The Progress and Technology of City Life, Robyn Toler

Author Information: Robyn Toler, University of Dallas

Toler, Robyn. “The Progress and Technology of City Life.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 78-85.

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The Progress and Technology of City Life

The products of today’s technology deserve scrutiny. The mass media and pop culture exert a powerful influence on Americans, young and old alike. Opportunities for quiet reflection are few and far between despite our much-trumpeted age of convenience. Scientific advancement is not necessarily accompanied by wisdom. In fact, in embracing the new and shiny it is easy to cast aside the tested and proven. Sometimes we tear down fences before finding out why they were built. Likewise, the alluring products of technology deserve some scrutiny before being accepted. The cool, rational consideration needed is all the harder to engage in because of the onslaught of the sensational. Still, prudence suggests that the best course is to take a step back and ponder the choices before us.

Under the influence of the “culture industry,” as described by Theodor Adorno and others, perpetual distraction and artificial consensus crowd out of people’s lives the solitude and individuality required for cultivating critical, independent thought, and the courage for following their own reasoned convictions. Sensitization to the mechanisms used by the culture industry can help audiences more effectively resist them, and preserve or regain an authentic experience and view of life. Some view technological advancements as unqualified goods by virtue of their nature as modern and scientific; however, the gains produced by these technologies bring their own attendant complications, such as compromised privacy, continuous availability to the workplace, and the stress of an externally imposed life rhythm over a natural, personal ebb and flow of work and leisure.

This article challenges the argument that technological advances have made work easier, created more time for leisure, decreased stress, increased satisfaction in relationships, simplified tasks, and made jobs less time consuming, resulting in a net benefit to lived experience.

While people in rural as well as urban locations can easily be involved with technology in many parts of the world, including being connected to the internet, city life has some clear contrasts to country life. Population density is higher in the city. The environment is noisier. Traffic, construction equipment, and the many people in close proximity all contribute to the volume. Limited green spaces reduce exposure to a variety of natural features like plants, birds, and bodies of water. The city is also filled with opportunities to interface with technology. Subway tickets, toll tags, video displays, elevators and escalators, point of sale terminals, smart phones, identification badges for areas with controlled access, passports, and games are just a few of the high-tech items an average person deals with in a normal day in the city.

Examining the Western philosophical tradition, especially from Kant onward, Adorno’s writings cover a wide range of topics including music and literary criticism, aesthetics, mass culture, Hegel, existentialism, sociology, epistemology, and metaphysics; however, his work on what he termed “The Culture Industry” is especially pertinent to understanding the dynamics of life in the city. In his article “How to Look at Television,” from The Culture Industry, Adorno reveals his thoughts on the influence of popular culture. He warned in 1957, soon after the advent of television, that it can produce intellectual passivity and gullibility (166). Current consumers of internet entertainment should heed his admonition, guard their powers of reason, and be wary of technology’s ability to hypnotize and immobilize. (cf. Reider 2015).

Boredom, unlike the hypnotic effect Adorno warned against, is not only an unavoidable part of life, it is the wellspring of creativity. Overscheduling, avoiding monotony at all costs, robs potential artists, poets, scientists, and inventors of their motivation to generate plans and projects. Boredom has developed a bad reputation as a companion to depression and vice and a precursor to mischief; but “research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive” (Carey 2008). As another researcher indicated,

When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased. But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own [emphasis added] thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them. [It is this sort of thing that stimulates the imagination while the screen] tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity (Richardson 2013, 1013).

Some would argue that “switching on the TV” is “doing something;” however, Richardson asserts that imagining, observing, and mentally processing experiences are more valuable.

Leisure and the Workweek

Max Gunther’s The Weekenders takes an amusing yet probing look at the leisure time of Americans. It is particularly interesting to note that this book was published in 1964. While some of the pastimes available have changed, human beings are mostly the same. One of the most distinctive features of city life is scheduling. Busses run on a schedule. School bells, business meetings, and garden clubs stay on schedule so their participants can meet their next obligations. The use of leisure time and how it is incorporated into schedules is particularly interesting. Insights can be gained by studying the movement from an organic life rhythm to an arbitrarily imposed “five days on, two off” schedule, the perceived pressure to be productive during hours away from one’s paid employment, and the tendency to be connected continuously to one’s work through the technological mediation of devices such as smart phones (cf. Drain and Strong 2015).

