Nonsense on Stilts? Dandyism? Okay.


Rock Island, IL

It turns out on I’m on the wrong side of technology. The teetotalers and undergraduates and skimming dismalite trolls have said so.

Well, that’s okay. I’ve misunderstood much in my fifty-some trips around the sun, and this apparently includes the Faust myth. I was wrong to call the smartphone a “little tyrant.” In the clean and tidy world of technology, where the highest recommendations for anything are speed and ease (unassailable standards!), no one is ever mastered by a servant. We are masters all, mastered by nothing, never made vulnerable by the conversion of convenience into necessity. My own vulnerability, for example, was not in the least bit exposed by the recent seven-day power-outage at my house. Heat, you know, comes from the furnace, not from the fuel it uses. Or at least it is comforting to believe this, even as you freeze. The furnace could produce heat, if only you could remember which buttons to push.

Let us determine right now to believe whatever comforts us: the proposition, for example, that a new technology is “just a tool,” that it is neutral, that the problem, if there is one, is with the user, as with heroin. Heroin itself is fine. Let us believe that this is also true of television: it is a medium that in no way affects its message. It answers as readily to complexity as does the book, also a technology. Let us believe that this is true of electronic publications such as FPR. That people will read only so many words on a screen means only that there’s a problem with people, not that there’s a problem with screens, which are “just tools.” They’re neutral. Nor do they use energy. Nor are they made from resources we’re running low on or make profligate use of.

Everything’s good. Everyone’s okay.

Let us also do whatever it takes to convince ourselves that new things do not evict necessary knowledge and skill. The techno-cheerleaders, short-skirted if short-sighted, are right: spell-check has made us better spellers. Calculators have made us better at math. GPS has made us better at knowing where we are, better still at finding where we might be. Cameras that tell us what we’re about to back into have made us better at backing up. Devices that store information—phone numbers, for example—have improved our memory. We are better cooks thanks to microwave ovens. We are better social creatures thanks to social media. We tweet better than the birds that cut the airy way. We also have the past-tense verb “tweeted,” whereas they do not, a word we can add to the list of such recent salutary coinages as “googled” and “Egg McMuffin.”

Except it all comes off the stable floor, and I’ll have none of it, and I don’t give a damn what the cheerleaders for every shiny new thing that comes along say. Short skirts, as I’ve said, are okay, but there’s no excuse for shortsightedness. If you’re on the road when some mathematics, physics, and computer science major who learned to drive in a smart car finds himself behind the wheel of a vehicle whose smart features have just failed and rendered both car and driver dumb, you and he both are going to lose your asses. And you’re going to lose them because one or both of you poured human knowledge and skill into a leakier vessel than you yourself would have been had you not been such a techno-dupe in the first place.

The days of things getting better are about over. Progress such as we’ve known it is not an ever-rising line on a graph but an arc that has a zenith. Reality will soon be stepping in—in what form take your pick: energy depletion, resistant bacteria, loss of topsoil and fresh water—to administer to all of us a final examination. It will consist of two essay questions: what do you actually know and what can you actually do? The answers for most people are “nothing” and “nothing,” and there’s a reason for this. We’ve let cleverness displace intelligence. Knowledge and skill have been handed over to the machines, and machines do not have the capacity to accommodate either of these distinctly human traits.

Look. New things come at a cost, and by “cost” I don’t mean “price,” though they come with that too, and mostly I am unwilling to pay that price. The book came at a cost, and that cost was memory, as Socrates rightly feared. Is that a cost I’m willing to suffer in order to have books? It is, though I would also have us cultivate memory whenever possible. But there must be someone in this world who refuses the allure of the misnamed smartphone, and I am determined that I will be that person. I’ve seen how people who have these pernicious things behave, and I will not be caught behaving in that manner: enslaved, cut off, inhuman, unmindful of real things—such as creatures of flight that can actually tweet and that produce many other lovely sounds unheard of by people with wires dangling from their ears.

And think of the advertising money spent on seducing people to get new smartphones and computers. Surely it must rival the money spent by pharmaceutical companies during The Masters and U.S. Open–you know, those purveyors of pills that help men who watch golf get tumescences that last more than four hours, men who then must spend even more money getting immediate medical attention. Clearly we’re being duped, and someone is laughing all the way to the bank. But whoever he is, he’s not laughing with one dime of my money in his pocket.

I suppose I should add this: I don’t just hate the mobile device. I hate the phone that hangs on the wall. I feel no compulsion whatsoever to obey a noisy contraption and hold it to my head just because someone else–or, worse yet, some goddamned automated machine–has decided that I should stop what I’m doing and hear what he or she or it has decided I must, at this moment, listen to. For the record: I’m busy right now. I’m trying to be an inhabitant of the world. The world.

To all you defenders of the little tyrant I say may God be with you. But if I were God, I’d keep other company. You know: tax collectors, harlots, that sort.

  • Share: