“Technological Idiots”: The Deep, Blinding Effects of Our Dazzling Technology

Evocation 1:

It’s night in a foreign land. It’s hot, humid. I kick open a door of a nondescript apartment, splintering it to pieces, and lunge at three men sitting at a rickety table in a dingy room, revolvers, grenades, and detonators are strewn on its surface.

I punch one burly man hard in the face as he stands, unsure of himself. I can sense that — the weakest link. He falls back. He’s to my right. To my left, a mountain of a man, knife in hand, comes at me. I step aside, lock his elbow against my ribs with my left arm; with my right I come over the top of his humerus and snap it. He falls to his knees, doubled over in pain.

The third man leaps to his feet, turning over the table, pushing it against me. I grab a revolver from the floor and quickly shoot him in the leg before he can leap out an open window.

“You probably dreamt that because you’re going to Morocco,” says my wife. “You better chill out. You know how you are.”

“You mean I’m not Jason Bourne?” I respond with a smile — and consternation.

I am prone to celluloid dreams of graphic heroism. Quixote on the silver screen. They’re a frequent occurrence, these fantastical feature film-dreams; material reality and film’s irreverent power have melded together in my mind.

Evocation 2:

A student in one of my courses writes the following: “What is holding back education on this topic [waste management] is the idea of the single story that large corporations and governments are telling its citizens, the real social injustice that exists throughout the world are never told truthfully and exposed.”

To which I respond, leaving aside, for now, the halting syntax and grammar: “Can you prove this? And, even if so, the links I’ve given you show another story: science and academia are working very hard to put out the message and to educate. Something else is going on here: can you think through it?”

Accent and underline: “Can you think through it?”

And after providing him links, some resources — by way of an example here’s 1: “Why E-Waste Recycling is A Must for Small Businesses” — that literally took me less than 5 minutes to lift from Google, I added this: “I’m giving you these [the links, resources] to show you (a) how easy it is to get the information you need and (b) to demonstrate to you how unrealistic and overly generalized your idea is here.”

Evocation 3:

In another course, I work with Don DeLillo’s prophetic novel, Underworld (1997). In the prologue, “The Triumph of Death,” there are some vital references: the day Bobby Thomson hit the ‘Shot Heard ‘round the World’ into the seats, over the head of left fielder Andy Pafko; The Bruegel painting that gives the prologue its title, “The Triumph of Death”, which appears in the October 1, 1951 issue of LIFE magazine, pages 66–67, in a story on the Prado museum; there is mention that Frank Sinatra, Bernard “Toots” Shor, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover are at the famous game, the Brooklyn Dodgers v the New York Giants, 1951, each team having ended the regular season with identical records.

As we get to it in our in-class reading and discussion, I ask the obvious: Who is Bruegel? Why is this 1951 baseball game so important? Who are Sinatra, Shor, Gleason, and Hoover? Why does DeLillo include all this?

It’s hard to get to first base, pardon the pun. A couple of students know Sinatra — but no one else is known, not even J. Edgar (Shor I understand; The Honeymooners, no one knows). Computers are poised in front of my students — mostly Macs.

I ask another question: “So you’re each in your rooms reading, you’re in college, an elite place such as this, which is very, very costly — this education is about you — and you come up against some vital references, a computer or some handheld device, an iPhone, is at arm’s length, but you skip over these references and don’t bother looking them up when everything is at your fingertips? But while reading, on occasion, when it strikes you, you check Facebook, right?” Before they respond I ask another question: “Have you heard of Google?”

They smile, some laugh ever so slightly, squirm a bit in their seats. They take this lightly, but I’m a bit confused, maybe some sadness creeping in, a melancholy.

I say to them, “Please open your computers and Google these references and let me hear you tell me what these are, sing them out, please.” They do as they’re told. An infantile exercise they should have done on their own. This is college.

But that’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it? They saw no reason, at the time of their reading, to look something up they didn’t know. Why not? I’ve been pondering answers to this question for some time. Why? Why would they skip over these things when it’s so easy to find the answers?

I describe to them what it was like writing college papers with a Corona typewriter and literally having to copy and paste, over and over; what it was like going to card catalogs to sniff out the history of a reference.

They shake their heads back-and-forth in disbelief.

I ask them: “We did it then, why can’t you — or why won’t you — now when so much information is right in front of you?”

A first thought, a try at an answer:

The 3 evocations have something in common: The power of media content over the mind; that, following the McLuhan cliche — “the medium is the message” — we have arrived at a moment in time whereby technology lives behind the scenes, unnoticed and unseen (few know how it works; fewer take the time to find out), and that the compression and processing of information — the content — is affecting the way we dream, the way we read, the way we learn, and the way we come to see ourselves in the world. Our interactions may now have a staccato quality to them; they give rise to microaggressions, misunderstandings, poorly understood Tweets and what not — a life in extremes.

