Whenever I get an error message that says something like, “The object you are looking for doesn’t exist,” I’m suddenly filled with existential dread.
Let’s say that you’ve had a late 90’s model Compaq Presario computer moldering away in your closet for the last few years now. Then, let’s assume for a moment that you’ve been in the mood for some decluttering this summer, and want to get rid of it.
In fact, the only reason you haven’t done so yet is because you’re so paranoid about identity theft and such things that you’re worried about letting it leave your possession, even in the trash or if the hard drive was reformatted.
So, maybe you’d finally figure out a way to satisfy your fears on that point. Maybe it would even be a way that would lead to an original and exciting activity for the whole family.
Every silly little thing you do on a computer will be preserved permanently and come back to embarrass you dozens of years from now, but anything truly important that you’re working on is liable to fall victim to some accident that deletes it from the universe forever! How does this electronic machine know to save your grungy college pictures somewhere, but to crash just as you’re finishing that big report for your boss?
“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. Continue reading