Practicality Versus the Human Element; Or Why We Are Not Vulcans

I have been using a fictional race of human beings as an adjective lately. Because with technology where it is, we have more and more distinguished ourselves from a Vulcan lifestyle of logic.

Let us pretend, by some trick of the universe, Vulcans replaced us right at this moment. It is night, and you climb onto a public bus. As you choose a seat, your eyes glaze over the reflective glow of foreheads buffered sharp and dark eyebrows and the circular fringe of bowl cuts. This looks familiar. In fact, step onto the bus at any other time in a 24 hour cycle and the scene, although the glow would much less significant, would not. This is horror to some people, especially those who see a fictional representation of a race of aliens who seem to have gotten the better half of us in many ways. But much like our gloom and doomed future world inheritor teenagers and hypocritical adults, Vulcans would be glued to their smartphones. Yes, a race tuned directly to painstakingly deep-minded flowcharts of computer-programming-esque logic would be complete adherents of our society’s collective social black hole.

Furthermore, smartphones would be it. Vulcans would not need another device. And this is interesting.

Practicality is an extension of logic. To use only what you need with the tools that suffice limits surplus and unnecessary extravagance. Smartphones provide enough screen size to read and view images and video. They provide connections to peripheries like keyboards, larger screens, and larger soundscapes. They also increasingly contain tiny-fied technologies that make the things we carry obsolete. Smartphones are makeshift books, wallets, mirrors, maps, word processors, home security hubs, and telephones. They are devices so molded to our established designs that they are able to be experienced by all of our senses except one and conveniently stored in pockets we have previously designed to be literally within arm’s reach.

Sure, electronics contain nonrenewable metals that aren’t so environmentally friendly to extract from the earth. And the creators of smartphones have the ethical challenge of choosing to source conflict minerals. And this is probably not a Vulcan thing, considering their vegetarian diets and philosophy for the betterment of all instead of one. But if you only use one device and use it for everything, the environmental effects would be marginal compared to our current culture of use. For instance, reading 25-30 books on a smartphone would, according to some analyses, outweigh the carbon footprint of buying 25-30 print books.

If we expand this into greater terms, our staggeringly quick advancing world would be focused very finely on single practical objects that reduce our impact on earth and provide commonplace needs.

For clothing, perhaps we’d all own a pair or two of active clothing so that we could inhabit two situations: exercise and everyday use. And there is even added convenience here: sometimes we sweat in our everyday use. Very Star Trek-ish indeed.

Our roads would be SUV-less and, for the most part, truckless, except when actually needed. There would be no rubbernecking in traffic. We would microwave our meals or eat nutrient rich raw foods. We would rage against Ellen Ullman’s despised “disintermediation” that threatened the world (and still threatens in some part): the middle men in our society’s economy would not be needed anymore. Amazon would truly be all powerful. Drones would fill the sky and fields would replace all of the outlet malls.

We would be minimalists. We would bike to work if it was economical to. We would have tiny houses. Hoarders would be as mythical as boogiemen. And there would be no myths.

In short, we would most assuredly not be human. Not even Romulan.

Ever since we started putting smartphones into our pockets, we’ve been introduced more and more to choices between analog and digital. If you’ve read David Sax’s Revenge of Analog or Mark Kurlansky’s Paper or any of the nouveau nonfiction contemporary society analyzers, you have seen our fascination with this go legit. Our interest levels are high regardless of whether we lament or disdain seemingly outdated analog technologies. Now, each yearly or quarterly technological innovation contains an undercurrent of fear and exuberance.

Basically, we have created technological alternatives or “solutions” to an overwhelming amount of things. It used to be just combustible engines, incandescent light bulbs, and even plain old word processors that saved us a bit of time or headache with our day to day. No longer can we imagine commuting to our places of work on horse or using candlelight to illuminate our vast buildings. However, we can envision writing things by hand, which we still do. We can also envision reading paper books: 75% of readers still do. People buy subscriptions to magazines, listen to vinyl, take pictures with film cameras, and even print digital documents regardless of the gigantic and cheap LED screens being hawked online.

