Technophilia and the Importance of Not Necessarily So

If you haven’t met me, there is something you need to know. I am a relentless optimist. I expect the best of everyone and every situation. I carry a fundamental belief in the rightness of things and trust that the entire universe and everything in it will work in harmony for the ultimate benefit of all. I get frustrated when things don’t travel along the path of my expectations, though they do tend to more or less work themselves out well in the end.

I am an idealist. I get excited and enthusiastic about ideas. I champion change. I welcome things that feel like the future. I’m just made this way. Its how I’m wired. My idealism presses on people’s nerves sometimes. I get on my own nerves sometimes.

I am a technophile. It is a condition that warrants careful observation. I keep friends around me to balance my enthusiasm for New Things.  I trust my closest friends to help leaven my enthusiasm with a measured dose of skepticism. This relationship keeps me safe.

I like technology. Technology represents an expression of faith that problems can be solved. That things don’t have to be the way they are. In fact, the change of technology is an humbling reminder that human experience is always changing. We grow as individuals, and we grow as a species. There is, I realize, an element of blind trust that comes with technophilia.

Technophilia assumes that change is always for the best. I sometimes forget that this isn’t necessarily true. I often forget that many people, maybe most people, don’t see things this way.

I think this why I am so fascinated by my own interest in Jeff Bezos’ recent revelation that Amazon is working on a way to deliver products to doorsteps using flying drones. You may have seen the video already. Its all over Twitter and the technology blogs. If not, here it is:

This isn’t a post about the merits of using flying drones to deliver commercial goods. It is about my immediate, unquestioning reaction to that video. Of course, there will be delivery drones dropping off boxes and packages and pizzas in the future. I’m just caught by surprised by the real possibility that it might happen in my lifetime.

These are robots, people. The Star Wars kid in me is completely freaking out.

So, here’s the really funny part. I watch the video and think, “Of course. How wonderful.” I immediately start thinking about the practical uses for my college, which has 9 teaching sites and 3 physical libraries. I start mapping out the possible applications for interlibrary loan, direct to door document delivery. I could send books directly to a faculty member”s office on request with very little wait.

I am thinking these things. I am taking these thoughts very seriously. A part of my brain is actually working out what my library will need to do to be ready for that possibility. This is all happening quickly, immediately, without warning. It is occupying an inordinate amount of my mind on a pretty busy day when there are things that need doing right now. I do those things, but always with a part of me feeling pulled forward toward the idea I can sense but can’t quite glimpse.

I spend a lot of time this way. It is a kind of wakeful dreaming.

The technophile sees the new tool and immediately believes it will be a tool of great value.

I post to Facebook and immediately start reading comments about how dangerous, obnoxious and silly this kind of future might be. People might die. Decapitation is a real concern. Children might get hurt. Birds and power lines and aircraft and on and on. And the comments aren’t wrong. They aren’t mean or spoiling. They are truthful. They are correct. And they come from the dead center of my technophiliac blind spot.

Trusting the idea of technology to improve lives is an expression of faith. It is a kind of blind trust akin to religious dogma. It is a belief that there is an expression of intelligence that wants to make things work better and that everything will be better if we simply trust that intelligence and let it do its job. This is not to equate a fondness for technology with religious faith or create a false opposition between them. It is simply an observation that the technophile (ie, “me”), brings a lot of assumptions and unexamined baggage to the table when faced with something new. It is a reminder that the best response after that initial wash of enthusiasm might be, “Not necessarily so.”

“Not necessarily so” is an excellent mantra for technophiles to embrace. “Not necessarily so” keeps us honest. “Not necessarily so” keeps us vigilant and skeptical and open to the possibility that sometimes things don’t work out for the best and sometimes, often even, there are unintended consequences. One of my best friends often reminds me that the study of human history is pretty much a catalog of unintended consequences.

And so, I take a deep breath and wait a little longer to see how the future plays out. I listen to the friends who see clearly by standing in the middle of my blindspot. And I am grateful.

I am fascinated by the Amazon drone story because it portends a leap toward a vision of the far future I had glimpsed when I was a child. I didn’t expect to see such a leap in my life. And yet, I write this to friends and readers scattered all over the world. I will read your comments on my smartphone, which is a marvel all its own. As William Gibson puts it, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

And yet another layer of fascination. There is no date by which Bezos expects to have this project ready. It may take years. Why announce it in such dramatic style on the 60 Minutes TV show during the busiest shopping weekend of the year? I think Om Malik has it figured out: to get free advertising, to change the subject away from labor issues and sales tax problems, to force policy decisions. Read “So Why Did Jeff Bezos pre-announce plans for drone-based delivery now?

Which leads me back to my main point. Technophiles should always take a deep breath and recite, “Not necessarily so.” Technology is a tool. Tools work for the good of the people who have them in their hands. Always. Full stop. No exceptions.

A Thoughtless Gift, More Personal than Cash

My friend Daryl turned 40 yesterday. I gave him an Amazon gift card. My mother turned <redacted> last week. I gave her an Amazon gift card. I gave my youngest brother and my dad Amazon gift cards for Christmas. I am pretty sure I also gave my dad an Amazon gift card for his birthday in October.

