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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?

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post and well, it hits on so many of the fears I have for our brave new world. And as someone attempting to do good work online, to build a business of helping others learn languages and all that, I cannot help but to be haunted by the effects of the medium on both the message and the messenger. Thanks for the thoughtful post. It is the topic so seldom explored as we swallow every new technology with nary a question of the second side of the double edged sword.

    December 10, 2012
    • Thank you, Aaron. I wish you well in your attempts to use this crazy medium to bring life.

      December 11, 2012
  2. Nice post Ryan. I loved your thoughts here but have one quibble: I found Borgmann’s lectures to be very memorable 🙂

    December 10, 2012
    • I don’t know, he seemed kind of disorganized and rambly to me. The question periods were often better than the lectures themselves, in my view. Not too often you can say THAT about public lectures :).

      December 11, 2012
  3. Marie Moyer #

    Ah yes… Today I posted a link to an online petition working towards a very worthy cause on my facebook page. Knowing a bit of the political leanings of my various friends, I hesitated a moment before posting it, thinking it might be misunderstood or controversial. But, courage prevailed and I took a stand. That was today. Yesterday I checked out the fashion choice of some pop star I don’t even know because the link popped up on Yahoo news. What a waste, and even perhaps a pollution, of my mental space. Alas. It’s a mixed bag.

    December 11, 2012
    • Yes, I think many of us know this feeling well, Marie. There are so many opportunities to contribute to what is good and true online, but—hey, look, so and so is splitting up with so and so… or there was an important soccer game last night and the highlights were just posted… or, look, someone just put a new blog post up :)… or, hey, I didn’t know cats could do THAT?!!

      A profoundly mixed bag, indeed. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable things about the Internet is that it holds a mirror up to us and shows us to ourselves. The results are not always (often?) very flattering. “Am I THAT easily distracted? THAT trivial? THAT bored? Perhaps the bag is mixed because WE, with all of our motives and cravings and insecurities, are mixed up first.


      December 11, 2012
  4. That last line is haunting: “Do you really think that such men are free?”

    December 11, 2012
    • Haunting, yes… “Indicting,” “damning”… pick your unwelcome adjective :).

      December 11, 2012
  5. mike #

    …an awesome post Ryan..I think the brilliant minds behind these modern inventions of inovative technologies intentionally prey and capitalize on our (well researched) vulnerabilies and addictive tendancies in the name of advancing the human race and,of course,free market capitalism$$$$. Yet on a darker Spiritual level,these ‘innovations’ serve to distract/divert us and capture our attention away from the esoteric calling that would otherwise beckon us.I often contemplate on the latest techniques/inventions in this unseen battle being waged for our hearts and minds,it can be very disturbing when one initally see’s it for what it truly is.

    December 11, 2012
    • Thank you, Mike. There is certainly an element to how the Internet works (and how various groups use the Internet) that seems to prey upon human weakness. Porn is the most obvious example, but there are many others as well. I once read that the brain patterns that are activated when we are clicking aimlessly around the internet are similar to those lighting up in addictions to substances like cocaine. The addictive behaviours are the same, only the “substance” changes.

      Frightening. As you allude to, we were made for so much more than this.

      December 12, 2012

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