Everywhere at Once, Nowhere at AllBy Eric Miller for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
“Right now, the main thing I’m taking from this conference is that PowerPoint is destroying the educational process.”
The conference, organized around the theme of “Technology and Human Flourishing,” was held under the aegis of Baylor University’s annual Symposium on Faith and Culture. The quip came from a good friend I’ll call Max, in the middle of the first full day. We were listening to—or were we watching?—an MIT physicist declaiming on “scientism.” MIT only hires stars, of course, but this one appeared to be the very definition of an academic star. We learned that not only had Ian Hutchinson been invited to participate in the Reagan-era Star Wars missile defense research (he declined on principle, he told us), but that he leads the team at MIT that has developed a plasma hotter than the sun. Max and I looked at each other with the sort of dumb shock only two History PhDs can share at such a revelation. “What the heck’s he doing here,” Max asked. “And who’s guarding the plasma??”
Hutchinson defined scientism—with ample PowerPoint pizzazz—as the inflating of “natural science into a dogmatic metaphysical worldview,” and his presentation was sharp, pointed, and cutting, driven by a skepticism about scientists one is accustomed to hearing only from the Robert Oppenheimers of that world—those, that is, acutely and obviously responsible for new forms of unnatural disaster. Scientists, Hutchinson noted, imagine themselves in the correcting role when it comes to the array of difficulties humans have either created or inherited. But there are few signs, on his view, that technological solutions actually have led to the desired correcting, to the necessary stability—it’s a “vicious spiral” rather than a “virtuous spiral” that scientists are accelerating, he contends. And so the boastful proposition that technological innovation alone will rescue us from global warming, for instance, he finds wrong-headed and disturbing. “There is simply no technological fix for energy,” Hutchinson remarked, and the unintended consequences of large-scale attempts at correction we must, if we know our own history, condition ourselves to expect.
I was taking notes on all of this when Max leaned in to proclaim PowerPoint the destroyer of education. To be clear, Hutchinson was not lecturing against PowerPoint. He was lecturing with it. Or, perhaps better, alongside it. Because it seemed to me that his sharp, spoken words were softened and elided by the shift-to-screen, change-of-slide, now back-to-speaker, then shift-to-screen whirligig he led us through. Maybe that dizzying effect (not to say unintended consequence) is what Max was getting at. I wasn’t sure—I was too busy copying from the slides to ask.
Hutchinson was far from the only PowerPointer, of course. The opening plenary that morning had featured another, shall we call it, PPLecture©, this time by the dean of a leading college of engineering. An engineer—perfect!, I’d thought. It was disciplinary breadth that had drawn me to Waco in the first place. I came primed for sharp insight by seasoned thinkers from an array of disciplines, seers I had hoped would together shed light on the darkening landscape my eyes tell me we’re inhabiting. But “Engineering a Better World” turned out to be a far less arresting PPLecture, a gallop through slides that gave us Pope Benedict on science, a quick rebuttal of scientism, a call for an aesthetic of “asymmetrical design” (using symmetrical slides on symmetrical screens) and little effort, if any, to address the hard ethical, political, and environmental questions that, I presume, we might expect engineers to grapple with as they rebuild and build anew this radically re-engineered world.
From the pleasant distance of the conference program the smaller sessions had looked just as promising (and in fact remain so to me, since for the moment the limits of space and time preclude attending multiple sessions at once). In a session titled “Finding Place in a Digital World” I listened to a political scientist explore our passageway to the holy end of autonomy through the sacred space of automobility, after which a geographer meditated on the “tyranny” a society governed by writing exerts on those for whom orality had been the dominant means of place- and identity-creation. General categories of meaning, and “objective” angles of vision, he claimed, have decimated more satisfying means of self-understanding, and of human experience itself.
Theirs weren’t PPLectures but papers, read in the old fashioned way to the six or seven of us in the room (alas). “Psychology of the Plugged-In Generation,” though, was packed; I took a chair on the front row reserved (I discovered later) for the panelists, all of whom were in full PPLecture mode. An MD warned that “study after study has discovered that multi-tasking degrades the experience of learning,” and noted a “continuous increase in overall mental illness, both in diagnosis and severity.” “No one is social anymore,” he flatly stated.
When his talk was over he sat down next to me and checked his phone.
