By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
In my ‘Comparative Worldviews’ class, I enjoy asking my students if they think the story of humanity is one of progression, or decline. A simple, but incredibly broad question to be sure. Usually students will reply with some excellent nuanced answers, pointing out that such a simple dualistic question glosses over the complexities of our modern world. Most point out that humanity has progressed, and continues to progress in areas such as medicine, science and technology. Though surrounded by it their whole lives, my students appreciate how quickly technology is advancing. However, some rightly point out that progression in one area of life, can lead to decline in another. It may be surprising to those who don’t interact with ‘millennials’ on a daily basis, but I find that most students feel that the progression of information and communication technology they have lived through has had radically negative social repercussions.
The above staged photo encapsulates the problem my students have with information technology. I have heard the majority of young adults I teach argue that, though modern, handheld computers provide us a deluge of instantaneous information, they are ‘also killing human interaction’. In this belief, they are by no means alone. It is almost becoming a cliche to state that cell-phones, texting, social media and constant internet access drives a wedge between humans, causing all sorts of existential threats. Texting causes a loss of spelling and grammar rules! Cellphones destroy interpersonal communication! Social media increases the opportunities for lying and narcissism! Cell phones destroy human empathy! Humanity is evidently doomed if we keep going down the road we are travelling.
And yet….let’s look at a couple more pictures.
Now, what do you think of when you look at these two photographs? I am going to make an assumption about your conclusions. These pictures provide generally positive emotions, correct? The photo of the young couple enjoying a leisurely read outdoors seems relaxing, and romantic. The picture on the right, with the two elderly couples, has a timelessly quaint aura. Perhaps these husbands and wives have had this ritual of sitting on a park bench, reading the daily newspaper for years, if not decades. What could be more traditional; what could be more human?
These two photos are the antithesis of the top photo, right?
Not at all. These three pictures are more similar than different. Two people sitting at a table on their separate smartphones is wholly similar to the old couples sitting on a the bench reading their respective papers. All of these people are socially isolated with an individually hand-held communication tool. What difference is there if the loving pair in the grass have a couple novels, or a couple iPhones? The quality of their reading material may be the only thing; and even then, with e-readers, this may not even be the case. Both are lost in another world, one digital, the other paper-based.
And, yet, we do see a difference; on an emotional, visceral level, it just seems different. But, why? Why is the first photo seen as dangerous and distasteful for the future health of all humanity, while the second is sweet, charming and heartwarming? When I asked my students this question, one young woman stated that texting requires technology, and hence, the top picture is different.
But, wait! Books are a technology as well. The written word itself, is a technology. Neither are natural; they are both human cultural inventions. Mass produced, hand- held books are only 500 or so years old. The written word is about 10 times older. Over the centuries, these technologies have changed, but usually quite slowly; this change has seemed organic, and glacial to someone living in our times of radical technological advancements. But, go back to any year before Gutenberg’s press, and you will discover a world of communication that is almost unrecognizable. After the radical invention made books a mass-produced commodity, you will find ‘Chicken Littles’ predicting doom as a result. Such warnings were even applied to the written word. Plato tells us that Socrates, who never wrote anything down, warned that the written word was dangerous since it,
will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
I assume that in 50 years, if cellphones are still with us, pictures such as the one found at the top of this post will be seen as quaint and charming. There will undoubtedly be a new communication technology invented that will be blamed for the inevitable fall of all human interaction, or Western Civilization….or something. I kind of can’t wait to see wait to see that new technology.