The Counterculture of Our Future: ‘Jacked In’ versus ‘Checked Out’

January 16, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Stuff, Tech /

It’s appropriate, I think, that the first post of this blog covers a subject characterized by all four categories of the blog’s tagline —  “media, technology, culture and life.” The idea for the post — the emergent counterculture of those who reject a world in which outward-facing identities are increasingly characterized by social media — arose from two very different conversations I recently experienced.

An image pulled from DeviantArt by CrapsY (username).

The first was with an old friend, Michael P. (whose facebook profile I took the below quotation from), who forsook the life of  a Harvard-graduated consultant to work in a coffee shop and live as a Central Square hipster. Our conversation, which ranged from ‘catching up’ to ‘big issues,’ gravitated toward Michael’s thoughts on an emergent counterculture that he termed ‘the unplugged’ — that is, those who refuse to subscribe to a lifestyle that increasingly depends on modern technology. A proponent of this lifestyle, Michael made significant efforts in the last couple years to reduce his online footprint, pare down his digital interactions, and do things like increase the size of his record collection and work on a screenplay about an 80’s record producer.

As I understood them, Michael’s views (and those of ‘the unplugged’) are premised on the notion that technology detracts from our lives’ experiences by drawing our attention away from our real-world experiences and interactions. Michael posits that those who are ‘plugged in’ misguidedly reify technological advances as ‘progress.’ While technological artifacts seemingly make our lives better, they actually distance us from one another and definitively human activities — e.g., expressing ourselves through art and engaging the world through our tactile senses (sound familiar?).

The ‘unplugged’ view, I think, tends to overly romanticize the past and a (purportedly) simpler way of socializing, expressing oneself, and interacting with the world. Though I understand the love for and actually tend to prefer activities that more intimately (in a physical sense) connect me to the product of my work, I (and, I think, many others) view technological artifacts as just another set of tools we can use to interact with the world — e.g., a paintbrush, a pencil, a pair of glasses. In other words, technological advances most directly affect media, not expression. Or, more simply, technological advances most directly affect the tools we use, not how we use them.

That said, the forms of expression undeniably change as a result of the given media through which they are expressed. The notion of ‘friendship,’ for instance, has changed dramatically. In a world where roughly 30 percent of the facebook friendships of those between 18 and 24 are people whom they have never actually met, ‘friendship,’ it seems, certainly means something less substantial than what it perhaps once did. For photographers, the development of Adobe’s Creative Suite has changed how they view their craft.

In this light, I think the dichotomy between ‘unplugged’ and ‘plugged in’ is misguided. The analogy implies a reliance upon a sort of technological energy for functionality. But technology is more than that–at least for me. It enriches, enhances and augments my reality; it creates opportunities to share information, connect with others and learn about things I never would have been able to otherwise. In many ways, my subscription to a life filled with technological artifacts is more akin to the Matrix’s ‘jacking in’ — that is, it’s a choice to participate in a whole other experience of reality (I recognize the negative implications that this term may hold. My use of this term is also an admission that there is certainly something lost in exchanging the simplicity of more immediate physical interactions with the world for a view shaped by a world in which technological advances are a given). In contrast, a life without technology, I think, is a rejection of participation in this world and its benefits — and so, I will term it ‘checking out.’

This distinction leads me to think of the second conversation I had on this subject. During my final interview presentation with Jack Morton Worldwide, where I now work in business development, Liz Bigham, the Director of Brand Marketing, asked me if I perceived a pull-back reaction to a world saturated with social media — a desire for real, physical connections with other people. During the interview, my first response was that the nature of interactions is being transformed by media and the capabilities of technology. That is, the line between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ experiences would continue to erode as time progressed, and any desire for ‘physical’ experiences could eventually be entirely satisfied by virtual ones.

But thinking back on this question, I’m not certain this is the case. I anticipate that the ideological divide between ‘jacked in’ and ‘checked out’ peoples will only increase as technologies transform our experiences of reality more dramatically. Michael’s disdain for technology isn’t fading quickly, and there’s something intuitively appealing about his rejection of the ‘jacked in’ life that evokes sympathy. Don’t I also enjoy it when I get out to nature, leave behind my cell phone and computer, and cut myself off from the technological world? But my memory of the practicality of using technology always seems to win out. I like having a world of information at my fingertips, the people I know available at the touch of a button, and the host of possibilities technology provides me. I suppose, though, that’s the divide–some people don’t.

But perhaps there is something to my initial intuition in my conversation with Liz, and the ‘checked out’ counterculture will ultimately have less ammunition to fuel its ideology. At the core of disdain for technology, I think, is disdain for ‘the complex,‘ a purportedly enhanced reality in which our actions must conform to the constraints placed upon them by the limitations of technology. What this disdain fails to recognize is that accompanying the trend of technological complexity is an ever-increasing tendency toward simplicity in design. User interfaces are becoming more elegant and intuitive, despite increasingly complex back-ends. Physically, technological artifacts — e.g., televisions — are also becoming less cumbersome and streamlined. This tendency toward design simplicity will only become more apparent as  futures waves of technological artifacts reach us.

My guess: ‘checked out’ people will resist until Apple comes out with a strong enough ad campaign for its iTablet.

“As I look around the contemporary American scene I am puzzled by what seems generally to pass for a historical object or monument…With us the association seems to be not with our politically historical past…what we cherish are mementos of a bygone daily existence without a definite date. Archie Bunker’s armchair will recall–at least to the present generation–not only the many hours agreeably spent watching television, but also the environment, the setting, of a popular program, though not necessarily the program itself.”
– J. B. Jackson

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