“It has become appalingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” –Albert Einstein
Einstein was mostly talking about the bomb, and how we don’t have the maturity to handle such a powerful weapon wisely. His thought applies equally well to that other insidious invention of the last century, electronic entertainment.
I was thinking of this again this week as I read a brief new essay at City Journal, Adam Thierer’s even-handed, thoughtful review of the new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. Lanier writes persuasively, Thierer agrees, about the need for caution and analysis in our application of online technology, but he also singles out some of Lanier’s major themes and disagrees with them. In this, Thierer’s review is faulty: when he tries to rebut Lanier’s points, he falls into a trap of contrarian clichés, asserting blindly that Lanier is wrong:
Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.
It’s interesting that Thierer uses Neil Postman as one of his references as a promulgator of the “mythical ‘good ol’ days,'” when much of Postman’s most popular book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, establishes quite firmly that general literacy and attention spans used to be significantly greater than they have been since the introduction of mental-labor saving devices during the 20th century. Thierer commits his greatest fallacy, though, when he asserts that “despite the hand-wringing and occasional ‘techno-panics,’ we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too.”
This is patently false.
Thierer seems to base his claim in the fact that technology critics predict dire consequences, yet we’re all still here, therefore the prophets of doom are wrong. But nobody ever said that turning over more and more of our intellectual autonomy to electronic toys would completely destroy us (except, of course, for The Terminator, The Matrix, and pretty much everything Michael Crichton wrote), but that it would result in a world increasingly sterile in its mental acumen. Is there any way to deny that that’s exactly what’s happened?
This week I watched an episode of PBS’s Frontline, from just last month, called “Digital Nation.” It’s a stunning documentary about how the minds and lives of young people have been fundamentally changed by their sudden and total immersion in an electronic entertainment technology climate. While the filmmakers do include segments on the positive benefits of such technology, the balance of the piece is decidedly cautionary. One segment at MIT documents a study that shows how decreased our brain’s effectiveness is when focus is split by all the toys and gadgets we now thrive on (like an intermediate step in evolution toward becoming Borg). Another segment, this one from Stanford, shows how much harder our minds have to work to function moderately well when overexposed to the Internet. And the part about rampant video game addiction in South Korea, and their government’s efforts to combat this very real epidemic, is just shocking.
Find out more about this amazing work–and watch the entire episode online–here.
One is reminded of the hilarious second season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise encounters the Pakleds, an alien race that appears to collectively have the brainpower of a slow child, yet has access to impressively awesome technology. Tragedy nearly results when they get so greedy to keep collecting more of their fun toys that they resort to violence to keep up the life they’re used to. All their repeated declarations of, “We are smart!” fail to make it true. (Shades of Einstein here?)
The other ironic thing about Thierer’s mention of Postman is that Postman, of course, wasn’t criticizing computers. He was criticizing television. Postman tracked the correlated decline in American literacy with the spread of image-based entertainment. Does the development of computers as the dominant mode of electronic media somehow prove Postman wrong, as Thierer suggests when he say that we “somehow evolve and endure?” Not at all. The fact that we change along with our omnipresent electronics in no way proves that those changes are positive.
If Thierer would point to the many cultural shifts throughout history that coincide with the advent of new technologies as evidence of his claim, I might illustrate my refutation by saying that a sixth-century citizen of Rome could have rattled off a long list of things that make their life superior to that of their ancestors four centuries earlier (Christianity, larger governmental functions, a more diverse society, perhaps), but such a list would be subjective. From our more remote point of view, we can clearly see that, overall, the earlier generations of the empire enjoyed a civilization far better than that of their descendants.
Postman, like most such critics have always done, called for a deep conversation about the effects, the uses and abuses, of electronic entertainment technology. For decades, only the fringes of our society wrung their hands about the deleterious consequences of television, for example. But was anything resolved? Was there a broad consensus? Was there responsible change? No, we merely got used to the lower intelligence, the slack standards, and we laughed it off as we looked ahead to the next great toy on the horizon, the computer. The fact that we have continued to indulge in ever more invasive technologies without general scrutiny or skepticism is not something to be touted in technology’s favor, it’s a source of great shame to us, a neon scarlet letter branding us as unforgivably immature. What would Einstein, that technology critic who thought that television was a passing fad, say if he were around to survey the wreckage that is our mental landscape today?
Our cultural evolution continually accumulates, snowballs, rushing toward a singularity that I cannot imagine, before there is even an attempt to adequately absorb or assimilate how our fundamental nature has changed. A Dilbert cartoon pokes fun at the idea that a store could have a garbage bin out front for you to throw your new computer into, because by the time you get outside, the computer you’ve just bought is already obsolete. That scenario is much scarier when the obsolete product isn’t isolated, but a series of external manipulators that assault our understanding of knowledge, relationships, values, and mortality itself, each giving way to another while we still reel from the effects of the last (enthralled, though, in the blissful ecstasy of the electronic junkie’s oblivion).
For the last two years, I’ve debated with myself if I should scrap the summer reading assignment I currently use with my honors classes–a list that leads students through a sequence of speeches, essays, and other documents that shows them how America’s devotion to literacy has changed over time–and just assign them Thoreau’s Walden instead, as I now see the message of that book–the rejection of society’s hyper-urban status quo in a quest to remain true to the self–as even more relevant to my students’ needs now. Congratulations, Thierer, Lanier, Frontline, and Einstein; you’ve now convinced me to start using Walden.
The current issue of the Ensign has a presciently pertinent article on this topic, “Digital Detachment and Personal Revelation,” which reads in part:
Being constantly “plugged in” can drown out the quiet whisperings and subtle impressions of the Holy Spirit, breaking our personal connection with God and making it difficult, if not impossible, to receive personal revelation….
While modern technological advancements can enhance the work of the Lord and bless us and our families, we must be careful not to fall victim to their destructive side. We must not only avoid the base and degrading content some sources contain, but we must also recognize when electronic distractions keep us from quieter, more significant uses of our time. We must guard against becoming so attached to digital devices that we become detached from God.
On a final note, among the improvements that Lanier says he’d like to see as an improvement over our current environment is this: “Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.” (21) I hope that my humble contributions to this great conversation are worthy of such a standard.