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.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007) and Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I skimmed this on a smartphone, but it’s obvious that instead of recognizing that fallen man is sinful because of his free-willed rejection of God, you are an insufferable bore who resolutely proclaims that apples are the root of all evil.
    Well, this website’s standards have been declining for several years now. I suppose it’s time to delete it from the feed on my smartphone.

  2. For the record, I love Jason Peters’ brand of caustic humor, and all of his pieces. Please don’t stop writing!

  3. I read this on my smartphone. The other option was my laptop computer. I accept the idea that technology is a tool. I know that a lot of things I do are made easier by technology. Some things I would not do at all if not for technology.

    I like to think technology is neutral, but I know it isn’t. I notice changes in myself that crept up on me, unnoticed and unexpected, working incrementally, until one day I recognized them fully-manifested. I used to know the phone numbers of everyone important to me. I know no one’s number now and, if I were without my smart phone and needed to call, I couldn’t. (Maybe I should look for an old-fashioned address book and write them down.) A few weeks ago I had to go to a place in a Chicago suburb I hadn’t been to before. My handy GPS got me there. I also needed the GPS to get me out of there and back to familiar territory. If i have to go there again, I will have to use the GPS again. When I used to find my way to a place using a map, I always had a real idea of how to get to and from there, but I also had a firm understanding of where I actually WAS. All I really know from using the GPS is that I have arrived. I know nothing more than that. I remember nothing more than that.

    I am not quite ready to abandon the gadgets. But now that I have first-hand knowledge of what I have lost in return for ease and convenience, I’m determined to temper or even back off from some uses. There are plenty of things I can do for myself (set the thermostat, turn on the lights, make the coffee, check to see if I have mustard in the fridge) that can still get done without the technology and without the dependency.

  4. Brilliant! Thank you for this, and all your writings here.

    As for the offended souls who must defend [their] reasonably connected lifestyle… the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

    If the shoe fits…

  5. Some years ago now, I was issued a flip-phone at the Army unit for which I was one of the Chaplains. While I understand the desirability of this in some cases, I also saw it then, and see it now, as an insidious form of tyranny – an electronic leash! One of my chief joys, therefore, was returning the Thing when I left, with the dawning revelation that I’d never be required again to talk to or respond just because the damnable thing was ringing/vibrating. Nevertheless, for about a year after I left the military, I would feel phantom vibrations at the points on my body where the pockets on my uniform had been, containing the Little Tyrant.

    Unfortunately, my wife and I felt compelled last summer to purchase a couple of smartphones – sort of the price of doing business, I guess. They help in some ways, but I’m happy to say that both my wife and I are often difficult to raise on the things, simply because we refuse to be ruled by them (Incidentally, we also refuse to get on Facebook, simply because we don’t need one more source of complexity in our lives).

    “Progress” has become a buzzword, accepted as some sort of objective good, especially when applied to technology, helping us all along to the realization of the best of all possible worlds. But the question must be asked, Progress toward what? How does this technology enhance my humanity, to me the only true sort of progress? I get that in theory, all technology is neutral, but the problem is, I see few of us actually able to live out that theory in what I like to call reality.

  6. Remember the old 60’s dictum, “Question Authority!” ?

    Following Dreher, I think that today ours should be “Question Progress!”

    I got my first cell phone in 2002, primarily because I had elderly parents who were both having health problems and I needed to make myself available for them. I’ve had only two phones since, getting my 3rd only this past December, and it’s still not “smart.” I refuse to go that route until “dumb” phones are no longer an option. Maybe not even then.

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