26 March 2014

As technology hurtles on, our lives are altered in ways we may not understand or accept. Some say that the pace of change is greater than ever and accelerating. Personal efforts to keep up are important for a confident, happy existence. Even those who do keep up often feel aspects of their human faculties wither and warp.

Yet there’s not always time, space and support to comfortably come to terms with it all. It’s a widely held feeling and one which can unsettle and alienate us.

So, Phillida, a fellow tinkerer, and I devised a thinking retreat for concerned individuals, named Technology for Humans. We found a calm, green setting for a two day, residential getaway with varied discussions and workshops prepared for the group of ten who joined us earlier this month.

It was a place for people to think and learn about the effects of prevalent trends, the internet, ubiquitous mobiles, surveillance and other issues mostly on the subject of digital technology. We asked them to voice their questions, share their answers, express intuitions and make decisions on it all.

Case by case, step by step

Sharing encryption skills.

We focused on specific technologies, like email, took time to understand more, unearthed lesser seen implications and reassessed it on our own terms. In the last year, Snowden and company showed us how email has become an unprecedented tool for mass surveillance.

But people are often lost for a constructive response on the matter. This was a chance to consider and demystify our feelings and propose personal changes.

One such change is to learn email encryption, a first step to regaining privacy of your data. Having discussed the email problem, we offered participants an encryption workshop which most gladly took up, some joining cryptopals.org in support of the culture.

With reflection, confidence and application, we must make technology suit our demands and ideals.

Technology at what cost?

Technology can bring efficiency and delight, but with other outcomes. It transforms human communication without illuminating the ramifications and alters relations with our intellectual faculties, memory, attention and more.

We sought to examine these aspects too. Exercises in memory making and reflection on forms lost in the digital age were intended to remind and reconnect us. We produced our own memory palaces as a means of exploring and building that ageing but quite extraordinary technology.

Fictional scenarios were played out to make contemplation more vivid.

Other modes and senses were honoured with activities such as blinded tours and role-play future fictions to stimulate the imagination.

Thinking time in a nearby future

The event was a model for a longer, deeper retreat tackling these difficult, neglected questions. We know that people need opportunities to upgrade their understanding and reposition themselves.

The strange shapes of the future will keep on reconfiguring our lives and thoughts. As they do so, training will be useful to all who wish to meet them with confidence, nous and humanity.

We are working on precisely that.