I admire people who possess the talent for gift-giving. Some people have an eye for the perfect token of admiration, that small, specific little something that stands as evidence of attention to the friendship. I am not one of those people.

I’m not lazy. I want to give the right gift. I want the gift to be meaningful. I want the gift to be interesting and valued and evoke some special memory in the recipient years later. I want the gift I give to do all these things, but, most of all, I want my gift to be useful.

I used to think that giving gift cards was the least thoughtful gift a person could give. A gift card was an admission of failure, an acknowledgment that I could not find anything suitable in the amount of time I gave myself to look for that special token. Just barely more personal than giving someone cash, which, back in the day, meant you hadn’t even bothered to leave your house.

Of course, these days, if I gave someone cash, it means I made a special trip to the credit union or ATM since I never carry cash.

I often give Amazon gift cards but feel a bit conflicted every time. I like Amazon gift cards. They are useful and valued and allow purchase of interesting things. I give Amazon gift cards because they allow a person to get whatever they want and not have to suffer covert trips through the Walmart return line in the middle of night. I give Amazon gift cards because I like getting them. I like having credit in my Amazon and iTunes accounts which can be used at a moment’s notice.

Still, I often worry that others might feel I am devaluing the relationship, that somehow the Amazon card represents a shortcut in our friendship that bespeaks a laxness or lazy inattention.

I worry too much it turns out. My friend Daryl got at least 5 other Amazon gift cards. Every single card he opened had a card from Amazon. It was like opening a treasure chest of virtual goods. He was happy. I was happy. If my gift was the lazy fruit of thoughtlessness, then everyone else was lazy and thoughtless too.

Instead, I realized an important truth. Amazon and iTunes gift cards are the new social currency. We don’t give gifts as much anymore. People don’t really need or want stuff. So, instead, we give them little pieces of plastic that represent a kind of pretend money which they can use, if they want, to purchase invisible goods.

Daryl probably has a long list of nifty things he plans to buy. Some of them are probably visible. He is a great collector of books, games and other interesting things. As for me, I collect invisible things — music, eBooks, apps. On birthdays and holidays, I hope for the little envelope with the Amazon or iTunes card inside. It saves me a trip to the store to convert my cash into single-store credit. This is the new economy. I don’t want money unless it is the kind I can spend easily at Amazon or Apple.

What do you think? Are gift cards a cop out or a super-thoughtful way to say you care?

Amazon’s eBook lending library is not the library apocalypse

A few days ago, Amazon announced its free eBook lending service to Amazon Prime members. I read this program summary from AppAdvice and thought, “Uh oh. Here it is. The library apocalypse.”

I didn’t rush to blog about this, which actually worked out in my favor. Cooler heads prevail. Bobbi Newman of Librarian By Day has this very succinct, reasonable assessment.

In short, there isn’t enough content freely available at Amazon’s lending library to compete with the sheer volume of free content available in public libraries. The one free eBook per month (with restrictions) cannot compete with the free access to multiple books (ie. “all you can read”) available through public libraries.

Also noteworthy: this service only works for actual Kindle users. This service is intentionally built not to work with iOS Kindle apps. This is mostly about an incentive to give people one more reason to buy a very moderately priced Kindle eReader or the new Kindle Fire. Great PR move.

Amazon Prime is a good deal and this free lending service looks pretty interesting. I see a few titles in the list that I want to read myself. A bit tempting to try. Amazon is trying to lure heavy readers into buying their eBooks from Amazon. That’s fine, but most serious readers I know use both the public library and Amazon.

What do you think? Can Amazon lure you away from your local public library for the price of one free borrowed eBook every month? Or, might the reading tent be big enough to accommodate more than one option for getting free stuff to read when you want to read it?

First World Problems?

While I’ve been busy blogging about my frustrations with upgrading to iOS5, Sarah Houghton (Librarian in Black) has been busy telling the world how librarians got screwed by the recent deal between Overdrive and Amazon. Basically, Amazon has agreed to make Overdrive eBooks super simple for registered library patrons. In exchange, library patrons’ reading histories and other personal data will become property of Amazon. Amazon users should already be familiar with this practice as it is a standard aspect of the Amazon EULA (you do read those, right?).

Library patrons will also have the chance to purchase the borrowed books they especially enjoy.

Nothing sinister on the surface, perhaps. I like getting book recommendations from Amazon based on what I bought that others bought.

But LiB is correct in her righteous fuming to chastise us librarians for being so willing to turn a blind eye to the privacy concerns so quickly in order to catch the eContent we need to satisfy demand. We need to have a conversation about this, even if, at the end of the day, we sign on to the deal anyway.

Watch the video and let me know what you think of her arguments. BTW, parts of her rant are NSFW.

More than a few comments suggest that privacy is such a 20th century idea. At least one person calls Sarah’s privacy concerns a “First World problem”. Having to get more memory so I can upgrade to iOS5 is the very definition of a First World Problem. Not wanting to easily surrender the idea that “free people read freely” and privately may be a First World problem of sorts. If so, it is the underpinnings of our First World way of life.