In the past six months or so, I have added the issue of technology – especially the technology of media, ie TV to facebook - to the docket of things I think about. This was inspired mostly by the commentary of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, two authors I’ve started to read after a whole lifetime of almost totally ignoring literature. Simply put, neither Franzen or Wallace are Luddites (and the way in which this term is used is actually a disservice to the actual Luddites, who were about much more thoughtful and noble ideas than simply disliking technology), but they both articulate a concern that media technology, while having its uses, distracts Americans from both civic engagement and sustained confrontation with the existential questions that all of us must try to address to fully face our humanity. As Jonathan Franzen puts it, “There is some part of me, if I spend all day online, [which] is even lonelier than when I started.”
I myself have a rather ambiguous relationship with the internet in particular. Ever since my undergraduate years, the internet – particularly through the venue of blogging and, online discussions on such social networking sites as facebook – has offered me both one of the most powerful tools of self-expression and also the most acute reminder of how limited that self-expression can often be. It has been both the symbol of connectivity with the outside world and the ultimate symbol of loneliness. In particularly sad times, which always corresponded with a feeling of invisibility, the specter of being surrounded by blank monitors, totally unresponsive to and uninterested in my existence, would present itself to me in my daymares. But obviously here I am, still blogging away – for the internet has also provided me with some of the best opportunities to make connections to other likeminded people, and to have my own views challenged and refined. As the title of this blog suggests, it is part of what keeps my isolation incomplete.
I try, however, to balance this with activities that depend on and cultivate the type of solitude that actually leads you to being more, rather than less aware of the world around you. It is important to always keep in mind, and thus try to mitigate, the tendencies of media technology to whittle the entire world down to you – to keep you so focused on yourself that actual human empathy becomes increasingly more difficult. Thus this recent column by Maureen Dowd at The New York Times caught my eye. The column mostly flirts ironically with the humor of a new iPhone application designed to make Catholic confession more user-friendly and to encourage the faithful to attend more often. However, the column brings up an unspoken question that both critics from the right and the left like to tackle: will technology ultimately, and inherently, erode human relationships and the fabric of the concept of the larger good?
On the one hand, my immediate instinct is to respond, no. Technology, like most products of human effort, is dependent on human culture and context to determine how it will be adopted and to what ends it will be put. Some of the far right disagree, and they make the argument that technology, and the science that made it possible, and the rationality that made the science possible, ultimately undermines any pious impulse in man. The Enlightenment leads straight to the holocaust, is basically the argument here. But a tool only gains its use when men and societies determine what it will be useful for – while an iPod can be used to listen to music, it can also be used to smack people over the head. This says nothing about any quality intrinsic to the iPod.
However, there still seems something strongly legitimate in some of the commentary that Franzen and Wallace make – that the distraction that such technology makes possible only has the effect of reducing, not increasing, our capabilities for serious self-reflection and civic participation. Will the iPhone application actually result in more Catholics in confessionals?, or will they merely treat it as a type of light-hearted entertainment, or find that consulting the iPhone confessional satisfies their needs to repent and reduces the guilt they feel for not doing so in person? Is there really any way to make social networking sites like facebook serve as tools for fostering political participation and an awareness of the broader good? Considering that those who frequently express their political opinions on facebook run a higher risk of being unfriended by their contacts, one has reasons to doubt.
On the whole, however, I remain uncomfortably agnostic on this question. I am therefore looking forward to persuasive arguments from either direction.