Thursday, September 8, 2011

Confessions of a Techno-Skeptic


I think it was Winston Churchill who said something to the effect of “I’ve had to eat many of my own words and I found them a tasty treat.” As anyone who knows me can testify, I’ve stood atop many a soap-box ranting about the collapse of human culture due to excessive television, videos, computers—and this was in the late 1980’s! My status as Luddite was confirmed long ago and only been modified slightly as the years went on. Though the first on my block to get an I-Pod for my travels, I’m often the last with everything else and mostly happily so. But now I have to publicly say:

“THE DIGITAL AGE ROCKS!!”

Why this burst of enthusiasm? Somebody e-mailed me a collection of photos of buses around the world that had been painted. If you Google BUS ART, I think you can find it. (This would be a perfect moment to show one of them on this Blog, but still in the dark as to uploading photos here—sorry!). 
But do take a look. Eyebrows painted over the bus wheels to make them look like eyes, a double-bus with accordion-like folds that become the actual folds of an accordion, a smoker painted over the exhaust pipe to look like he’s smoking. This just astounds me, the depth of the human imagination. On one hand, it’s just a little bit of fluff to help you smile through the day, but on the other, the things that I find or that people send to me often feed my faith in the unlimited potential of human imagination, whimsy and intelligence. There’s a lot of amazing things going on out there and now we have the capacity to find out about more of them than ever before.

I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about Youtube, that not only allows me to see Pygmy water-music in a river and all those old jazz clips that you know from your recent homework, but now has things that can add to public discourse, like some classroom-type history lessons about the Plessy-Ferguson and the Dred Scot case. There’s no denying the excitement of an expanded public knowledge, easily accessible at minimal cost and often with one thing leading to another (like the related videos off to the side on Youtube). It all serves a similar function to libraries, but with a wider data base, a more efficient search engine and the possibility of adding images and sound to the world of print. So hooray for it all!

And yet. The things I’ve worried about for over 20 years—screen-time replacing actual world-time, addiction to machines and hyper-speed, the soul’s aversion to bright lights and everything perfectly ordered—are as real as ever. Take speed. When I wrote the Winston Churchill quote from memory, I decided to cross-check on Google. 10 seconds later, I saw the real quote (In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I’ve always found it a wholesome diet.”)
But I could have gotten up, walked over to the bookshelves and found it in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Quotations, where I first saw it to begin with. And gotten a bit of exercise in the process.

The fantasy about increased speed is that it will give us more leisure, but let’s face it—after Googling all the quick answers and Face-booking last night’s dinner and answering the 30 e-mails (contrast to the one handwritten letter you used to get) and Blogging your thoughts about technology, nobody is lying on a beach in Hawaii. Or if they are, they’re Twittering photos of the big waves. All increased speed really gives us is a life of increased speed, which tends to make us busier than ever.

And I am indeed worried about the soul’s need for a certain slowness, a certain quality of boredom, a certain sensibility to look beyond the human world of hyper and shallow-communication and walk the streets with the head up, observing, taking in, smiling at passer-bys, noticing flowers and trees and birds and cloud patterns. I went to a soul-stirring movie last night—The Help—and the moment the theater lights went up, everyone in the theater was heads-down checking their messages. I mean while the credits were still rolling. No time to let the feelings settle, no look at their neighbor to begin a conversation, just BAM!”I wonder what I missed in my two-hours incommunicado with my world and who texted me?!!!” That can’t be good.

So all these hurrahs! and watch outs! for the Digital Age always boil down to the same challenge—the need to use our machines consciously so that we are not used by them. The right tool at the right time in the right place at the right cost in the right amount for the right reason. In-between “the salvation of mankind!” and “the end of human culture” lies the conversations we need to be having—real time and digitally—about the impact of these changes. Especially with the children we are raising, who, if we are not careful, may never know any life but one dominated by machines. The Jewish Community Center in SF will be sponsoring a panel discussion titled “Digital Overload” that will address these very questions. Dec. 6th. I’ll be there. Maybe it will be Podcast or streamed live! Without it even feeling ironic.

Meanwhile, check out that Bus Art. And then go out, hug a tree and talk to somebody.

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