Am I destroying civilization?


Inventor of LOLCatsI tend to think of the pursuit of technology as a humanitarian endeavor. Inventions like the printing press, steam engine, transistor, polymerase chain reaction machine, and the internet have all created immense social value, in addition to private wealth. I go into work every day hoping that I can play a small part in the invention and subsequent commercialization of the next big thing.

You see, I am a bit of a Singularitarian. Not that I believe that 2049 is the magic year when we will all upload our brains to the internet (the extreme version of Marc Andressen’s “Software is Eating the World“), but I do believe that the information content of the world will only become more organized and that our thoughts and intentions will only become more intertwined and connected. This tide cannot be reversed, especially when it comes to the proliferation of digital media.

Not everyone thinks this is a good thing. The last chapter of Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur tells the story of one well-known dissenter: Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.

The first bombs were sent out before I was born, so the Unabomber story is a fuzzy childhood memory. I was therefore surprised to learn that his terrorist acts were backed by an intellectual agenda, not just random acts of insanity. Kaczynski’s manifesto Industrial Society and its Future was published in 1995, and Klosterman finds its lamentations on the proliferation of technology to be creepily more relevant today than at the time they were written. Yet, while Klosterman finds truth in Kaczynski’s reasoning, he also recognizes his own inability to internalize it (p. 228):

Even though he deserves to die in jail, Kaczynski’s thesis is correct: Technology is bad for civilization. We are living in a manner that is unnatural. We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world. The benefits of technology are easy to point out (medicine, transportation, the ability to send and receive text messages during Michael Jackson’s televised funeral), but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence. As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.

And that (evidently) is what I want.

I must want it. It must be my desire, because I would do nothing to change the world’s relationship to technology even if I could…I aspire to think of myself as an analog person, but I am not. I have been converted to digital without the remastering, and the fidelity is appalling.

What Klosterman is referring to is the oversaturation of media that so many technophiles are experiencing today.

Try this: picture a basketball game. Close your eyes and do it. What do you see? If you’re like most people I’ve asked, you are picturing a game you saw on TV, even though you’ve likely played basketball yourself in the past.

How often do you form images in your head based not upon reality, but upon a media impression? Whatever the answer is, I’m sure the number of affirmative responses has increased dramatically since Kaczynski moved into the woods and started mailing bombs to people. Just since 2001, the average daily time spent consuming media has risen from 6 hrs 50 min to 8 hrs 11 min, so today roughly half of our waking hours are spent consuming media.

We actually consume as much media as we do reality.

The big question is whether this realization somehow makes technology a devious endeavor. And, to that point, I say no. I disagree with Klosterman. I am closer to many people in my life because of the strong ties that email, social networks, and video chat have produced. My life is made better by the existence of Pearl Jam, Darren Aronofsky’s films, and the second and third Assassin’s Creed video games (not so much the first). I think digital media has the power to connect, not just to disconnect. A media impression may be less real than reality, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worse.

The same may be said for technology in general. Trains, planes, and automobiles may confine human beings to small metal tubes for extended periods of time, but at least some of those trips are to see loved ones they could otherwise visit only infrequently. Increases in longevity have produced senior citizens who have difficulty caring for themselves, but some of them live to see grandchildren they may not have otherwise. The atomic bomb is the most diabolical weapon ever constructed, and yet its mere existence has effectively rendered a global war entirely futile for any rational nation. (Ever seen War Games?)

Because technology comes from humans, technology can’t exist without a fundamentally human purpose. Even as the lines between reality and media continue to blur, we are ultimately in control of our own destiny. Why? Because we are creating the world we want to live in, and we’re using technology to do it.

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One Response to Am I destroying civilization?

  1. Interesting thought experiment. I think the key thing to reflect on is to what extent the hyper-connectivity augments your reality vs detracts from your reality. I use social media and the like to continue creating context with people for when I do end up actually seeing them.

    I also think media has shifted and continue to shift away from centralized powers. That is to say, more of the media is being generated and shared by my friends and peers vs a central organization that pushes out. Furthermore, most of my media is now consumed because my friends are consuming and suggesting it. This further connects us.

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