In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as
an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a
world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of
life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read:
Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in,
there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All
a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and
untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.
- Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98.
- A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.
“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature, and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
People love to reference “The Machine Stops” when they talk about Internet dependency. The machine does stop in the story, and all is calamity. And it’s true that our lives can seem to stop when our iPhones are stolen or Twitter goes down or the DSL in our apartments stop working. But there is so much hyperbole about the effects of our reliance on technology that you’d think we’d evolved a new species of Mole People, pale from no sun, blinded by any light that doesn’t come from a computer or cell phone screen, with dexterous thumbs but all other limbs withered from disuse.
There is a really interesting book to be written on how the Internet and technology is changing our way of thinking, but so far we either have foolish optimism — like Steven Johnson’s assertion in Everything Bad Is Good for You that video games and sitcoms are actually making us smarter, supported with vague “neurological” and “cerebral” terms and the lack of a definition of what Johnson means by “smarter” — or the aforementioned doom and gloom. Maggie Jackson is so hysterical in the introduction to her book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age that it’s difficult to take anything in the following chapters seriously. That “Coming Dark Age” is not in the subtitle for nothing — Jackson really does believe that our wired world is going to cause a great collapse of civilization.
Just look at the evidence. “The parallels between dark ages past and our times are clear and multiplying, and the erosion of attention is the key to understanding why we are on the cusp of a time of widespread cultural and social losses.” A bit further down the page, she continues, “Consciously doing all we can to free ourselves from the last boundaries of space and time, we are ultimately trading our cultural and societal anchors for an age of glorious freedom, technological innovation — and darkness.” Someone call the Mayans, they were right about 2012.
It’s hard to keep the sarcasm at bay. Her arguments are exactly the same ones we’ve been hearing for years now: a Facebook contact isn’t the same thing as a friend, parents are causing ADD in their children by letting them watch TV and play video games, Google is making us all shallow thinkers incapable of delving into any given topic, and PowerPoint is to blame for the Challenger explosion. (That last one she just sort of throws in there, without further explanation.) She does have some interesting points — nature deficiency is a real thing with harmful effects, for example. But her over-the-top, catastrophic tone makes it difficult to connect to her ideas.
It would be nice to have someone tackle both the good and the ill of our new way of living. Distracted seems to be more of an argument against bad parenting and poor self-discipline than a reasoned criticism of our culture’s reliance on technology. Yes, you should probably not spend so much time playing World of Warcraft that you feel the need to check yourself into America’s first rehab center for Internet addiction. You should also teach your children some respect if they’re not looking up from their computer screens when you come home from work. When Jackson tries to connect what seems like personal issues of some people who have unsatisfied lives on multiple levels to the culture at large, she fails, really. We live in a time of spectacular mobility, giving us the ability to do the same job from anywhere in the world, as long as we can find a cafe with some Wi-Fi. We can travel the world, move from place to place, and structure our living situation in ways that would not have been possible only six or seven years ago. Jackson, of course, thinks this is horrible. “Movement has its perils, and foremost among them is the fact that in moving too far or too fast or too often, we literally risk losing ourselves.” Leaving the misuse of the word “literally” behind, I still want to scream at her, “That sounds like a personal problem.” I happen to love the fact that I can pick up my belongings and move from Chicago to Berlin with my work securely located on my computer; the psychological damage has been minimal.
Perhaps Jackson would get along with Sara Maitland, author of A Book of Silence. Jackson is also riled up over technology. “In the Middle Ages Christian scholastics argued that the devil’s basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being… The mobile phone, then, seems to me to represent a major breakthrough for the powers of hell — it is a new thing, which allows the devil to take a significant step forward in her grand design.” Not that I don’t agree that cell phones are evil — anything that allows me to hear the gynecological details of the sex life of the woman next to me on the tram this morning is obviously not a tool for good. But once again, it’s hard to take someone seriously when they rely so heavily on hyperbole.
Maitland believes that our culture hates silence. We fear it, despise it, do anything to avoid it. Maitland moved to rural England in order to escape the noise of her city life, and in her book she examines the experience of silence and isolation, both voluntary and involuntary. She rather overstates her case, honestly. Anyone who lives in a city does not fear silence. They crave it, wish for it when the train rumbles by every 15 minutes all night long, or when the neighbor you’re afraid of turns on the death metal until your apartment floor vibrates. She points to our constant noise-making as proof of our fear, but I think her examples are just our attempts to make the sounds around us friendlier. An iPod full of our favorite music is greatly preferred over random subway rumble and chatter, and texting or phoning your dearest is preferred over a roomful of strangers’ conversation. (The neighbor’s death metal itself is probably just a friendlier sound than the screams of the prostitutes he’s dismembering right now. Probably.)
Silence has much to offer us, Maitland argues. I mean, once you get away from the men and women that silence drove crazy and suicidal. But she reports that periods of isolation and silence can bring a deepening sense of self, a connectedness with the divine and with the world, and a disinhibitedness. She spent six weeks at a cabin on a Scottish island, not even going into town for groceries, and while she hallucinated voices and had what seemed to be panic attacks, she recommends it. But you know who can do things like that? People with money, or people who can e-mail their work to the office. And you know what makes that possible? Technology.
We are off balance. We should be aware that our nifty new gadgets and our new ways of life have consequences. But to say that the Internet is a tool of the devil or will cause the breakdown of civilization is absurd and irresponsible. Now if you’ll excuse me, after I e-mail my work to my editor I’m going to go put on my headphones and go out into the streets of Melbourne, which I managed to make it to without literally losing myself. Somehow, civilization still holds. • 27 August 2009