Digital civilization and its discontents

A funny thing is happening on the way to digital paradise, and I’m not talking about the Facebook stock dive or the LinkedIn password hacking.

Intelligent, inquiring minds want to know: What is all our technology and connectivity doing to us? We may not be downloading the devil, but some voices are asking what hath Google and Facebook wrought.

Technology angst isn’t new. Some folks in the 1400s predicted cultural and theological catastrophe when Gutenberg re-invented the printing press. We might just be updating old anxieties—Technophobia 2.0–but that’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and several writers are. A select list:

Four years ago, Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, asked, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Yes, the misspelling was intentional.) Maybe not making us exactly stupid, he concludes, but something else: turning us into “pancake people,” borrowing a phrase from playwright Richard Foreman, people who are “spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Last month, Stephen Marche asked a companion question in the same magazine: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Based on new research, Marche says the answer is, roughly, yes. More narcissistic too.

Journalist Maggie Jackson wrote on similar themes in book length a few years ago in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus, 2009).

The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention–the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress. … The seduction of alternative virtual universes, the addictive allure of multitasking people and things, our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion: these are markers of a land of distraction, in which our old conception of space, time, and place have been shattered. This is why we are less and less able to see, hear, and comprehend what’s relevant and permanent, why so many of us feel that we can barely keep our heads above water, and our days are marked by perpetual loose ends. … We are on the verge of losing our capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus. In short, we are slipping toward a new dark age.

And then this week, science writer Diane Ackerman asks in the New York Times, “Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?” She’s not a Luddite, but she frets that we are cutting ourselves off from the world, even as we try to “experience” more of it online:

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

I can see at least a half-dozen interconnected anxieties that keep surfacing in these various critiques. I’ll save those for the next post. (This is a blog, after all, and so this post should stay fairly brief. Irony? You betcha.)

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you’re thinking about the impact of our new technology. What do you make of these concerns and questions? Please add a comment to the blog and get in the conversation.


(I found the photo illustration here, but I could not find information about who created it, permissions, etc.)

3 thoughts on “Digital civilization and its discontents

  1. “our days are marked by perpetual loose ends.”
    That’s so sad and often true for me. I am going to look for Jackson’s book.
    I recently read a book by Nancy Sleeth (a Lexington author) about simplifying every aspect of life — from the food we eat to the technology we use. It’s called Almost Amish. After reading it, I realized that while I am not ready to replace my dryer with a clothesline, I can create more room in my life for good things by “unplugging” more often. Of course, my obvious disclaimer here is that I read your blog post on Facebook, and because of the work I do, I am constantly on the Internet, e-mailing, etc.
    But there are many times I don’t need to be online or glancing at my e-mail. A quick search for an address can lead to 10 minutes online — and what was accomplished? What did I miss from my family during that time? I am still working on severing the ties of “connectivity.”
    I am a work in progress. Almost Amish was encouraging to me because Sleeth (who is not Amish) is not opposed to technology when it’s used correctly and for a good purpose. She encourages readers to find a healthy balance and do what they can to protect the Earth, love each other and live for the glory of God.
    I look forward to your next blog!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Melissa. I haven’t heard of Sleeth’s book. I’ll look for that one. (I guess we’re trading book titles.) I agree with her (and your) emphasis on balance. We can’t put the technology and connectivity genie back in the bottle, and I’m not sure I’d want to. But I find it too easy to let it define my hours.
    More disturbing for the long term, I think, is the push to integrate this kind of technology with our bodies, particularly our brains. I’m nervous about futurists who look forward to the day when we will literally be “wired.”

  3. Often I travel incognito about town. More often than not people have to ask me what I do for a living. Sometimes I play a little and expostulate “I try to get people to learn how to pay attention, and it’s getting harder all the time.”

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