Vol 8, Num 12 :: 2009.06.05 — 2009.06.19
The original Luddites were workers being displaced by less labor-intensive technology. Their jobs, like those of many a worker since, were eliminated by “labor saving devices.” My own suspicions of technology center not on job loss, but rather on the loss of sensory experience and interpersonal connection.
I do not own a cell phone and have only a primitive understanding of how to use one, being unable to take pictures, text or do any other task save making and answering calls (usually). I use my wife’s iPod shuffle when I run as I find it takes my mind off some of the noise my almost-sixty-year-old joints and muscles make, but when outdoors, I prefer the sounds of nature to the Beatles, Dusty Springfield and Rossini overtures (the latter are, however, wonderful at increasing my pace). I do enjoy e-mail but recoil at texting and Twittering as these continue the reduction in quality writing in recent years that seems to have eliminated, for example, virtually all positive adjectives save “awesome,” a word I once enjoyed but now long never to hear again in my remaining years.
I still write letters from time to time, albeit in my appalling script, the result of being kept in from recess for all of the third grade by a teacher bent on making me develop a lovely hand. Already resistant to authority, I decided that although she could keep me from play, she could not force me to write even legibly. I was right, but I regret my choice, especially now that incipient arthritis is rendering the already illegible script into crabbish scrawl. I also enjoy receiving letters, either hand written or word-processed. They are such a wonderful sensory experience — noting the postage stamp, opening the envelope, unfolding the paper and measuring its weight, enjoying its subtle fragrance, to say nothing of being able to linger over its words and return to this pleasure again and again. Reading a letter is like holding a hymnal, a so much richer experience — with its heft and aroma and four-part arrangements as well as an inscription indicating who donated it (always a brief prayer for them) and wonder at all the hands that have held it — than singing projected camp songs in unison.
I also prefer to bank with a living teller than to use an ATM and to pay in person than with a credit card at the gas pump. Such “conveniences” ensure that the web of relatedness that is woven with myriad threads will be frailer for its lack of human contacts. Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if we’re too busy for those we love, we’re too busy. By extension, if we’re too busy for human contact, we’re too busy. Part of what drove Judas nuts about Jesus was his taking of time for people who really didn’t matter. Hmmmmm.
An article in a recent Atlantic Monthly entitled “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” observed how advances in technology — writing, printing, the Internet — inevitably change brain function over time. Many have observed how excessive time on the Internet with its rapid transition for page to page, topic to topic, snippet to snippet, has decreased our capacity for sustained reading, let alone comprehension. And as for books, well, they have much in common with hymnals, especially those borrowed from the library.
I suppose there are occasions when instant notification of changes in circumstances makes technologies like texting and Twitter useful, but these are rare. More often, more and more people are saying more and more about less and less of significance. A question often asked in spiritual direction is, “What is distracting you from God?” Indeed. Distracted by so-called communication techniques that seduce us by their speed, we lose much, perhaps even the capacity to listen not only deep within, but to the still small voice without.