A few hours after I fired off my last post (“True Grit”) to B2L2, I cracked the February 14 & 21, 2011, issue of The New Yorker and discovered, to my great delight, a piece by staff writer Adam Gopnik titled “The Information.”
I was delighted because “The Information” addresses the curious state of being I’d touched on in my previous post – the calm and, well, happiness I’d begun to feel after several days of life without the Internet.
Mr. Gopnik’s essay is an overview of the arguments for and against the “wraparound presence” of the Internet, and also includes his thoughts on several new books that argue, among other things, “why books no longer matter.”
The author, whose contributions to The New Yorker have included non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism, explicates this thorny subject with wit and erudition. (Any essay that manages to fold the electric toaster, Tolkien and Jerry Seinfeld into a think-piece on consciousness and technology is worth a look, in my opinion.)
“The Information” is a marvelous précis of the history of information technologies from Gutenberg to Google. But Gopnik’s own conclusions about the dangers and benefits of our hyperconnected age are well worth repeating, I think. A few examples:
“ … [T]he real gains and losses of the Internet era are to be found not in altered neurons or empathy tests but in the small changes of mood, life, manners, feelings it creates – in the texture of the age.”
“… [T]he peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet … has less to do with being harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.”
And my favorite:
“Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that.”
Television, Gopnik notes, was blasted for decades as the malevolent technology that would eventually rob us of our inner lives:
“Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch ‘Entourage.’ TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent.”
I would substitute “American Idol” for “Entourage,” but, demographic nitpicking aside, it’s a sound assessment of the medium. Television is better than ever, and not just because technology has advanced to the point where most viewers have dozens, if not hundreds, of channels from which to choose.
It’s better because generations have now grown up with television as a part of their daily lives, and a significant number of smart, creative people have devoted their careers to exploring the possibilities of the medium.
“The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user,” Gopnik writes. It’s a subtle scolding, and we deserve it. We all know how to turn off our machines. We all know that gorging ourselves on anything is unwise, whether it’s cheeseburgers, HBO or the Internet.
I don’t want to give up my television or my computer. I need them. They’re valuable tools.
At the same time, I’ve already experienced, to a discomfiting degree, the ease with which one can become marooned on the couch with a death grip on the remote or lost in the badlands of hyperconnectivity.
Perhaps there’s a backlash on the way. It’s unlikely any of our technological genies will be returned to their bottles, but it’s certainly possible we might revolt against their intrusion on our psyches.
“Thoughts are bigger than the things that deliver them,” Gopnik maintains. “Our contraptions may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those.”
As long as our credos follow from a desire for reason and justice, we’re fine. If the spirit of the age seems deficient in those ideals, we can’t blame technology.
The fate of civilization as we know it won’t be determined by machines. If human beings still exist a thousand years from now, it will be because somewhere along the way we had the courage and strength to save ourselves from our own arrogance, greed, fear and stupidity.
The problem – as always – stares back at us from the mirror.
John Hicks is a bipedal primate capable of abstract reasoning,
language, introspection, and pitchin’ a bitch. He lives in the
relatively thin layer of atmosphere encircling the planet.