Is Technology Still Scary?

“It’s not the technology that’s scary; it’s what it does to the relations between people that’s scary”
– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’ve been living in Silicon Valley for too long now to have first hand experience with people’s fear of technology. It’s important to look beyond this environment, and even beyond the western world, because the next big jump in technology usage will come from people who are not using much of it (if any) right now, in places like rural China and India. These people are slowly joining the ranks of the middle class, and so can gradually afford to buy mobile phones, iPods, TVs, and cars. Surprisingly enough, they learn how to use these products quickly and easily mainly because user experience design has made such amazing progress in the last few decades. Their fear of technology is masked by their eagerness to belong to the middle class. This pushes them to quickly adapt and become an indistinguishable part of it.

Pirsig was right about technology being ultimately not scary. He was also right about the human relationship part, although he didn’t anticipate the rise of the social networking and its effect on human interaction. All these new members of the middle class connect with each other through their computers and phones. Their usage patterns, much like ours, gives a new meaning to the word “friend”. While the world is getting flat, so does friendship. People whom I barely know are now connected to me on LinkedIn and Facebook. Maybe the best demonstration of flat friendships is Twitter, where people follow each other based on trends and activity levels rather than familiarity.

The notion of strangers having a peep hole into my life is odd. I obviously cannot rely on these “friends” for help in a time of need. Or maybe I can? Does the fact we’re “connected” have some merit beyond the few square nanometers of disk space that hold this information on Facebook’s database server? While this is an important question, a more interesting one is what will be the effect of flat friendships on tightly knit communities burgeoning into middle-classdom. These communities rely heavily on human interaction, which makes it fascinating to witness and understand how they embrace technology.