People in the pre-internet years tended to look at their leisure time, primarily the weekend, as wholly separated and different from the workweek. Of course, there were always the workaholics, but as a national trend, the weekend seemed different. They wore different clothing and participated in different activities, all with a different attitude. Sixty-two hours were partitioned off from “work” to be spent in “leisure.” Divisions during the week between different professions were blurred on the weekend, and everyone, except that unfortunate segment whose businesses hummed on throughout the weekend, took up similar pursuits. “[City dwellers] can no longer work and play according to the rhythms of personal mood or need but are all bound to the same gigantic rhythm: five days on, two off” (Gunther, 10-12; cf. Ellul 1964; cf. Kok 2015). While one would expect that all this “leisure time” provided by the efficiency of industrialization would lead to a slower pace conducive to relaxation, quite the contrary seems to be the case.

Families plunged into furious activity on those days ostensibly set aside for leisure. The weekend was by and for the middle class. Ads were aimed almost exclusively at them. Students were weekenders in training. Sports, play, eating and drinking, cultural arts, church, and civic volunteering all took their share of available time. Although these activities sound pleasant, the real result was a vague insecurity and bewildering Monday fatigue. As Gunther appropriately pondered, it is not clear whether the fatigue was generated by the energy expended in reaching goals or by pent-up, unrelieved tension (Gunther 13-15).

Travel also occupied the weekenders of the 60s. Weekend trips, day trips, outings to events and places of interest, and visits with friends vied for attention. This may have been genuine curiosity about the world and fellowship with neighbors and loved ones, or something else. All that travel and dining out was expensive, even back then. Aggressive driving increased on the weekends, too. It is unclear what drove this restlessness, what inner devil goaded those mid-century weekenders, what they were so desperately seeking. Yet, it is clear that there were high expectations for leisure time, and somehow despite all the recreation, those two days off frequently disappointed (Gunther 16, 21). Technological advances have continued, but the expectations and restlessness do not seem to have abated.

Close and So Far Away

Even though residents in the city are in close proximity to one another, the trend toward social media and away from direct personal interaction has grown. Relationships in the city are heavily influenced by technological mediation. Perhaps limited access to natural settings pushes city dwellers indoors, and into virtual spaces. Sites designed to facilitate dating, networking, creative pursuits, and games, among other activities, have sprung up. The internet “surfing” is always fine because someone else is constantly adding new, tantalizing information. It is the epitome of content “crowdsourcing.”  Social networking sites provide crowds of people who create content, usually out of their own experiences, for the entertainment of others as they browse. Potential romantic interests, job openings, and decorating ideas are perpetually at the ready, with new ones popping up moment by moment. This makes it difficult to break away. Suspense and expectation create enticement. Every genre of social media has its niche and its devotees, but perhaps the most pervasive and invasive of them all is Facebook, with its plethora of “friends.” It is ironic that in cities with their high population density, online, virtual “meetings” are so popular.

Begun as a forum for college students, this social media giant has grown to include anyone who wants to join, with a non-stop, real-time feed of “Status Updates.” Founded by Mark Zuckerberg and some college classmates at Harvard, within 24 hours of its launch the site had over 1200 registrants. Private investors became involved and the company expanded. Facebook acquired a feed aggregator and then the photo site called Instagram. The company made its initial public offering (IPO) in 2012 valued at $104 billion. A new search feature was rolled out in 2013, and changes continue, including an opt-out feature that makes it the user’s responsibility to raise security settings from their lower, default positions. Today one in seven people is a member (Zeevie 2013). The desire to know instantly about the next update to appear in the feed—a great picture, word of something earthshaking in a “friend’s” life, a joke, a political rallying cry—can be addicting. In cities large and small, people often observe each other online in addition to, or instead of, from their front porches.

