E.B. White allowed that Thoreauvians are men who hate compromise but have compromised; they love wildness but have lived tamely. Perhaps this was sometime a paradox, as the melancholy prince who was too much i’ the sun once put it, but now the time gives it proof.

Consider, if you will, how much our default condition—that is, our relation to the world as we found it, the world we were habituated to long before we became conscious of it—is characterized by compromise and hypocrisy.

I was habituated to automobile travel long before I took the Ed Abbey view: that the automobile is a “bloody tyrant.” But I remain, as others who agree with me remain, enslaved to this bloody tyrant. We remain enslaved to something allegedly meant to be our servant, something we were supposed to be the masters of. (Most industrial goods, it turns out, were meant to become necessities.) There’s a myth that explains the conversion of servant to master, though it can’t be trimmed down to 280 characters. Try it, and it will cease to be the myth it is. Mr. Stewart has elegantly reminded us of this. He has resurrected the McLuhan doctrine: the medium is the message.

(“Myth,” I should add, is not a synonym for “falsehood,” as the journalists and sociologists want us to believe. A myth is a delivery system for truth.)

I for one would like to reduce my dependence on the automobile and I think I should reduce that dependence. I believe that I should undo much of what was done to me by an unconscious habituation to the world as I found it.

But for me and people of my generation—and also for others who are much younger—social media, which, I’m convinced, should be called “anti-social media,” is of a different order from the automobile: it wasn’t part of the world as we found it. It wasn’t a feature of the world we were habituated to long before we became conscious of it. What it is—what it is really—is sometimes difficult of description and definition. I call it a bitch that got over the wall, she and her subsequent teeming issue now calling to mind the sentries at the gates of hell as Milton imagined them:

The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of hell hounds never ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
And kennel there, yet there still braked and howled
Within unseen.

Which means, I suppose, that we who are mad to have all this anti-social media are like Satan himself attempting to pass the sentries: “Whence and what art thou, execrable shape,” he asks,

That dar’st, though grim and terrible, advance
Thy miscreated Front athwart my way
To yonder Gates? through them I mean to pass,
That be assur’d, without leave askt of thee.

But what I don’t understand is why more grown-ups didn’t, and now don’t, have the capacity to say “no” to the evident nonsense of Facejob, Twatter, DinkedIn, and the like. This remark is not meant to imply that no good can come of them. Clearly some good can come of them. A swamp can produce (St. Thomas would call it potential oboedientialis) the face of God; the earth can open and bud forth a Savior. But is anyone seriously going to look me in the eye and with a straight face tell me that the good outweighs the bad—or even equals it?

Consider that Mark Zuckerberg, as a nineteen-year-old sophomore in college, invented something (or stole it, depending on how your read the evidence) to pander to sophomores in college, specifically to their capacity for distraction and their susceptibility to narcissism. And now pretty much everyone, apparently equally susceptible to distraction and narcissism, is behaving like distracted narcissistic sophomores. Pretty much everyone on anti-social media (allowing, of course, for the extremely rare exception) is behaving sophomorically. As the users like to ask—in that word-starved shorthand of theirs—WTF?

And since I have invoked Echo’s beloved, I may as well keep the string of vitriol going and let fly at the very pool of Narcissus itself—namely, the “smart phone,” which now covers the goodly Earth like paint and black pavement. Have you seen how people with these pernicious devices behave? And you want to be like them?

Nor can I leave aside the promiscuous use of “smart” here, nor its misapplication in “smart classrooms.” In the technological hell that these clever little poetry-starved predators out in Silly Con Valley have sold us, any insistent use of “smart” is a transparent attempt to fend off the more appropriate term, which is “dumb.” Smartness, you may have noticed, is not a salutary fragrant breeze issuing from the power source port of the mobile [de]vice. The smart phone is spreading the opposite of smartness. No one is better at directions because of GPS. No one’s memory has been improved by another gig of RAM. No one is better at spelling because of spell-check. The new thing usually evicts the old thing (though it sometimes exists alongside the old thing, as Mr. Stewart wisely and charitably reminds us); but when the new thing does evict the old thing it also evicts, as often as not, the knowledge and know-how that went with the old thing. And when the bill for that loss comes due, as eventually it will, the cost of it will prove to be more than we can afford to pay. Mark me.

I have vented enough spleen to come to the one thing I really want to say, and it’s not that I’m grateful to Mr. Stewart for his thoughtful piece, although I am. It is this:

I think the example of wilderness applies here. Even as there must be places that we do not touch, places that exist in reality and in our imagination that we have decided to keep out of, so there must be technologies we agree to have nothing to do with. For me these are the ones mentioned in Mr. Stewart’s piece—and others not mentioned as well. I hope that, as my fortitude and moral strength increase, there will be more to add to the list.