There is a strong culture in this choosing of analog over digital, maybe even stronger than its popular opposite. For instance, there has been quite an evolved and now booed trope for the argument between ebooks and print books. Basically, if you are on Reddit or any other comment forum, and you see a discussion of the annual data concerning which is more popular in the market, ebooks versus print books, you will see an age old “tool” conversation that will come to an irreconcilable and illogical point.

One type of person, the ebooker, is going to write that they read a lot more now with ebooks because they can get a book whenever they want and read wherever they want on whatever device. Bonus: they have reclaimed precious space in their home. Then a print person will object and write that reading on print is a nice way to get away from technology during the day. The ebooker will respond that there are dedicated ereaders and “Do Not Disturb” modes on most phones. Both easy ways to get rid of ubiquitous notifications and screen glows. But when you read, you join a community, the print person will say. You can strike up conversations with people in the wild if you can see what they are reading. When I read, the ebooker will say, I just want to read. Then the ebooker will further counter with the saving-the-environment plea for trees and the pollution of papermaking that has been very much documented since the industry began. The print person will reply with the reality of the terribly mined metals in electronic devices. The ebooker will respond with the amount of books read on an electronic device that counteracts and lessens the carbon footprint of devices to less than zero.

Then the print person, bereft of logical declamations will write this: “Man, I just love the feel, smell, and look of books.”

The ebooker’s response: “What? That makes no sense.”

And that’s the question that can’t be answered and which people harrumph about: the intangible human proclivities of the world. It’s akin to defining beauty. Even text, easily reproducible and manipulated on a screen, is too much of a simulacra for most humans. It is not immersive enough, and that’s what many of us, at least 80% of the book reading population, crave. (And I will further point out that even though I’m implying ebookers are Vulcans in this scenario, they are not. Books are just one aspect of our tangible lives.)

And here we are, arguing over digital and analog on the precipice of a VR-ready society. Ernest Cline’s novel, Ready Player One, is the most currently popular fictional experimentation of the concept of a totally immersive world. (Granted, the novel is set in an apocalyptic world in which most people would prefer an immersive digital world to the real one.) The question is, will we be that comfortable in a VR world? In Cline’s world, VR is an escape of many things, not to mention a home life amidst a neighborhood consisting of towers of RVs stacked on top of each other. We might not need such an escape from reality yet; although we can imagine a future where this type of technology becomes cheaper than our phones, readily available to anyone. In short, the trope of the room with the ever-present blue TV light might be changed to a consistently dark room with a slight glow from underneath VR goggles. Akin to or lesser than the glow of a nightlight.

Even if we utopize this technology and say that it’s going to be awesome and great and wonderful for learning and communicating and such and so forth, will our human inclinations accept the VR posture as a natural extension of our toolbox for the world? That is to say, will we heed the illusion of our senses and be comfortable moving in very practiced small arcs of movement as we do on a small scale with a tablet, smartphone, or computer? At least now, the highest achievement of VR limits one to a single room. Will even that be a simulacra with dividing factions of opinionated humans arguing on comment forums?

If you eat cookies every day, you will look at fruit as a lesser experience. Your taste buds overload, and you only see much more sugary things than cookies as treats. If you cut back on the cookies and define fruit as the pinnacle sugary thing in your diet, fruit will transplant the default status of cookies. Fruit will taste dessertish. (Which means, consequently, that cookies will have gained even more potential power.) Digital tools have not even become fruit yet. Its status is that of mushrooms in regards to analog: digital stuff thrives in most all places. We’ve tried it everywhere, and yet, it has not conquered everything because it just doesn’t have the nutrients or structure that tangible analog things do.

