Wishful thinking, unchecked long enough, becomes a mild form of madness. Where I teach, I’m shocked to hear otherwise bright students suggest that, through time travel, we’ll find new planets to live on before we’ve overrun and worn out this one beyond recovery. Or that computers will be made that are smarter (and more moral?) than their makers and programmers, in short, that artificial intelligence (and I guess artificial character) will correct the deficiencies of regular human intelligence and character.

In a similar vein, how often I hear the internet spoken of as a vehicle for positive social and political change. That bubble should have gone pop a few years ago in the failures of power-to-the-people movements like Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Through mobile phones, protest rallies could be organized against political corruption/ moral turpitude in a matter of moments. It was twittered to be a whole new world. But finally the other side had access to the same tools to confuse the enemy and unite its own forces. Power to the wrong people. Power to the status quo.

The most clammy illusion of all is that the internet is creating a smarter, more informed, more connected citizenry, when it’s creating far more of just the opposite: face-book addicts, computer-games addicts, twitter/e-mail addicts, mobile phone/smart phone addicts, and various combinations thereof. This dark side of the internet has overwhelmed whatever may have been its initial positives. The damage already done adds up to intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pollution as devastating as air, soil, and water pollution; and, although one doesn’t want to even think it, mankind’s fate as a failed experiment in nature may be already sealed.

. . .

The screen life is only about a hundred years old on this planet. It started with moving pictures, but you had to go to the movies, and that would be maybe once a week. Then mid-twentieth century, the screen got into the home via television. Sometimes I tell my students how blessed I feel that there was no TV in my house until I was eleven, and then a little 12 inch black and white screen and only one channel that brought in decent reception. It was nice to have, but for the first year or so we barely watched it. It was always going on the blink, and nobody much cared. In good time, Dad would fix it — which meant finding the faulty tube and, when we had the spare money, buying a replacement at the local hardware.

So TV watching was a small part of a person’s day in its first couple of years, and from my point of view inconsequential. A curiosity. But soon closer transmitters appeared, and now you could pull in three stations. And the screens slowly got ever bigger — nothing like the wall-sized screens of today, but 18 inches, 21 inches, 24 inches. Pejorative words like “boob-tube” and “idiot box” started to circulate — especially among teachers, who were seeing problems in the consistently trite programming, the phony laugh tracks, the glossy news, the demeaning advertisements, but more than anything in the passivity entailed in watching TV, the dawning of the couch potato. And by the time folk singer, John Prine, in the early 1970’s sang “Blow up your TV,” everybody at least knew what he was singing about.

However, the damages from television, as described in such books as Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, are next to nothing compared to the more recent explosive developments in screen life via the internet and smart phone. Modern persons are never two seconds away from an available screen. When I walk into my classroom, almost everybody — and sometimes everybody — has their head down into their phone, texting, checking their e-mail, playing a video game. At break, automatically, the first thing they do is pull out their little screens again.

Emerson once wrote, in reference to materialism/ consumerism in general: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” But never have things owned people like smart phones own people. Religiously carrying our screen lives in our pockets and purses, we have drastically reduced our direct contact with each other (and with nature); have become dumber, not smarter; deader, not more alive (literally deader, in the case of deaths resulting from texting while driving).  For a person who grew up with no screens in his life — well, one screen, the Friday night movie at the Sun Theater in downtown Marion, Michigan — this looks like one step forward, two hundred steps backwards.  Okay, if your car breaks down, you’ve got a phone to call for help.  That may be nice, but let’s not confuse it with progress.

. . .

I am often accused of nostalgia if I remember my pre-television childhood out loud. Sure, the world I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s by today’s values would appear impoverished, including poorly informed and poorly entertained.  But for quality of life I would rank it head and shoulders above contemporary times. Something is palpably missing in too many people today. I’ll just call it a presence. The screen life diminishes a person’s presence. I may as well say it — a person’s soul.

I was waiting my turn in the barber shop the other day when a father and his two boys came in for haircuts. All three of them immediately went on their separate i-pads. They (including, of course, the father) didn’t look at each other or anybody, or say anything to each other or anybody for the whole time they were sitting there. I looked at them. I reflected about who they were, about what similar means to avoid boredom might be available for them down the line.  But to them, I didn’t exist.

No big loss, the reader may be thinking. But multiply this screen preoccupation by a hundred such missed interactions every day — something even as small as eye-contact with a stranger — and multiply that hundred by 365 days every year, yes, it’s a big loss.  And irrecoverable.

There’s an old Turkish proverb: “No matter how far you’ve gone on the wrong road, turn back.” But first you’d have to see that it was the wrong road. And in this day where perspectives are shrinking, where is that perspective going to come from?  From which calamity? Which bang? Which whimper?







  1. Eugenia

    Ancient societies are reaching each other and still have the need to acknowledge each other.

  2. Eugenia

    After reading your writing it came to my mind when my son Ramon was visiting the USA and he told me he was very confused seeing people and in the reality people pass by without seeing each other.
    After visiting my country I observed he was right. People were looking at each other trying to engage somehow. Ancient societies are teacher since they have not lost perspective of the human beings. Very good article.


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