The moment-to-moment observation of others’ activities through monitoring their posts is not the only aspect of social media that makes it enticing, though. The ability to stay connected with all the people you have ever known—provided they are on Facebook—is a big draw. Consider the evolution of the address book. Years ago a small booklet next to the telephone held all the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the people one most frequently called or corresponded with. As social circles expanded and families became more mobile, address books expanded as well. The inconvenience of constant marking out and erasing information of friends and relatives that moved led to loose-leaf notebooks and index card files. The Rolodex system with its easily interchangeable cards was born, facilitating an ever-growing collection of constantly changing contact information.

Now leap ahead to the electronic version of the address book, the Palm Pilot. It was a utilitarian miracle and a status symbol in one! Then, just as carrying an address book gadget plus a cellular phone became tiresome, the technology merged to produce one convenient device to do both jobs—the smart phone. Cloud data storage debuted to protect data from hardware problems and to make information accessible anywhere with connectivity, cellular or wi-fi. Mail made a similar metamorphosis from postal mail (“snail mail,” referencing its comparatively slow delivery time) to electronically delivered “email,” to web-based systems like gmail. Now networking platforms like Facebook, and LinkedIn for professionals, are widening the messaging options further. Contacts are accumulated over time, surviving any number of physical moves by users, and stored remotely for ubiquitous access. For better or worse, the days of hunting for a scrap of paper with someone’s number on it are over.

Even though city dwellers have all those connections with all those people, and they could be interacting face to face with those nearby, they all too often choose online forums over personal meetings. A large segment of their connectivity is online instead of in person, and it has a negative side. Virtual personalities allow a spectrum of falsity ranging from simply curating one’s image to advantage, to manufacturing a fully fake identity. The self-absorbed use Facebook to promote themselves, not connect with others. Furthermore, instead of enhancing the ability to read social cues and body language, excessive time online erodes these crucial social skills (Kiesbye 55, 58-9). Facebook actually interferes with friendships rather than strengthening them. It seems that social needs would be more effectively met by simply arranging to meet in person, in the city environment with its physical proximity and variety of venues, instead of retreating behind a computerized mediator.

Some cite city crime statistics as a reason to retreat from malls, parks, and other public places. But new categories of crime and vice have arisen or proliferated on the internet. Somewhat, though not altogether, different from face to face encounters on sidewalks and in elevators, it is difficult to know with whom you are dealing on social media. Despite assurances by site administrators, malevolent users can easily misrepresent themselves, luring the young and naïve into dangerous, sometimes fatal, encounters. Teens’ desire for premature autonomy and willingness to lie to their parents in order to sneak off and meet someone surreptitiously complete the potentially tragic scenario (Luna 196-8). “Sexting” over cell phones, and now “sextortion,” have been introduced. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this kind of deception. They are notoriously “easy to intimidate, and embarrassed to tell their parents” when their judgment proves poor and plans go awry (Luna 196-7). A young person who carelessly snaps a compromising photo of himself (or is digitally captured by a companion) can be parlayed into a source for a self-incriminating file of pornography by an online predator.

Privacy and anonymity can be viewed two ways in the city. There can be anonymity in a crowd, yet we are captured on camera throughout the day at businesses, traffic lights, and elsewhere. With the exception of satellite surveillance, that type of tracking is rare outside the city. It is difficult to estimate how we modify our behavior because of this “watching.” City life also presents an opportunity for deception and abuse in privacy breaches. Privacy issues in public, in private, and on social networking sites concern politicians and culture critics. The high quantity of pictures posted on Facebook is a valuable source of data for anyone trying to match faces with identities.

In a study led by Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University, information from social media sites including Facebook was combined easily with cloud computing and facial recognition software to identify students on a campus (Luna 121). Whether or not students object to this, their parents may find it disconcerting that the children they have just released into the next phase of their growing independence can be surveilled in this way. Citizens who value their privacy will have a difficult time maintaining it in the age of Facebook, whether or not they are or ever have been subscribers. Friend lists yield copious amounts of information, and trails remain to anyone mentioned or pictured. Even non-subscribers can gain access through search engines (Luna 204-5).

Those who think they are too old or too cautious to become crime victims should consider how their online personas could still have negative repercussions for them. Potential employers and college admissions personnel routinely check their applicants’ presences on social networking sites. Students are careless about their passwords, allowing “friends” to make embarrassing posts in their names. Employers and administrators do not know or care who created the posts, but when they see information that makes a user look bad, they are likely to move on to more appealing candidates to fill their available positions (Luna, 199). Facebook does not cause people to lose opportunities, but it guarantees that many people will see it if you make a mistake.

