Personal Tech and the Problem of Knowledge
by AJ Hartley
Have you ever been on a remote hike or an oversees vacation where you can’t get on-line or your phone doesn’t work, and you find yourself feeling a constant, low grade anxiety? I do. I worry about what I might be missing, or ways I should be connecting with the outside world. I have to remind myself that this is a new condition, something I never had as a kid, before the web, before smart phones, and I’m not alone in wondering what our current dependence on technology is doing to the way our brains are wired.
Planet of Blood and Ice, the first Cathedrals of Glass novel, runs with this idea. It imagines a futuristic world (called simply “Home”) where everyone is raised to interact almost entirely through technology. A group of teens from that world crash land on a deserted planet and have to fend for themselves. In one sense, it’s a simple enough survival story, but it is premised on the idea that everything these kids know becomes useless and irrelevant the moment they leave their gadgets behind. These are people who know practically nothing because, like us, they have grown used to searching for information online, rather than carrying it around in their heads. Even their social lives are so heavily mediated by technology that they don’t know how to interact in person, and are embarrassed by their own bodies.
The internet, the one in the real world which you are probably using to read this, promised to be an extraordinary thing, the ultimate democratizing of knowledge. But when we look about us today do we see a better informed public? In certain areas, perhaps, but I think we also see confusion, uncertainty and the self selecting echo chambers which ensure that we don’t encounter anything with which we disagree. Publishing used to mean painstaking fact-checking, editing and polishing by experts over time, but that has given way to instant (and constant) publication by anyone with computer access. How often are stories shared on social media before they are exposed as fictitious? How often is solid research trumped by flashy, misleading headlines? How did we become surrounded by fake news, and how—perhaps more insidious still—did we get to a place where the definition of ‘fake news’ is basically “whatever I don’t like (or whatever doesn’t like me)”?
Our embrace of technology seems somehow to have produced a kind of epistemological crisis, in which we are no longer sure how to know anything. We don’t know what to believe or who to trust. At the same time, we spend as much time interacting with people we’ve never met irl (in real life, as web jargon has it) as with those we really know. But then what do we mean by ‘really’ there? Am I less real on line, or is my virtual self actually more real than my physical body? I have a lot of relationships which are sustained entirely digitally, and some of them are as real or more real than the relationships I have with people I actually know, but don’t see often.
So where is the true self? Social media is performative, and while that doesn’t necessarily make it less true, it should serve, perhaps, as a warning that all may not be as it seems online. The sexy co-ed who sends me a Facebook friend request may be… well, who knows?
The teens in my story learn this the hard way. They can’t handle the frozen planet they have crashed onto, not just because they don’t know how to make a fire or find food, but because they have grown so used to being fed carefully prepared information—and misinformation—that they don’t know how to think for themselves or figure out what is going on when the source of that technological information goes away. The data devices that used to be one of life’s extras have become all they know, and without them, they are lost and in all kinds of danger.
A.J. Hartley is an international bestselling novelist whose work includes archaeological thrillers, the Darwen Arkwright children’s series, the Will Hawthorne fantasy adventures, novels based on Macbeth and Hamlet, a young adult series, Steeplejack, and our very own Sekret Machines: Chasing Shadows and Cathedrals of Glass: A Planet of Blood and Ice. He is also the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte.