Wendell Berry Against Your GPS

How we became an age of renters

Marc Barnes


Digital technologies tend to replace the skills they purport to augment. The use of typing has already destroyed most people’s capacity for legible handwriting. The use of email has not augmented the use of letters; letter writing is a lost art, and with it went any concern for craft, care, or punctuation in “long-form” communication. The transition from reading to online reading has not increased our reading capacities — it has turned us into jittery headline junkies without the patience for nuanced arguments.

Nor has the age of information improved our “information skills.” By rendering every person into a passive consumer of a “news feed” — seamlessly integrated with merchants’ advertisements — social media nullifies the human capacity to dredge out truth from a marsh of opinions and downright lies. When breakups, suicide bombings, and guacamole recipes are all presented in and through the same, evenly lit squares of information, information takes on a startling quality of sameness that begets no critical public. A recent study from Stanford University called young people’s “ability to reason about the information on the Internet…bleak.”

It would be foolish to deny that our digital tools help us live. But it is equally foolish not to add that their “help” wears away our “analog skills,” rendering us dependent on the internet for what was once an internet-free task.

This is also true of our emotional “skills.” The ubiquitous presence of the camera phone does not just add to our experience of significant events. It has become the very mode by which we claim events as significant, lifting our phones at dinners and concerts as a kind of duty by which we perform and realize a connection to the events that we record. We rely more and more heavily on the corporate provision of emojis, gifs, and memes to signify how we feel. We are increasingly uncomfortable with meeting and even calling people to navigate delicate emotional situations — like breakups and consolations in the face of death. The young person of the internet age can be roughly characterized as the person without the capacity to express his anger to an adult unless it is mediated through Twitter. The growing complaint that young men are unable to achieve erections without the use of…