirst into the deep side of the digital pool, yet it may have been better to start at the shallow end. Since Nicholas Carr wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid” for The Atlantic, people have been scratching their heads. He makes great points, but the title is just an intriguing question which isn’t really hit on. Carr’s points revolved around long-term internet use, and how it rewires the brain for instant information. But he doesn’t consider the power of neuroplasticity: all the peers Carr writes about could learn to read the old-fashion way again if they wanted to. However, there’s definitely something happening to our brains, and the debate could go on for a lifetime, but after years of turning up data on both sides of the issue, we’re now starting to narrow down the answer.

We all know screens hurt our eyes, anyone who’s worked in front of a computer all day can tell you, but the effects don’t stop there. We’re just starting to learn what the brain’s doing while we stare at them all day. A growing body of evidence suggests that screens and e-readers don’t cut it compared to good ol’ fashion paper. And since it can’t quite mimic the feel, it leaves people wanting—more importantly though—screens were shown to diminish a reader’s ability to follow long texts in a meaningful way, and remember what they had read (Jabr Scientificamerican.com). There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done, so don’t trash your e-reader just yet, but if you have to write an essay on The Grapes of Wrath, you might consider a paperback.

The impact doesn’t stop with red eye and poor study habits though, we’ve just breached the tide of an entire ocean of implications. And there’s no better time to discuss these issues due to the highly anticipated release of the console Rift. Virtual reality has been a longtime stagnate topic because of a fatal flaw: it can make you puke. That is, until Palmer Luckey pieced together a new prototype in this garage, which John Carmack, a well know pioneer in 3-D gaming, introduced to gaming enthusiasts at a convention, and the fervor has raged since. Almost over night, Luckey went from genius entrepreneur to founder of the new company Oculus—secured with a 2 billion dollar purchase by Facebook—the company’s goal is to put a headset on market for a mere $300 per set. Sony’s following suit with their own secret VR project as well (Rubin Wired.com). Neo learned to defend himself via information upload into his mind from a computer. Now we’re really bridging that gap. Imagine having a virtual Kung-fu instructor, attending class from home, or visiting the worlds largest digital museum. The possibilities are endless.

There’s just one little problem. While this new technology might be fine for adults a Stanford study shows that elementary age children can develop a significant amount of false memories from virtual reality (Segovia Stanford.edu). I owned a Nintendo when I was in elementary school. To this day I still remember every in and out of Super Mario Brothers, but I can’t recall a single line from Curious George, or Where the Wild Things Are. So before you start shopping for birthday or Christmas gifts, know that we’ve just scraped the ice of what it will do to their brains. Sadly, people are quick to exploit children, so we have to be ready with the appropriate regulations and fail-safes. We need to take a step back and hone the progress we’ve achieved before darting ahead, and settling the lawsuits later.

I’m not saying we should stop dead in our tracks, I don’t regret my early, or current game-console and computer use at all—and I can’t wait to test out Rift. But there is so much to learn about the new technology coming out and we’ve hardly had time to study the old stuff. Distracting devices, climate change, brain-numbing eye-drying screens are symptoms of a bigger problem. Wouldn’t it make sense to have government oversight for our nations technology–a group whose job would be to assess data-centers and devices, and explain their findings to those in charge of making laws.

We had just that, but it was shut down in 1995 by Newt Gingrich for budget cuts, and political disagreements (the scientists disagreed with the Republicans). The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) started in 1972 with the mission of finding out what technology does to people. At one point they were drawing in people from all over the world, who wanted to learn how the OTA worked. When Dr. John H. Gibbons presided over the agency, they had 139 staff and employed thousands of scientists (Burnham Princeton.edu). During its tenure it saved the government hundreds of millions, translated scientific jargon into clear English for politicians, fact-checked claims, and gave congress an overall understanding of relevant issues. Their list of achievements is outstanding and best summed up by Republican Amo Houghton:

The list is endless. But to mention just a few more: OTA evaluated the environmental impacts of technology and estimated the economic and social impacts of rapid technological change. The agency offered sound principles for coping with, reaping the benefits of, that technological change–industry, in the Federal Government, in the work-place, and in our schools. (Princeton.edu)

Recently, democratic representative and former research physicist Rush Holt attempted to rekindle the the OTA flame, but it was quickly snuffed out by the republican vote (Strauss io9.com). Health, pollution, and ensuring a better future shouldn’t be party issues,but there are enough people in government who hold ideology and money above our health and the real global problems. We can’t just go spiraling down the galactic toilet because a few, out-of-touch, politicians can’t stop clinging to ignorance. Too many of our modern day woes are interconnected with the technology we use, from industry to Farmville, whether powering a light-bulb, or a data-center. If we reopen the OTA we stand to lead the world in a technological revolution, while inspiring innovation, and creating jobs that put our health and well-being first–it’s the smart thing to do.


