Thursday, June 10, 2010

To Plug or Un-plug: Or, Rediscovering the Wonder and Privilege of Our Technology

It all started, as it sometimes does, with The Atlantic's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr.

It was pretty trendy a little while ago. The basic premise being that our recent obsession with digital media is changing our brains...bigtime. Especially our attention spans and our expectations for instant quality and quantity. I was reminded of it again when the other day he was on NPR for a great debate over the topic. On the one hand, you had him saying "unplug" we're losing out by being so digitized. His opponent kept saying "no way, this stuff is cool!!"

I have to straight-up agree with Carr in a lot of ways. (I'll go back and show how I also liked the other guy's view later...but first, Carr.) You can see his argument in a lot more than just the Internet, too. Just today, I was fiddling on my iPod a bit, absent-mindedly switching through song after song, looking for one that struck my fancy... and I stopped.

It occurred to me that 10 years ago the very idea of this was ludicrous. To jump from Beethoven, to Aerosmith, to the soundtrack to Fiddler on the quickly in such rapid succession... you'd need a massively expensive CD-disc changer, and even then your level of control was much less. But now, it's considered completely "normal" to be bored because you can't find the exact song that fulfills your momentary whim. And once the song is halfway over and you've had your moment, you can skip to the next one and start the cycle all over again.

It just makes you stop and say "wait a minute." Especially when you catch yourself being bored or annoyed that you have a whole 15 minutes of time where you're not entertained or bombarded with distraction. While I think it's fair to say the modern world has been headed this way for a good while now, in the past decade or so we've really outdone ourselves.

This is where step two comes in. This evening I picked up my copy of Heretics by G. K. Chesterton. (The one I mentioned in a previous post with the really nice cover, hidden by the bad dust jacket.) In the chapter I happen to pick up, it mentioned a quote by Lord Byron, that there are two types of people in the world "bores" and "the bored." But Chesterton goes on to say that it's the "bores, "that is, the boring people, are the ones with virtue, and it's the "bored" who are the real fools to be pitied. In the following pages he goes on to explain that there is no such thing as a boring object, only an uninterested person observing it. His point was that everything has meaning and interest, it's our fault if we don't see it. That sent up red flags in my head, considering what had happened earlier with the Carr essay, then the iPod...

...but wait, there's more. I was also listening to an old favorite lecture by John Granger, talking about the Orthodox Christian view of education (and with it a very healthy dose of apt criticism against the contemporary public school system). In it, he says one of the most important things to do is "kill your TV," because it's a non-stop wave of commercials and superficiality. At this point, I'm starting to sense a pattern...

But... I love the Internet. (I like my TV a lot, too.) Because it has stories on it. I like how I can learn about the Ming dynasty, then the French Revolution, then the works of Lewis Carrol, then who knows what... I love being able to post these blog entries and have a venue to put these little essays down. So I'm left to wonder, what's the balance here? I also see the ways that I spend way too much time starring into this screen rather than doing something physical. I see ways which it can trap someone. Most recently, I've really felt how it's sapped my attention span.

I think I have an answer though. Much like what Chesterton brought up, it's not about bad things so much as it is about bad people (ok, it's a stretch, but follow me). The Internet in itself is a great tool, but it's when we feel entitled to it, when we're tied to it, that it starts to kill us. It's the difference between the prince and the pauper. The prince who was raised in luxury is a stuck-up and over-pampered louse, when he had to work in the real world, he was indignant. The pauper who is allowed one day in the palace experiences every wonder he'd ever imagined, and was enjoyed himself and responded in gratitude.

So. The Internet. The iPod. The TV. The Cell Phone. All great stuff, with great potential. But danger too. We have to remember that this technology is a blessing, not a right. It's a wonder, not the baseline of our existence. If you can see it that way, it will be a tool which can aid you to incredible heights. If you don't and just let your passions roam free, then you'll just be a tool.

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