“Western society has accepted as unquestionable a technological imperative that is quite as arbitrary as the most primitive taboo: not merely the duty to foster invention and constantly to create technological novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these novelties unconditionally, just because they are offered, without respect to their human consequences.” – Lewis Mumford
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I have the sensation, as do my friends, that to function as a proficient human, you must both ‘keep up’ with the internet and pursue more serious, analog interests. I blog about real life; I talk about the internet. It’s so exhausting to exist on both registers, especially while holding down a job. It feels like tedious work to be merely conversationally competent. I make myself schedules, breaking down my commute to its most elemental parts and assigning each leg of my journey something different to absorb: podcast, Instapaper article, real novel of real worth, real magazine of dubious worth. I’m pretty tired by the time I get to work at 9 AM.” – Alice Gregory, “Sad as Hell”
This book review of Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” is an analysis of the book, but also a thought-provoking evaluation of our physical and virtual realities. The quote above describes my exact emotions about being “conversationally competent” – I find it exhausting to try and keep up with daily happenings and latest news. And are we talking about keeping up with our country? Our friends and family? Our numerous inconsequential acquaintances? The world? It takes a good amount of will power to fend off the shame I’m compelled to feel when I don’t know the answer to “Did you hear about ______?”.
Gregory talks about her personal experiences with digital consumption: the constant barrage of information and the ever-increasing desire to consume it. “It’s like being demoted from the category of thinking, caring human to a sort of rat that doesn’t know why he needs to tap that button, just that he does.” (Gregory)
Gary Shteyngart, the author Gregory is analyzing, also speaks to the reality of our consumption and the very tangible ways it is changing us. “With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person—solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes . . . With each passing year, scientists estimate that I lose between 6 and 8 percent of my personality.” – Gary Shteyngart
The idea of actually losing our personalities may seem ridiculous, but I challenge you to think about it in relation to your own life. Though computers and cell phones have been popular for a good portion of my existence, I remember a time before they were the lifeblood of our society. I remember a time before I compulsively checked any social media or email accounts to know what has happened in the 5 minutes I’ve left them unattended. I’d call a friend to catch up and, upon them sharing a funny story, I’d laugh loudly and thoroughly. Now, I can just check their profile, see a funny story or update and type “haha” or “lol”. Even though the internet is “widening” our communication abilities, it seems to be depersonalizing and devaluing them. “The internet is also making us troublingly self-sufficient,” notes Gregory. We no longer need the physical presence of other people to not feel alone – “to be on the internet is to never be alone.”
Gregory also points out that now “we live longer now. But we also live less.” Yes, the internet allows access to a global community and limitless information; we can see Mt. Everest, the latest romantic comedy or a lengthy Facebook newsfeed with a few swift key strokes, but I’d argue that we’re doing so at the expense of actually experiencing our lives.
A few weeks ago, I found this article about a mother who chose to disconnect her family from technology for six months. The mother, author Susan Maushart, decided this experiment was a necessity when she realized her three teens didn’t just “use” media, they “inhabited” it. Maushart also needed a break from technology – she was sleeping with her phone next to her and carrying it to the bathroom. She admits that her toughest challenge while being disconnected was “relinquishing the ostrichlike delusion that burying my head in information and entertainment from home was just as good as actually being there.”
I think Maushart makes some very insightful observations about the effect technology has on us, which was brought to light by being separated from it for awhile. She describes her family’s transition as them all awaking “slowly from the state of cognitus interruptus that had characterized many of their waking hours to become more focused logical thinkers.”
Maushart wrote a book to describe how her family was revived from their technological daze. I bought it and plan to read it soon. Check it out on Amazon: The Winter of Our Disconnect
My question is this: do you think everyone could benefit from at least a short break from technology? Do you think Maushart’s actions were extreme and unnecessary?
I find this idea of hers to be very powerful; my job and coursework currently prohibit me from losing all technology, but I think I may try “unplugging” one day a week and take a longer break later this year. I also commend Maushart for her strength as a mother; enforcing such rules on three teens whose generation knows nothing but technology was probably no easy feat. I’m excited to read her book and am sure I’ll mention it again.
I’ve love to read since I was a toddler. When I was in school, people joked that reading was nerdy, but as I’ve grown I’ve discovered that fewer and fewer people seem to enjoy reading. It seems to be a leisure activity of the past; no one has time to sit down and enjoy a good book, and frankly few seem to want to.
In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr points out that information has become incredibly more accessible to the masses. “Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes.” As a student and advertising professional, I can appreciate the ease of online catalog searches and Google to complete even the simplest tasks. Our society has become so focused on gathering information and increasing productivity that reading lengthy text, especially for pleasure, has become a lost art. Carr quotes Joe O’Shea, a former student body president at Florida State University and 2008 Rhodes recipient. He says, “Sitting down and going through a book cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get the information I need faster through the web.” When Postman first wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, television was the latest medium, but his references are just as applicable, if not more so, to the internet. Postman points out that “television does not ban books, it displaces them”. I found this to be incredibly poignant and meaningful. With the advent and increased use of visual, faster media, reading lengthy material is no longer desirable.
The lack of reading interest, especially in our youth, has caused me concern for a few years. I wrote my undergraduate thesis about the concept of a nonprofit organization hoping to reverse the process, especially in younger generations. Though I’ve barely begun reading Carr’s book, he has already made some interesting observations about how technology has changed our culture. I’m excited to continue progressing with this topic!