The TED Talk, “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, conveys what we are going through concerning the choices and staying power of digital and analog. Schwartz postulates that we get all stopped up when we have too many choices. And the digital realm has given us too many new options that we flail around trying to figure them all out. Crusades of “This Is the New!” happen, and we try in waves and move on or not.

This befuddlement of choices is extremely strong in the smartphone app world. People still run through apps like crazy. (Check your “Purchased” apps and then switch to the view of the apps that are currently not on your phone. The list should be extensive.) People are prone to pouring their whole lives into some of these apps. Like a house, they furnish the app with themselves and all their subtleties, carefully plotting out their lives with the app. And then, if they are unlucky, the app is ripped from them because an app is a business, and sometimes businesses flop. Especially digital businesses. Then, the adamant app user is left with exporting to another app or stark loss. In short, the choices have either gotten clearer (go basic) or more extensive (find the next new app).

Apps have happened to everybody. We are more and more primed to be adverse to any app that sells something. It’s the dashing of the salesman promise that has made us second guess apps. Now, apps must have good escape options. We need to be able to use an app like a hammer: if it stops working, we should be able to use another hammer to finish the job. It is ironic to seek and buy apps that die well, but if you look at it in an analog context, like the hammer, it seems perfectly reasonable.

Our digital choices are even finding their way back to our comfortable analog world. We have so many different variations of Bullet Journaling now, it’s different levels of hipsterism. It’s the self-help movement. That’s what apps are and have always been. New tools that better life. Efficiency has become the overarching theme in improvement. And maybe creativity will come into play at some point. But efficiency and convenience first.

And that’s the part that makes us seem Vulcan, the efficiency and practicality draws. Yet, the real digital improvements on our lives are the ones we don’t think about: The hospitals with complete access to a patient’s health history. The cars that only need us as passengers. The prevalence of literacy around the world through the use of cheap ereaders or tablets. The ease of navigating to places that we’ve never been to. These are the real revolutions of tech, the ones that help us do something we needed to do better. The rest could be argued to be first world flattery.

A Vulcan would be fine with a phone for a computer because it saves money and it is efficient to always have a computer with you. It is a small device that doesn’t take up too much space. But humans like space. Space frees us, and space is an analog thing. It’s what a piece of paper provides that a screen is trying very hard to do. Paper’s only limits are the areas that are not paper. You can fold it to manipulate the way we see the information on it. You can rip it up into smaller pieces. It gains smells, wrinkles like our skin. Colors with age. It is a canvas of the world. And it is visible, most of the time, without electricity. And you don’t need to learn how to use it.

This is why humans are so hard to design for (and why Vulcans truly are fictional beings). We are a being with five senses that prefers variety and style and the smell of something nostalgic. And we like to move. It’s comforting to know that the world will always be varied and be something that soothes all senses. Frankly, we go through phases in our life, and if we didn’t have something to take a break from the digital world, we might have more psychological issues than our currently being reported recently. And even more so considering this researched reply. A Vulcan society would be a dystopia to us.

I keep hearing about VR being a thing. Perhaps it’s not ready yet or is still too expensive. I know that Apple jumping into the fray somehow, but I have yet to hear the excitement about it, akin to the excitement people use to have for the new features of an iPhone. Also, I’ve met no one that has really done anything with VR besides using the Google cardboard VR once or twice. I don’t see those anymore.

The point is, we are now all photographers and writers and chroniclers, flooding the internet with places and events, oooohhhhing and ahhhhhing our friends’ trips through the wonder of smartphones. But this doesn’t change us from wanting to go to these places, stay in a hotel, see what the morning is like. Walk there and look at the nuances that seem so similar to our usual world but looked at through sweeping and searching traveler’s eyes. To see realms that infuse us with the weird feeling of the history of humankind and of our own history merging, settling into your memories: “I’m here!”

VR and the things that come after will be an interesting change to our entertainment and educational systems, but it won’t change us too much. We will still be human, trying still to be a Vulcanic human, but not really trying that hard.