The clinical psychologist who followed (after several minutes of pre-PPLecture technical difficulties) briskly read his slides to us, which sought to illumine via statistical studies the relationship between spiritual difficulties and internet addictions, a chicken-or-egg question he pretty much left a question. A professor of practical theology was up next, asking, as his title had it, “How Constant Connectivity through New Digital Media [is] Affecting Our Experience of the Divine.” Statistics and summary statements on screen provided an answer, of sorts: 80% of students never turn off their phones; 84% take them to bed; some text in their sleep. Asking students to turn off their phones is like requiring them to “turn off their lives”; they feel “lost” and “naked” without them; they live, he concluded, quoting computer industry guru Linda Stone, in a hazy state of “continuous partial attention.”
He, as their teacher, is concerned. “Solitude is terrifying to many students,” he senses. So in one class he requires them to spend two hours alone, technologically untethered. It’s the kind of incremental remedy one suspects Wendell Berry might recommend, and, in fact, the session on the “The Wisdom of Wendell Berry”—not surprisingly, a PowerPoint-Free Zone—was filled with discourse on daily practices. A young literary scholar gathered his thoughts around Berry’s “Christocentric practice of peace.” A philosopher unpacked Berry’s unusual ability, in his view, to exercise “practical wisdom”—the knack of applying “general goods to particular situations.” My own paper sought to probe the practical dimensions of human renewal as seen in Berry’s fiction. What practices, we all were asking, might help us step away from, as they say, the “built environment” and back toward what Berry unabashedly calls “the creation”?
I don’t think it’s a hard question to answer; I think it’s a hard answer to practice, as was evident at this conference. I went to hear Baylor’s Ralph Wood bring John Henry Newman into the mix. The room was packed, so I sat down in an overflow area beside it as the session was getting underway. Soon after, four more conferees joined me, three students and a middle-aged professor. As Wood was recalling Newman’s nineteenth-century prophecy of a coming time of “ceaseless sensate entertainment” they each very smartly checked their phones.
I checked out. It was the end of the third afternoon, and the conference was, I could feel by then, starting to impede my own quest for human flourishing. Or was it the partially attentive conferees that were getting to me? I had come in hope of collective sharpness, but the net effect was getting fuzzier by the session. “What’s missing at this conference,” Max at some point opined, “is a constituency. It’s for everyone, and so it’s for no one.” Despite the fact that the accumulating message appeared to me bleak, there was little sense of collective reckoning, of common urgency. Remarkably, no plenary session centered on technology’s environmental effects, undoubtedly the greatest material threat to human flourishing we now face. And one prominent plenary speaker used the technology motif only as a quick pathway to a philosophic concern she did not bother to connect to the major theme of the conference.
If Patrick Deneen is right, this fuzzy focus, this slack posture, of our common life is more or less the way we Americans usually want it, and have wanted it for a very long time. Deneen, a Notre Dame political philosopher, had opened the conference by noting the looming, oppressive sense of inevitability that hovers over our lives as the techno-juggernaut rolls on. It’s an inevitability that may occasionally leave us uneasy but is, he thinks, our nationally preferred state of being: we are at bottom a constituency of selves, we Americans, freed by our mutual pact, ironically, to pursue life on our own. Our “political technology,” Deneen suggested, is our “operating system,” from which our morally and structurally individuated society has emerged. He quoted the novelist Stephen Marche in his recent Atlantic essay on Facebook, who confesses, baldly, that “We are lonely because we want to be lonely.”
Chosen loneliness is perhaps the saddest loneliness. It’s a loneliness, so carefully wired, that finally defeats any efforts to forge a “constituency,” that renders the notion of collective reckoning impossible. And it’s a loneliness that is closing in. Even education, perhaps our last collective bastion of decisive communal encounter, is giving way to these new pathways to loneliness. This was the final note of the conference, sounded sharply by First Things editor and theology professor R. R. Reno in an after-banquet address. Education “on your own terms,” he insisted, isn’t education. Rather, education requires, he noted following Newman, an “ethical atmosphere,” or “genius loci”—“an extraordinarily precious thing.” To pursue “virtual education” is to “deracinate higher education,” he charged. “There’s an electricity in face-to-face encounter. Face to face we feel the claims of others on our souls.”
There’s plenty of electricity in other relationships, too—“connections,” we call them, all soldered into “networks.” They carry a much safer charge. But it’s not the charge I need—or at least the one I most deeply need. That’s what I discovered anew when, back from the conference, I circled up once more with my students in our core Humanities course and resumed a challenging conversation about life and death, about love and longing, face to face, eye to eye, soul to soul. Very, very practical. No smart phones allowed. Claims on the soul welcome.
Eric Miller, Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA), is the author of Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (2010).