In American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales, the author, calls her 9th grade boyfriend, who she had not spoken to for over 30 years; he has 3 daughters. Here’s what Sales reports: “I mean, were kids having sex? Sure. Did girls dress in provocative clothes? Sure. I mean, those things were all happening. But he thought that the biggest difference was between then and now was the porn and the fact that teenagers now were watching very violent, very degrading porn on a daily basis and had access to it. And he thought that was really having a big effect on them.”

Compressed content, in time, is remaking how we interact with the world and with each other.

This is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011), which I turned to for help. I also turned to a great companion piece, Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

Carr says this: “The computer screen bulldozes our doubts with its boundaries and conveniences. It is so much our servant that it would seem churlish to notice that it is also our master.”

In a nutshell, using McLuhan here, Carr says, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”

Carr also says that, “The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive at the Concord station, drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. The ‘frenziedness of technology,” Heidegger wrote, threatens to ‘entrench itself everywhere.” (I wrote about this in 2013, “Life in the PRISM” & in “The Location of Technology, a Theory of the Present,” a talk given on behalf of the OpenIWorld: Europe 2008 Conference.)

Lanier says this:

“Today, we can still think of information as the intangible enabler of communications, media, and software. But as technology advances in this century, our present intuition about the nature of information will be remembered as narrow and shortsighted. We can think of information narrowly only because sectors like manufacturing, energy, health care, and transportation aren’t yet particularly automated or ‘net-centric… But eventually most productivity probably will become software-mediated.”

If most “productivity will become software-mediated” and our “refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection” become drowned out, what will happen to what is “least computable about us,” as Carr notes, “the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy”?

Enter The Empathizer.

I sought further help from Richard and Daniel Susskind, co-authors of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts.

Here’s what I learned: “Technology will be the main driver of this change. And, in the long run, we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the twentieth century and before. There is growing evidence that a transformation is already under way.”

The Susskinds continue:

However, as our research and thinking progressed, we concluded that a more basic and important question also had to be addressed — how do we share expertise in society? In what we term a ‘print-based industrial society’,the professions have played a central role in the sharing of expertise. They have been the main channel through which individuals and organizations have gained access to certain kinds of knowledge and experience. However, in a ‘technology-based Internet society’, we predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions. We anticipate an ‘incremental transformation’ in the way that we produce and distribute expertise in society. This will lead eventually to a dismantling of the traditional professions.

Colleges and Universities are the places where the professions are most privileged — our bread and butter exists in promoting them; we departmentalize, we silo, and we create idiosyncratic languages to speak with one another, the idea being that you — citizen-students — need us to explain the world. The Susskinds suggest otherwise: this world is not sustainable, not any longer.

Colleges and Universities can either become museums — or is it mausoleums? — or change to address the future needs dictated by algorithms, some we yet don’t even understand. “We’re writing things we can no longer read,” says Kevin Slavin, of MIT and co-founder of Everybody at Once.

The Susskinds warn of abuses, those that might create rings of authority around information, tightly controlling delivery systems, and thus creating gated communities of the mind.

In A Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit, bemoaning that, “Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them,” wonders: “…what will come of placing this generation under house arrest?”

One response: the students in evocations 2 and 3, that’s what happens.

My desirous dreams conflate illusory film narratives with my material life; I read, as does Carr, with less attention, moving about here and there on the Internet. I can get lost for hours in a click and go on a labyrinthine journey to nowhere in particular.

I enter classrooms, day-in-and-day-out, to do something we call teaching; but it’s not, not in the traditional sense of the lecturer proudly espousing knowledge. I know my students prefer Instagram to Underworld, never mind Moby-Dick. So I’m more inclined, because of the context by which learning is being shaped in the early stages of the 21st Century, to coach, to mentor, to draw upon, show some skills, trying to understand and trying to share the feelings of another — students — so as to counsel them, point to a road, directions they may take, and help them analyze the harrowing complexity of our rapidly changing world.

This position — the empathizer — is, for the Susskinds, what the future will require. The conditions of my life lead me to the same conclusion.

Wendell Berry says that, “We don’t have the right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have the right to ask is, what’s the right thing to do?

In this cyborg-age, where machines are increasingly doing everything for us, including defining the means by which we interact and define each other, the right thing to do is to empathize, deliberate, critique, and describe ways of navigating that critical question: how and why we are being controlled, so controlled, yet we go about our business as if our lives are of our own making? How do we get on the other side of this?