And it probably bears mentioning that, when you ignore a thing, it often goes away. I think this is what we mean by the “law” of supply and demand. For God’s sake, it’s a strategy that even junior highers use to douse unwanted romance.

But because of human weakness, the wilderness approach assumes a doubtful scenario for any but a very small minority, so I think we also need technological monks—people who, for the sake of remembering what it was like to be human, refuse to participate in Facejob, Twatter, DinkedIn, and the like. Such an eremite am I.

And I don’t see any reason I shouldn’t play the sentimental card: won’t anyone think of the children? Do it for the children, and for their children, and for all those who, once the pixie dust and the physical resources to run this utterly false life have played out, are going to have to figure out how to live without the shit they’re addicted to. For the day is coming when we are going to have to figure out how to live not as approximate humans but as full-blown men and women, created beings who, trailing clouds of glory, remember whence we came and whither we’re going.

You will recall Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. . . . As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

It was Postman’s view that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

And now back to Thoreau, who said there are enough champions of civilization. A splenetic fellow might play a variation on that theme and say that there are also enough champions of Facejob, Twatter, and DinkedIn: “the minister and the school committee and every one of you,” Thoreau said, “will take care of that.” But I’m with Henry: “I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one.”

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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), Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017), and co-editor of Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto (FPR Books, 2018). 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. “And since I have invoked Echo’s beloved, I may as well keep the string of vitriol going and let fly at the very pool of Narcissus itself—namely, the “smart phone,” which now covers the goodly Earth like paint and black pavement. Have you seen how people with these pernicious devices behave? And you want to be like them?”

    The saddest sight, seen all too often, is the family dining out together, heads down and staring.

  2. The smart phone is, in fact, smart. It’s learned how to skirt the bans that have faced other technologies should they attempt to invade public spaces. No one would have tolerated folk coming to class, or a restaurant, or even a meeting at work or at church, trying to tote their television or boom-box or typewriter along. What has made technologies acceptable, useful and livable-with has always been their partial banning. You have to leave your car in the parking lot. You have to watch television at home. You’re not allowed to practice your marksmanship during the homily. What allowed the smart phone to slip through was its apparent politeness. We need to be more intentional about developing rigorous bans and enforcing them. That would require that we think a little harder about our various activities; specifically, we would need to ask, What are they for? And does the smart phone facilitate or frustrate that purpose? Unfortunately, I doubt our society is capable of asking, let alone answering, those questions.

    I found this article on my Facebook feed, btw.

  3. Should one remark on the scalding hot casuistry of this article being posted on the Internet?
    No?
    Well, OK.

  4. “You have to watch television at home.”

    My favorite watering hole is a not-quite-local brewpub that combines great food and beer with no TV’s. It’s a 20 minute drive for me, and I have to pass multiple other establishments to get there, but I’ve been going at least once a week for over a year, because the whole concept is just so damn refreshing. The place has been open for 10 years and has never had them. The owner’s mentality is that there are hundreds of places where you can go and watch TV and drink/eat, so if that’s what you want, go to one of them.

    • Yes of course. I meant that, as a rule, you weren’t allowed, back in the day, to tote a television to class or a restaurant, plug it in, and watch it. Btw, Pete Hamill’s 1995 memoir, A Drinking Life, has some great ruminations on bars and television and etc.

  5. “But what I don’t understand is why more grown-ups didn’t, and now don’t, have the capacity to say “no” to the evident nonsense of Facejob, Twatter, DinkedIn, and the like.”

    I’ll take a stab at that, Doc. Relationships and their resulting Community – quickly becoming a buzzword – though vital to human well-being, are complex and often require hard work. The social media you cite, along with much else, promise a form of “community” of sorts, but they are to true community what junk food is to wholesome, real food. And just as junk food gives you a temporary sense of satiation, leaves you in the long run malnourished and sick.

    You’ve seen it, and know it! I think of my parents’ small, rural hometown and county. With all of their attendant flaws and foibles, there’s a web of relationship and kinship – of community – that have formed over generations, that have required work and sacrifice. In theory, social media and the technologies that deliver them, can be (and often are), handy enhancements to true community. The problem is that in our demand for the easy and the efficient (Oh efficiency! There’s another idol, about which you have written!), the theory is quickly sacrificed to the reality of human weakness. Nothing new here; we’ve always had a tendency toward taking a potentially good thing and warping it, but it’s just that our new technologies, and most especially those supporting social media, tend to amplify those flaws.

    If one can rein in one’s appetites, making a priority of the truly good and wholesome, then social media, I suppose, can truly be an enhancement. Frankly, though, I’m not sure a good many of us are capable of that kind of restraint.

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