The Defected Computernerd
An interview with Carsten Graff regarding the philosophy of Computers.
Computers were developed in order to save time, but in businesses, in schools and homes hours, weeks and months are wasted saving time in front of the screen. There is a word for this, futz. To futz means to be busy without accomplishing anything. We futz when we use months and weeks trying to learn how to operate new advanced systems – systems that are outdated before we have a chance to get used to them. It's futz when a doctor is no longer able to make appointments because the computer is “down”. It's futz when we access the internet to look for something and wind up forgetting what we were looking for in order to spend hours finding nothing. It’s futz when we get lost in a help facility on the computer. It’s also futz when everyone panics because a power outage forces a business to go on hold.
In a modern office or school, a piece of paper stuck in a printer can force huge groups of people to sit for hours without doing anything, writes Carsten Graff in his book which is meant as an antidote to our semi-blind obsession with information technology. The book's title is "The Separation Society". It is an outrageously ironic essay on our fascination with complicated systems that can do much more than we have a need for. It exposes our societies uncritical attempts to register and formalize everything – our fascination with phones, computer games, e-mail and the obsession with surfing the Internet.
Carsten was inspired to write the book under an old tree in a cemetery in Copenhagen. The atmosphere in a cemetery is an inspiring contrast to modern technology. In a cemetery myths and superstitions still, live. There is no television, no computer networks, and no electric lights. The book is shaped as a dialogue between an old tree that represents wisdom and acumen in contrast to modern society's glorification of knowledge and information.
“Current society is created out of a dream of a perfect and straightforward world”, Carsten Graff says. “But the hunger for knowledge, information and control has no soul. It has taken possession of our imagination, our habits and our lives.”
Carsten Graff is a defected computer nerd. He didn’t learn much at school and his teachers thought he would not amount to anything. Years later he managed to change his direction in life and got a Masters degree in computer science. In the years to come his field of expertise was communication and multimedia-based training. While travelling most of the world he was hired to install new advanced computer systems in businesses while teaching managers how to use them.
When Carsten Graff got his first computer he too succumbed to its power to fascinate. At home, he retreated behind a locked door with his computer. He developed new computer programs, played games, and almost forgot to eat. All his money where spend buying new technology. Within this period of his life, he lived in the hope that one day he would become one with technology. Graff's vocabulary multiplied and made him unbearable company for others. "I couldn’t talk about anything else but computers and probably suffered from what later has been called cyber-psychosis. Naturally, my girlfriend couldn't stand it and after having been a computer widow for some months she finally left me."
A few years later a good friend of Carstens died of AIDS and Carsten plunged into a depression. This was the start of a journey of discovery that got him to see the world in a quite different perspective. During this very difficult part of his life, he was confronted with many existential questions and started asking himself what joy he had from being an expert in communication when he wasn’t even able to talk about his own emotional problems.
For some years Carsten Graff wrote essays in the newspapers talking about the drawbacks of information technology. The essays would deal with computers in the school system, in journalism, in literature, in hospitals or how technology influences the relationship between men and women. During this time shockwaves were felt throughout the world of technology in Denmark and Carsten became one of Denmark's most popular lecturers. "In newspapers, books, and television we primarily talk about the advantages of information technology,” says Carsten Graff. He was so shocked by the immature conclusions of the experts that he threw himself into the technology debate wholeheartedly. "Everywhere people referred to me as a Luddite and for a time I was the victim of violent attacks in the media. I soiled my own nest as they say and was given the same treatment as doctors who criticize doctors. Evidently, there is always a fuss when someone criticizes their own profession,'' Carsten says.
"I have met many teachers who have become computer experts and have forgotten why they wanted to teach,” Carsten says. “Computers and telephones destroy our focus, which – when it comes to teachers – should be on the pupils. Technology is not bad, but technology easily makes us believe that we can legitimately show an interest in a machine instead of a person. Dealing with hardware and software might not always be easy, but on the emotional plane dealing with the logic and rationality the computers represents makes us feel safe. This applies to many contexts. Technology has advantages but is also often a shield that stops us from doing something that is otherwise unpleasant or challenging on an emotional level. Many teachers are totally taken in by technology and its ability to fascinate. Almost nobody can do their daily work if they do not have access to a computer. The screen should be a window to the world but has become a place you can shield and hide if you don’t want to confront your self or the world around you. I do not wish for a society without computers. The computer is here to stay. But I can point out that it perhaps cuts us off from some important things that can't be concretized in words, numbers, and formulas. One might call this wisdom, in contrast to knowledge. Wisdom is everything that can't be chopped up and controlled. The computer is a temptation. It allows us to believe that we need the absolute latest. It is part of human nature to constantly feel that one lacks something without knowing fully what it is. The computer offers control. It is exciting per se to control a machine – perhaps more exciting than being able to actually do something with it.
The computer is advanced, and therefore we usually blame ourselves if we do not understand it. At the same time, a computer makes it acceptable for grownups to play. We are fascinated because “Isn't it incredible that such things are possible!'' The quantity of information is growing and it's getting too much for us. It costs almost nothing to store information technologically. When we used paper we were careful to keep things in order. Now we can't decide what to throw away which is the reason that we are now victims of getting lost in the information that we produced to help each other.
So we discover that progress and complexification are close relatives. According to Carsten Graff our use of the mobile phone is primarily an illustration of our anxiety of being alone. “One day it might be possible to install a mobile phone directly in the brain. This would create the basis of a kind of technology-based telepathy, but do we want to be able to reach one another solely through the power of thought? One might be tempted to do this, but think of the piles of messages that will be dumped upon you at any time of day. Think of all the ads you will receive. You'll have no escape and will be left totally to others' mercy. We shudder at the thought that people can't get hold of us,” Carsten continues: “We are more and more worried about missing out on something. But the person who takes a walk along the beach while staring at his or her telephone is precisely the one who is missing something. What he or she is missing is what I have been trying to focus on while writing Seperation Society.