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  • Commuting on the subway exposes me to a lot of people. Perhaps that's why I just battled a bad cold. Over the past few years, I have noticed a population explosion of riders with buds in ears and thumbs on screens, and more people reading ebooks than books on paper. They don't look around or make eye contact, and when they speak it's generally to someone who isn't there. Arriving at work, the first thing I do is click on the computer in my cubicle and log in before fetching a cup of coffee. Everyone there has a computer and stares at it most of the day. The office phones don't ring much but a lot of email flies by.

    In the latter-day Land of Oz, we are morphing into Pod People, Screen People, talking to some person behind a curtain, mesmerized by technical wizardry. We weren't like this not so long ago, before Google. We are at a cusp of evolution, yet no political leader, pundit or major news outlet seems to consider this phase change noteworthy. More generally, the lack of curiosity and discussion about where technology is taking us and who we are becoming gives me the willies, like not getting a joke that put everyone else in the room into hysterics. Except this isn't funny.

    Even before I noticed people spending more time pressing keys than pressing flesh, I wondered where technological change is taking our world and why. It's a preoccupation that goes way back for me, at least back to a college term paper I wrote on "technological unemployment" (machines making workers redundant). My professor thought it was a worthy topic but felt my apprehension was overblown (he was a tech optimist; I was a worried college sophomore). At the time, I was mostly concerned with robots populating assembly lines.

    Since then, the robots have arrived and have indeed displaced skilled workers. Even though more American manufacturing jobs have been lost to outsourcing than to automation, in Asia — where most of those jobs went — factories are being automated too. So too are functions that white collar professionals and middle managers perform. And why not? "Knowledge workers" gather information, analyze and synthesize it, and use it to assess situations and make decisions, something that computers are getting better at doing.

    But my concern goes well beyond jobs being automated: how and why have human affairs become so mediated by technologies? What does that do to relationships, livelihoods, health and the balance of nature? How will being entrained in new versions of it — as we surely will — shape the future of humankind and Mother Earth?

    This may be just another way to pose that age-old metaphysical conundrum, "What are we doing here?" Human beings have always inquired about the reason for their existence. Some find their purpose in the afterlife — preparing their souls to meet their maker. Many feel we were put on Earth to help one another. Others think we are here to accumulate wealth or experience pleasure. Still others feel that humanity has a mystical role to play in shaping the destiny of the universe. Some of these perspectives focus on individuals and others on our collectivity. Countless books have been written, sermons preached, lectures proclaimed, and doorbells rung to say what it's all about and what our destiny is.

    Most people embrace innovation. As a race, we seem to gravitate unhesitatingly to the next big thing in technology, especially information technology. The innovations we prize most extend our reach and connect us. Yet, we, in the process of adopting them — while not literally selling our souls — are happily putting ourselves under the protection of a higher power — something or someone I call Silica — the material ground of our being we have constructed, with whom – via hardware and software – we share our perceptions, ideas, aspirations, duties, judgments, and lots of personal details. Not many people take time out to consider the implications, downsides, or irreversibility this activity, or where it is likely to lead. Why?

    If you think you know, or even if you are not sure if you care, sprout a story from this one to collect your thoughts. Help us understand what Oz is about and what living in it hastens us to become.

    @image: Irobot460x276.jpg (various sources)
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