Works Cited

Burnham, David. “Little-Known Agency Draws Worldwide Interest.” www.princton.edu. Princeton University. The OTA Legacy. 12 Jan. 1984. Web. 11 June 2014.

http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/ns20/ota84_f.html

I used this article because it highlights the tremendous impact the OTA had not just in America, but around the world. And demonstrates

Clark, Mike Berners-Lee. “What’s the Carbon Footprint of … the Internet?” www.theguardian.com. The Guardian. 12 Aug. 2010. Web. 29 May 2014.

This news article attempts to give an idea of the amount of energy the internet and devices built around it use. Clark and Lee base most of their stats around data-centers because it give a more concrete number, but by their own admission slightly unrealistic.

I thought the Clark and Lee did a good job of putting a visual perspective to carbon output and drawing attention to other things that are consuming energy like our phones and monitors.

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” theatlantic.com. The Atlantic. 1 July 2008. Web. 14 Wed. 2014

In this article Carr makes strong points about the long-term effects of the internet on the brain, especially the loss of attention and focus on long readings. Carr’s perspective sheds light on the rapid changes that take place in the brain to accommodate a new form of media. Whether the changes are reversible or not, it’s a good idea to think about and weigh the risks.

Glanz, James. “Power, Pollution and the Internet.” nytimes.com. The New York Times. 22 Sep. 2012. Web. 26 May 2014.

This is an excellent piece of investigative journalism about the magnitude of waste from data-centers, from local environmental flubs to outright failures to uphold local and national law. And the ever growing need to expand these centers due to an unending need for storage.

Glanz casts a giant shadow on the new data industry. The information he presents is powerful and compelling—a much needed reminder of how costly and dirty it can be to simply send an e-mail.

Houghton, Amo. “In Memoriam: The Office of Technology Assessment, 1972-95.” www.princeton.edu. Princeton University. 28 Sep. 1995. Web. 11 June 2014.

http://www.princeton.edu/~ota/ns20/hough_f.html

This congressional record is a testimony to the dedicated unsung hero who contributed countless hours for the betterment of the world.

Jabr, Ferris. “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” scientificamerican.com. Scientific American. 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 26 May 2014.

Jabr explores the research and implications of reading via screen. The results of which show that screens might be soaking up brain resources, making it harder to remember, and that gadgets can’t really compete against paper if you’re planning on reading in a meaningful way. This article is solid confirmation that screens do more to us than we think at least in terms of processing and holding information.

Metz, Cade. “Google’s Top Five Data Center Secrets (That Are Still Secret).” www.wired.com. Wired Magazine. 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 May 2014.

I used this article to show that Google and others don’t let the public know how many data-centers they’re running, which probably means it’s an outrageous number and don’t want to give the public a solid idea of how much energy they’re wasting

Rubin, Peter. “The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality.” www.wired.com. Wired Magazine. 20 May 2014. Web. 31 May 2014.

This is an in-depth look at the how far virtual reality has come in a few short year, mainly due to the efforts of Palmer Luckey, who built the revolution out of his garage from other headsets and cellphone parts. I used this article to highlight the fact that we’re about to take the next big leap forward, and as as usual aren’t really looking where we’re about to jump to.

Segovia, Jeremy N. Bailenson. “Virtually True: Children’s Acquisition of False Memories in Virtual Reality.” vhil.stanford.edu. Stanford University. 2009. Web. 1 June 2014.

This study shows that children, particularly elementary age are highly susceptible to false memories. I used it because we quickly give kids the same gadgets we use, and they effect developing brains much more than an adult’s.

Strauss, Mark. “A Key Reason Why U.S. Politicians Don’t Understand Science.” io9.com. 12 May 2014. Web. 1 June 2014.

Strauss does a nice job of summing up the purpose and collapse of the Office of Technology Assessment from the receipt press release from Rush Holt who tried to reopen it this month. I used this article to show that we have the solution to many of the problems we face, it’s just been closed off due to the usual political nonsense.

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