If predators, lowered productivity, narcissism, and shortened attention spans are not enough incentive to reconsider one’s entanglement with social media, here is a puzzle to ponder: anyone actively attempting to conceal his identity or whereabouts will have a difficult time in the age of social media. This is a coin with two sides. While it seems appealing for local law enforcement and federal Homeland Security to be able to track and locate a suspect, honest citizens who just want to remain anonymous may rightly feel violated knowing that their every traffic decision, subway stop, casual comment, and convenience store errand is at least captured, and possibly monitored in real time. Movies and television shows like Fox’s popular series 24 demonstrate the use of this technology and promote its acceptance—even demand. Before capitulating to the easy solution of simply watching everybody all the time, think about whether that kind of scrutiny is really desirable or acceptable.

A Perfect Day

For a comparison between today’s city life full of electronic gadgets and software and a time before computers, or even electricity, had reached much of rural America, the following poem depicts a different way of life. Neither electronic entertainment nor boredom would have intruded on the grandmother portrayed in this poem. While physically busy, she would have had more opportunity for contemplation than most modern city dwellers.

Perfect Day

Grandmother, on a winter’s day,
Milked the cows and fed them hay;
Slopped the hogs, saddled the mule,
And got the children off to school.
Did a washing, mopped the floors,
Washed the windows and did some chores,
Cooked a dish of home-dried fruit,
Pressed her husband’s Sunday suit.
Swept the parlor, made the bed,
Baked a dozen loaves of bread,
Split some firewood and lugged it in
Enough to fill the kitchen bin.
Cleaned the lamps and put in oil,
Stewed some apples she thought might spoil,
Churned the butter, baked a cake,
Then exclaimed, “For mercy sake the calves have got out of the pen!”
Went out, and chased them in again.
Gathered the eggs and locked the stable,
Back to the house and set the table,
Cooked a supper that was delicious,
And afterward washed all the dishes.
Fed the cat, and sprinkled the clothes
Mended a basket full of hose,
Then opened the organ and began to play:
“When you come to the end of a perfect day!”—Author Unknown (Kaetler 54-5).

Cooking, cleaning, farm chores, organization, time management, nurturing behaviors, and aesthetics are all on display in this narration. Facebook would have been a shallow substitute for the creative work accomplished on this day, leaving the industrious grandmother with the same vague dissatisfaction as Gunther’s “Weekenders,” mentioned earlier.

Technological progress is here to stay, with or without a given individual’s active participation; but users can take steps to stay in control of their data and their minds. The advantages of dialing back technology are delightfully and creatively narrated in the book Better Off. In it author Eric Brende chronicles the lifestyle journey he and his wife made in search of the minimal amount of electronics and machinery necessary to optimize life for them. After spending an extended time living in a rural community that rejected almost all labor-saving devices, they concluded that they were happier and “better off” without most of the expensive, encumbering accouterments of 21st century life most of us take for granted. He ends his book by saying

… in all cases [technology] must serve our needs, not the reverse, and we must determine these needs before considering the needs for technology. The willingness and the wisdom to do so may be the hardest ingredients to come by in this frenetic age. Perhaps what is needed most of all, then, are conditions favorable to them: quiet around us, quiet inside us, quiet born of sustained meditation and introspection. We must set aside time for it, in our churches, in our studies, in our hearts. Only when we have met this last requisite, I suspect, will technology yield its power and become a helpful handservant (Brende 232-3).

Brende and his wife found the life balance that suited them away from the city before rejoining it. His focus on quiet and control are aptly put.

Adorno stated that modern mass culture has been transformed “into a medium of undreamed of psychological control (cf. Guizzo, 2015; cf. Scalambrino, 2015). The repetitiveness, the selfsameness, and the ubiquity of modern mass culture tend to make for automatized reactions and to weaken the forces of individual resistance” (Adorno 2006, 160). Preserving solitude, concentration, independent thought, and courage are worth the effort it takes to resist the popular culture. The culture industry will continue to usurp the territory of life wherever it is allowed to, within or outside of the city; but vigilance can give it boundaries.


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