Monday, December 19, 2005

Does technology inoculate us from reflecting?

For me, it happens in my car. Away from my computer and refrigerator (a danger of a home office) and afar from any NPR stations, I reflect. What have I done? What do I plan? Is this a good approach? Is the goal still valid or am I making progress in the wrong direction? Am I happy? Am I acting with integrity?

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. My corollary is that unexamined values are not worth applying [It boggles my mind that Google finds this phrase nowhere else]. I am enriched by those times driving, or bicycling, or walking when I reflect on life and values.

And, so, to the thesis: Does technology inoculate us from reflecting? Driving on the freeway last night, I saw a large video screen in the back of an SUV. Unable to make out the programming through the heavily tinted windows, I guessed that one or more children were being tranquilized. I imagined them liberated from talking to each other or to their parents, or from staring out the window and dreaming.

Once, I tried using an MP3 player while walking to the library, but I lasted only one direction. The sound of wind in the trees, the sound of birds, and the sound of another walker saying hello (I think it was “hello”) were all muted. I would not try it on my bicycle because my safety depends on hearing cars or bicycles approaching from behind. What I missed most, however, was the time to reflect, and my music robbed me of that.

Jim Moore, a deep thinker and poet, told me of his son talking with friends on a bus. When the son stepped off the bus, conversation stopped and he saw his friends move in unison to insert their iPod earbuds. Entertainment technology allows us to be entertained anywhere at anytime. Communication technology, including cell phones, allows us to communicate anywhere at anytime. We have evolved to seek entertainment and communication, much as we have evolved to seek calories. The effects of cheap and accessible food are obvious. We are being supersized. The effects of cheap and accessible entertainment and communication may be insidious.

If you were asked to join a medical experiment that numbed your mind, how long would you be willing to participate? How much compensation would you require for such a sacrifice? These technologies have succeeded—diffusing into our society—because we actually pay for their effect, such is their marketing image and intrinsic allure. Conscious evaluation of our tools is the safe way to use them.

I would very much like to know if these technologies anaesthetize like Soma from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or if they can stimulate thought. Please post to this blog with your thoughts and experiences on this. If the answers come back Soma, then there’s a bigger question to ponder: What sort of world will people that do not reflect create?


  • My knee-jerk response was, "These technologies anaesthetize, big time" (for example, I recently saw an large video screen in the back of a car, just like you did). But thinking about it I change my response to "These technologies anaesthetize but I do see ways they could also be used to stimulate thought and reflection."

    For example, iPods could be a looked at as a great way to reach kids how and where they want to be reached (a perfect "distribution outlet" to use the business lingo ;) ). They already use their iPods to listen to music and now watch video, which tells me they might also use it to do schoolwork -- say, to listen to a class lecture or other audio material a teacher has prepared.

    Same with the video screens in cars. Parents don't have to have their children watching cartoons. They could be accessing schoolwork in video form and getting things done while in the car.

    These are really vague ideas, and whether they'd work or be adopted who knows. Other readers of this blog I'm sure would have better and more concrete ones. But the point is that we can choose how technologies are used, we don't just have to accept or assume that how they affect our world today is how they have to affect our world tomorrow. It's just a matter of taking the time to think about it rather than going with the kind of knee-jerk reaction I myself started with. :)

    By Blogger Mike, at 3:17 PM  

  • Mike, sure technology CAN be used for good purpose (video in the car could be educational), but that would still distract us from deeper reflection. Carrots are healthier than Twinkies, but we still need to pause and digest. Musical notes can be lovely, but music requires the silent pauses between notes and between movements; unrelenting notes are cacophony.

    Technology sneaks in under the flag of beneficial use. Give your kids a cell phone so they can call for help, but what constitutes 99% of use? Constant talking as if anyone had that much to say.

    Fidel Castro could talk for hours on end, but few of the rest of us could fill a 60-minute cassette with anything of importance. How is it we can spend so much time on cell phones? The increasing frequency of driving cars while on the phone makes me wonder if those conversations are much more than, "Nothing much; how about you?"

    We need perspective to evaluate direction. Even if we displace some of that noise with legitimate edification, that still crowds out reflection.

    By Blogger Miguel F. Aznar, at 4:12 PM  

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