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  • Ryan Bailis

"I Don’t Need People, I Have the Internet"

Apple AirPods have infiltrated college campuses at an astonishing rate; it isn’t unlikely that I walk to class and pass 50 different people siloed off in their own world, indifferent to their surroundings. AirPods are an extension of the smartphone technology in our pocket, but it’s emphatically more personal. It’s a wireless connection from the abyssal internet directly into our ear. It makes possible the insertion of billions of ideas, some deeply concerning, directly into our headspace. Mobile technology, initially intended to encourage communication and foster collaboration, is ironically isolating us at unprecedented rates. We are in the midst of redefining what it means to interact with other humans, and mobile technology is playing a key role in shaping our global culture.

As such, we must carefully consider where this technology is leading us. The digital world of today is creating an intangible economy where ‘goods’ are just electric records, ‘services’ are just other computers that can execute a function, and ‘money’ is just a number in some account. The elusive nature of our world is exacerbated by consumer electronics that are fundamentally isolating machines. Think back to the student listening to music while walking to class. AirPods are designed to create a personal bubble; there is no better sign indicating “don’t talk to me now” than walking past someone with headphones in. But this discouragement of interaction has ramifications far beyond the pleasantness of being temporarily uninterrupted. These mobile technologies are driving us towards isolation in the guise of freedom and privacy.

Consumer electronics are neither ethically positive nor negative. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with AirPods. But imagine this: board and waiting in line to order food, you put on headphones to pass the time with music. If we universalize this, then every rational creature will put on headphones whenever an unfavorable social situation arises. Now that a large portion of the population is effectively isolated for a large portion of their lifespan, humans are unrecognizably anti-social creatures.

Imagine a slightly different scenario. You’re in a conversation with someone, and they pull out their phone to text someone else. Your friend has an imperfect duty to engage with you and respect your thoughts as you speak to them. But they also have an imperfect duty to respond to their other friend who texted them in a timely fashion. In this case, Kant's categorical imperative gives us no resolution as to which duty is more important. Social norms indicate that being physically present with another person precedes your relationship with someone over the internet, but that may soon change. As technology becomes increasingly personal, there becomes no reason to treat an “internet friend” any different than a friend across the table.

In a world without genuine and meaningful relationships, humans easily become means to an end. What value do friends have when, almost instantly, I can connect with anyone else in the world? Apps like Tinder have proven this to be true. We can find people, use them, and dispose of them just as quickly as we found them. Our textbook suggests that kind of technology is undermining the social nature of human beings by placing burdens on society at large. Because these devices (i.e. AirPods) and apps (i.e. Tinder) are engineered to be socially adoptive and personally addictive, we won’t notice their consequences until mounting suspicion is raised. Even then, users of the technology will rationalize their addiction to justify their behavior. Internet addition remains undiagnosable, but daily life makes it palpable. I see it everyday as I walk to class. People seldom respond to my gentle smile and instead return a blank stare, focused on whatever is being pumped into their ears. This technology isn’t enabling robots to take over, but it is turning us into robots.

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