The threat of technology

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November 30, 2006

12:13 AM

Technology began with the first crude tool fashioned by man. From that moment until the late 18th century, it advanced at a sober pace. But the Industrial Revolution set technology off on a crash course, like that of a snowball rolling down a mountainside: ever growing in size, ever gaining in speed and ever less inclined to stop for those who willfully obstruct its path.

p. In the Nov. 17 Confusion Corner column, senior Lauren Bell observed correctly that students at the College “can’t live without” our cell phones. I hereby broaden her statement and say that our whole society has come to depend on the cellular phone, and practically overnight.

p. The case reminds me of a great movie called “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It tells the story of N!ke, a Bushman of the Kalahari, who one day comes upon a strange and beautiful object unlike anything he has ever seen. The “thing,” as N!ke calls it, proves to be a real labor-saving device for him and his fellow Bushmen, mainly because it is harder than anything found in their desert habitat. The “thing” becomes so useful that everyone soon seems to need it all the time. The hithertofore cooperative Bushmen argue and even grapple with one another over this wonderful new tool (which any “civilized” viewer recognizes as a discarded Coke bottle). “Something they had never known before had become a necessity,” observes the narrator of the film. And such is the case with our reliance on cell phones.

p. The columnist also stated that our gadgets transpose us from the real world to the “insular world of technology.” This idea is discussed in “My Dinner with Andre,” a cult film that consists entirely of a conversation between the two writers Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (of “The Princess Bride”). At one point, Wally tells Andre about his new electric blanket and insists that it affects the way he sleeps, the way he dreams and even the way he feels when he gets up in the morning. In response, Andre suggests to Wally that his blanket “separates him from reality in a very direct way.” Insulated under that blanket, Andre goes on to say that Wally will forget he ever struggled to keep warm in winter. He will lose what sympathy he has for people who still face that struggle. “You like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too,” Andre concedes. “But don’t you see, Wally, how comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility?” Indeed, with the mere flip of a switch, Wally can insulate himself from the forces of the seasons.

p. We so often hear technology described as a harbinger of new freedoms that we fail to see how it can do just the opposite. The World State of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” sustains itself simply by keeping its subjects occupied. It provides them not only with leisure time but with the forms their leisure takes. Sports, for example, remain popular in the World State, though we would not recognize any that they play. Theirs are, without exception, outlandishly technological, and not by coincidence: the more machinery and high-tech equipment required by the game, the greater the levels of consumption and production required to play it. The people thus enjoy themselves and stimulate the state’s economy all at once; all parties seem to benefit. But the subjects of the World State know no pleasures besides those provided for them, and all of these are calculated both to gratify and to arouse the desire for further gratification. They have been deliberately reduced to the sum of their basest desires by a state that happily gives them their fixes. Most tragic of all, they adore their condition. They see their servitude as freedom.

p. I, for one, agree with Aldous and Andre: technology poses a threat to humanity — our humanity, as individuals. If everything is easy, quick and convenient, it follows that nothing is difficult and that nothing involves struggle nor demands our fullest commitment. I do not mean to suggest that I regard technology and humanity as irreconcilable; so long as we keep our eyes open and our minds active, we have nothing to fear. And in case of doubt, we might ask ourselves this question: can we handle solitude? Those among us who cannot bear the company of their own minds, consider the possibility that something of paramount importance has been stolen from you.

p. __Clint Condra is a senior at the College. His views do not necessarily represent those of The Flat Hat__

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