“…and we also know that almost every person, including children, was issued a device that enabled them to see and hear one another, however far apart in the world they might be; that these devices were small enough to be carried in the palm of one’s hand; that they gave instant access to all the knowledge and music and opinions and writings in the world; and that in due course they displaced human memory and reasoning and even normal social intercourse [emphasis added]—an enabling and narcotic power that some say drove their possessors mad, to the extent that their introduction marked the beginning of the end of advanced civilization.”—Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, p. 145
My Good Lady, a technological Luddite, had been reading an alternative history novel, The Second Sleep by Robert Harris, and pointed out, with some satisfaction, the quote above to me. She has not used, is not now using, and pledges never to use cell phones.
I read the novel after she finished. It’s an homage (with some twists) to Walter Miller’s, “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Rather than the Roman Catholic Church in America, it is the Anglican Church in England that preserves order after an apocalyptic wipeout of civilization as we now know it. Moreover, in “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” the Catholic Church (the Order of St. Leibowitz) preserves scientific knowledge (even though it doesn’t understand it), whereas in “The Second Sleep” the Anglican Church represses “Antiquarianism,” attempts to recover or renew scientific and technological knowledge.
I won’t say more about the book or even given my opinion of its literary merit. Go to the link given in the quote and you’ll see summaries and a variety of ratings. Rather, I’ll use the alternative future history presented in “The Second Sleep” to put the question: does technology kill culture?
THE QUESTION: DOES TECHNOLOGY KILL CULTURE?
Most of you reading this article will not remember a time when there was no TV and fewer perhaps, a time when there were no smart phones. Born in 1930, I grew up reading and listening to the radio–no TV. My first experience with TV was at Caltech and that didn’t distract from bridge, work, beer and other amusements of nerdy underclassmen.
My Good Lady and I restricted television time for our children and being near Toronto, they could focus their TV attention to “wholesome” Canadian programs (e.g. “The Friendly Giant”). (Canadians do have that outstanding virtue of being nice!) We paid them a penny a page to read and that habit continued with all five. Has that tradition continued with our grandchildren? Not so much.
Five or ten years ago, we would play board games with visiting grandchildren, see them reading. One of my daughters prohibited computers, tablets, smart phones, etc., until her children were over six and into first grade. These are the ones who still read (occasionally). Now our birthday and Christmas gifts of books are received with polite thanks and little enthusiasm. Most of the 11 who visit now spend their time on video games, either on Xbox or on smartphones. Very occasionally they talk to each other. We don’t interfere.
IS UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO INFORMATION ALL THAT VALUABLE?
Again, pardon the reminiscences of a cranky old physicist. It is true, as the quote suggests, that information of all sorts is now easily available to us. In researching material for my new ebook, “Mysteries: Quantum & Theological,” web resources were invaluable, and there are lots of links in the book to confirm that. I think back 55 years when I spent two weeks prowling the corridors of the Carnegie Tech Library trying to find the article by Schwinger that I needed to understand a particular application of density matrix techniques.
During the Second Week of Christmas I could turn to DivineOffice.org to find out which hymn, psalms, antonyms and readings were to be used for Morning Prayer. (This wasn’t always clear in the “Shorter Christian Prayer” little book I usually use.) I can go to YouTube to play Bjorling’s and Merrill’s moving duet from Les Pescheurs or hear Bill W talk about his voyage from the pits to sobriety, rather than go to a concert or a 12 Step meeting. And you, dear reader, can follow the links and do the same.
Now these shortcuts are fine. They make life easy. But ebooks don’t really replace a book, the feel, the heft of it in your hand. YouTube is great, but YouTube can’t replace a Mass, receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord, no matter how impressive the liturgy, the music, and the recorded homily might be. YouTube can’t replace a live concert experience, hearing the Chorus and Orchestra intone the majestic 2nd movement of Brahm’s German Requiem.
So, what’s the verdict? I call for an informal poll: should we abolish the internet? Or wait and let civilization takes it spiral downward?
*The featured image, the juicy apple with the superimposed image of you-know-who’s logo was inspired by another quote from “The Second Sleep.” The protagonist, a young priest sent to deliver a eulogy for a dead, heretical priest (an “Antiquarian”) finds an old cell phone in the dead priest’s desk:
“He turned it over. On the back was the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy—an apple with a bite taken out of it.” Robert Harris, “The Second Sleep,” p.22
So, did Steve Jobs harken back to The Fall and the Tree of Knowledge in choosing the logo for his new personal computer?