The Mistake About Technology

I do intend to write a summary of all the talks I attend, but it seems to take around an hour to compose a summary of an hour long presentation, so they’re going to dribble out rather more slowly than I’d hoped.

The second talk of the 2010 American Chesteton Scoiety Conference was by Futurist David Zach. He talked about a great many very clever things and one silly one, namely the idea that with “enough bandwidth” mankind can do anything. It seems to me he confuses processing power with understanding. Well, OK, he probably doesn’t really confuse the two; maybe such fine distinctions don’t make good keynote address material.

One thing he said that struck me (and I alluded to yesterday) is that cell phones especially are not the “connection devices” they’re purported by their manufacturers to be. Rather they’re disconnection devices. What he means is that we end up narrowing our connectedness with society and indeed the whole world around us because we walk around with the cell phone to our ears, depriving ourselves of the chance to connect with a stranger on a human level. He quotes Tolstoy: “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town” and asks what great stories we miss entirely when we avoid chance encounter with the unfamiliar other. Who would have thought that the connection machine would narrow our connections?

Another theme was our growing distractedness brought on by the flood of media. Chesterton saw it coming eighty years ago:

The coming peril is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic overproduction, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the wellbeing of contemporary civilisation. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralysed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves. 

I was tempted to say “if he only knew” but upon reflection, he did know. I am not sure of the source of the quote.

Picking up on this, Zach recommends the book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Bill McKibben. I am not sure whether this example is in the book, but Zach gives an example of what all this flood of vulgarity does to culture, literature, and thought. Consider Renzi’s Address, taken from a 19th century elementary school reader.

Rouse, ye Romans! rouse, ye slaves!
Have ye brave sons? Look in the next fierce brawl
To see them die. Have ye fair daughters? Look
To see them live, torn from your arms, distained,
Dishonored; and if ye dare call for justice,
Be answered by the lash.
Yet this is Rome,
That sat on her seven hills, and from her throne
Of beauty ruled the world! and we are Romans.
Why, in that elder day, to be a Roman
Was greater than a king!

The whole poem is on page 228 if you want to read it. Imagine what a 20 year old girl raised on Twitter would write

Wake up Romans!
Got sons? Dead!
Got daughters? Dissed!
Want Justice? As if!
It was cool back in the day though.

Of course, the punctuation wouldn’t be this good. What has all this “connection” done to eloquence? Will anyone care? Whatever.

In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton said art is the signature of man. Zach says we are tool and toy makers, and tool and toy-making is an art, so therefore tools and toys are the signature of man. He reminds us that the tools and toys are morally neutral, but how we use them is not.

 So he shows us this nine minute video, World Builder by Bruce Branit. What’s going on here? What else could he have built? Is there any reason he didn’t?

So, acording to Zach, what is the mistake about technology? That we think we can control it.

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