Brave New (Online) World
There was this funny YouTube video last week. Somebody posted it on Facebook. Or tweeted it. Or something like that. It was very clever and witty and it got all kinds of likes and shares and tweets and re-tweets. It was one of many potentially entertaining diversions in the middle of a busy day. I laughed and moved on. I would link to the video so you could see for yourself, but I think I saw it over half a week ago, so it’s already ancient news. You’re already way behind.
A few months ago, I listened to a recording of the 2011 Laing Lectures at Regent College. The speaker was University of Montana philosopher Albert Borgmann who has written extensively about the philosophy of technology. The lectures themselves were not very memorable, but one theme did stand out. It was brought up during a question period after one of his lectures. I don’t even remember the question Borgmann was asked, but it was something to the effect of, “Aren’t you being a little hard on the Internet? Look at all the good it’s done! Look at all the knowledge we have available to us!”
Borgmann responded to the question with some questions of his own. “Let’s take an empiricist’s approach,” he said. “How are we doing? Has culture flowered in the age of the Internet? What kind of people are we becoming?” Well, if my general, entirely subjective and unscientific impressions are correct, we are becoming the kind of people who spend a lot of time posting pictures of our food or pets or the latest concert/party/movie we went to on Facebook… Or sharing funny videos and clever articles… Or feverishly posting our own writing or photos in the desperate attempt to get noticed or “liked” or to enhance our “online presence” (say, for example, blogging about the evils of the Internet!)… Or pirating movies and music… Or spewing mostly ignorant venom on newspaper sites and blogs… Or gorging on porn… Or worse.
Has culture flowered in the age of the Internet? Are we becoming better people? Um, not exactly. Indeed, a pretty convincing case could be made for the exact opposite conclusion. Rather than shrinking distances and uniting humanity, our brave new online world very often leads to feelings of isolation, addiction, and loneliness. It has led to the increasingly common spectacle of large groups of people existing in the same physical space, but each locked into their own private worlds, staring at their phones (Sherry Turkle has written about this in her book, Alone Together). Rather than awakening a hunger and love for knowledge that would otherwise have been unavailable, it has led to feeding our apparently insatiable appetites for the trivial, the sensational, the banal, the distracting. Rather than liberating us for the pursuit of the good and the true, in many cases it seems to have enslaved us to the immediate, the entertaining, the instantly forgettable.
Yes, counter-examples can be cited. Some find support and community online. Some get educated. Some find an outlet for their creativity. Some mobilize others in the pursuit of worthy goals. There are always exceptions. But in general, when we think of the majority of ordinary people, when we think of everyday life, could we honestly say that the Internet has improved us? Are we becoming, in general, more knowledgeable? More compassionate? More cultured? More connected? I don’t know. What does the evidence suggest?
I’m pretty sure that I’ve posted this quote before, but every time I read it, it strikes me as even more remarkably prescient. And—hey!—in a world where newer seems to always equal better, maybe a few old words might be worth pondering. Over 130 years ago, long before iPods and smartphones and laptops, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote these words in The Brothers Karamazov:
Some claim that the world is gradually becoming united, that it will grow into a brotherly community as distances shrink, and ideas are transmitted through the air. Alas, you must not believe that men can be united in this way. To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed, and by vanity… Do you really think that such men are free?