Historically, citizens of the United States have been unable to agree on the big questions: how do we live and how do we live well? There seems, however, to be at least one tenet that few Americans will venture to question: the blessing of technological innovation. No matter what the goal of human life, the means to that end seem to lie in better technology.
As President Levin remarked in a speech delivered in May of this year, “The world we live in is constantly changing. New scientific discoveries are made every day, and new theories displace old ones with relentless regularity.”
Levin’s sentiments preempt a growing trend: in order for education to be valuable, it must incorporate technological savvy. Subsequently, a good education, he argued, prepares students to be “innovative” and capable of “adapting” to ever-changing environments. In the United States, we take great pride in our renowned inventors and our abiding capacity for technical advancement. But this educational philosophy is only one manifestation of a broader societal outlook that identifies innovation with progress.
While gaining mastery over nature and the creation of tools in order to increase the productivity of human life seems to be a desirable end, I believe that it is unwise to make efficiency the sole standard by which we judge the merits of invention. Such a narrow-minded approach to understanding the implications of technology neglects the full impact it has on our lives. Every technological innovation encourages certain habits of mind, certain social interactions, attitudes, prejudices, and tendencies, and the majority of these consequences are unforeseen when an invention is first brought to the public’s attention.
In replacing the printed word as a dominant mode of public discourse, the television, for example, has helped to transform that discourse from an idea-oriented conversation into a generally unserious, superficial spectacle oriented around entertainment (think of our Democratic and Republican National Conventions).
Television commercials do not appeal to prudence or logic; the medium of film does not very well lend itself to that kind of appeal. Commercials instead make use of dazzling images, attractive actors, and above all, comical scenes, all of which function for a purpose other than artistic acheivement.
As a result, we see the world less in terms of good judgment and more in terms of entertainment. The world is experienced not as a place to ask serious questions and seek out the answers, but a comfortable sofa on which to receive perpetual amusement.
Public discourse aside, television fosters in the individual viewer certain habits of mind that thwart his capacity to live a rich and serious life. Watching
‘boob-tube’ is mainly a passive occupation, which deadens the imagination. Reading, by contrast, is an active engagement wherein one is compelled by the medium to conjure a world within his own mind. Excessive television viewing can engender a kind of image-oriented thinking that is hardly capable of comprehending, much less expressing, any complex idea. Of course, my claims are broadly brushed. Television can certainly serve a purpose, and entertainment is by no means an evil. On the whole, however, the invention of the television has abstracted our connection to reality and consequently robbed us of soul.
Countless other relevant examples lurk in the shadows. They say the automobile destroyed a would-have-been genuine community among neighbors in the same community—many never meet one another because they spend each day working away from the neighborhood, only to return in the evenings, park in the garage, and (alas) watch television for a couple of hours before rolling into bed.
Cell phones perform the same operation and frequently pull us away from the more immediate, actual world in which we live. The internet tends to delude us into thinking that reality is a mere click away. AIM destroys the English language.
Though we may disagree on the effects of particular forms of technology, technology for the sake of itself is not always for the best.
Obviously, many times it is beneficial—for example, I will not conceal my gratitude for modern medicine—but we must come to recognize the immense danger of surrendering ourselves to the unpredictable direction of technological innovation and committing ourselves to the unfettered pursuit of “mastery” over nature.
Thoreau said, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” and surely he was right.
Yet I fear that even more than distracting us, our inventions are wont to make their human masters into slaves—slaves to appetite, comfort and entertainment, slaves who have become alienated from the noblest of human pursuits, isolated from the truest of human interactions, and increasingly incapable of imagination and rational thought.