You’d Think We Would Have Realized …

By Brian Emmet
The New York Times recently reported that Evan Wilson, the founder of Twitter, has reluctantly come to the conclusion that “the Internet is broken” (see “The Internet Isn’t Broken,” Mark Bauerlein, www.FirstThings.com, May 26, 2017). Damon Linker of The Week just posted “Twitter is Destroying America,” http://theweek.com/articles/702389/twitter-destroying-america. My point is not about who’s right about Twitter, although I think the opinions of its founder carry some weight, but about why we are surprised by the fact that tech promises don’t always materialize in the ways promised.
Apparently, Wilson shared the common and widespread belief that hot new technology only makes things better. Give everyone a platform, make everyone a citizen journalist, connect everyone to everyone and everything, and life will just become better. It just has to, because that’s what technology does.

It’s surprising that really smart, really creative, and really wealthy people are dismayed by all the unintended uses and consequences of their technological innovations. Neil Postman, who characterized himself as a “media ecologist,” warned us about this misplaced faith more than thirty years ago, in his books Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, among many others.

Postman made the point that life-enhancing prospects for television were presented to us in terms very similar to the digital revolution. Television would bring the benefits of “high culture” to the entire nation: rural families could enjoy the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera in their own homes! Doctors at small community hospitals could learn the latest life-saving techniques from the masters at Massachusetts General Hospital or the Mayo Clinic! Ordinary citizens would eagerly learn at the feet of the finest professors that Harvard and Yale have to offer! Politics would become more rational and more effective because the interconnectivity of television would help us see that we’re all in this together! The reality of what television hath wrought is rather more complicated and mixed than its first champions proclaimed.
Technology is always a mixed bag, because its human inventors and developers are very mixed bags themselves, as are the users of the technology. We are utopian; we are elitist; we are proud; we refuse the lessons of the past; we imagine ourselves to have, finally, transcended the limits that held our dreams in check. We are also vain, lazy, self-seeking and self-absorbed, and largely indifferent to how our preferences and choices make an impact, often a very negative impact, on our neighbors near and far. I like high-quality items at low prices, but please do not let me see the conditions of the workers producing those items (they should be grateful for the jobs), the communities destroyed by strip malls (can’t fight ‘progress’), or the mountains of waste generated by our unslakable thirst for the next-gen gizmo (“I recycle … sometimes, I guess.”)

Technological innovation is a mixed bag, as are all human undertakings. We have come to equate innovation with progress, but hide from ourselves the question, progress towards what? Progress as defined by whom? And who is benefiting from this innovation or that ‘forward step’ of progress?

Technology tends to speed things up. Two centuries ago, about the fastest a human could travel was on horseback, and horses could only travel at top speed for brief periods. Now we can jet across the country in a couple of hours; our fastest planes travel at several times the speed of sound, and our astronauts regularly travel at speeds measured in the tens of thousands miles per hour. The fastest we used to be able to communicate was by postal mail; we can now send and receive enormous amounts of information almost instantaneously. If you had blocked coronary arteries in 1800, no one was likely to know about it until you pitched over dead and an autopsy was (perhaps) performed; life-saving cardiac stents are now typically an out-patient procedure.

While technology really has been an engine for what nearly all of us would agree is wonderful progress, it is never the pure blessing its proponents claim. Why was Twitter-founder Wilson so surprised that his gift to the world quickly became a vehicle for communicating all that is worst about us? Twitter technology makes communication easier, cheaper and faster (and briefer); why are we surprised that trolls love it as much as “legitimate” users, or that Twitter really does not appear to have any answers to controlling the trolling? Yes, they can slap down a few really egregious violators of their terms of use, but when POTUS is Twitter’s most prominent current user …?

“What hath God wrought?” was the first message transmitted using the new technologies of the telegraph and Morse code. Samuel Morse knew his Bible; he was quoting from the Book of Numbers (23:23). It was an interesting way to introduce this new technology. On the one hand, Morse appears to have understood that technology is a way that we carry out God’s commission to be stewards of creation; we use technology to help cultivate the world and release all of the amazing potentials contained within it. Morse of course understood that God had not “wrought” the telegraph by revealing it to Morse in a vision. There was a lot of old-fashioned human work, trial and error, failure and eventually success.
But I wonder if Morse also recognized that, while humans enjoy some amazing capacities and abilities—wonder, imagination, creativity, emotion, rationality, among many others—they also are answerable to something outside themselves. If God has wrought us, created us to be the kind of creatures that bear “the image of God,” then we need to be mindful about what we do through the works of our minds, hands and hearts.

Television promised human flourishing; has it delivered? I’d argue that the results are decidedly mixed: there have been some benefits, as well as all kinds of less positive outcomes. We are now coming to terms with the fact that not all of the fruits of the digital revolution are positive. If there is a correlation between time spent on social media and rates of depression, shouldn’t we question more vigorously the utopianism that is the core offering of the great goddess Tech?
Increasing speed naturally leaves less and less time and space for reflection, questioning and conversation. At the same time Tech enables and empowers, she also suppresses and ignores; one of the meanings of “screen” is “to hide from view.” Without expecting perfect forecasting, may we not ask what kept Evan Wilson from anticipating what Twitter hath wrought?

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