Reflections From the Culture Wars: Questioning the Price of Technological Progress

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I recently interviewed Nigel Goodwin, actor, international speaker, and founder of the London Arts Centre Group and Genesis Arts Trust when he came to speak at Wheaton College. During our conversation, I  asked him some questions about the effects of technology on modern culture. “Don’t get so worked up about the culture,” he advised me. “Let the wheat and the tares grow together. Don’t spend so much oxygen in the culture wars, battling what you don’t like. Work at and invest in the wheat, in the positive.”

I have spent years investing thought and energy in those very culture wars against which I have now been warned. I have watched as technological progress has brought not the freedom and ease that were  intended, but servitude.  I have watched it erode literacy and contribute to the decline of the printed word as the years go on. I have worked with high school students who cannot define basic, everyday words, and who no longer value literacy or ideas. I have seen a decline in relational skills as people become entranced with their electronic devices. I have seen a decline in the appetite or desire for the great works of literature that shaped generations before us and helped us to understand the world or be more empathic human beings. We now live in a world of potentialities. Our cellphones accompany us everywhere. We check email or social networking sites every few minutes.

And yet I acknowledge what technology has made possible in our culture: advanced medicine, transportation and communication, to name a few. But at what cost? What is being lost and what is the cost in both the public and private spheres? We are witnessing a massive lateralization of our culture. We can go as far as the eye can see, but we are losing the ability to go deep in a few places. Why are so few of us concerned about the price of progress?

These are a few of the thoughts that have preoccupied me. And now I am offered a paradigm that says “don’t fight.”  If the culture is unaware, who is going to make it aware? Who is going to start people thinking about what they are doing and about the losses that occur with each new capitulation to technological progress?  True, mine is one more negative reaction in a world inundated with negativity and whose ravenous media can never be satiated with enough doom.  I do not harbor any notions or desires that technology is going to go away or the world is going to change. This, then, is where we are, for good or ill. However, I do want to be aware of the cost of technological progress and its implications, so that I do not capitulate mindlessly. Let it not be said I leaped before looking.

In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman looks at two dystopian novels that make predictions about the future of culture: 1984, by George Orwell, and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

In his commencement speech to Harvard in 1978 entitled A World Split Apart, the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was instrumental in the downfall of communism in the Soviet Union, saw that consumerism and “progress” (be it technological or otherwise) in Western society was leading to a moral and spiritual decline that was weakening our culture.  Since that time, we have strayed far down the path of consumerism. Other great thinkers have realized what was happening, but the culture was largely deaf to their proclamations. Many of us think that because everyone has jumped into the stream of technological progress, we must jump also or we will be left behind in the antediluvian past.

Some people are questioning the all-consuming drive for progress and they are right to do so. It is such questioning that keeps cultures from ending up like that described in Brave New World.  Blind acquiescence seems foolish. Just the other week, during a weekly meeting of pipe smokers that I attend, we had a conversation with a leading Czech economist who is publishing a book in which he explores the concept of a static model in economics. Zero percent growth, while the focus shifts to other aspects of life without always being obsessed with financial progress. This is a slightly different arena, but the concept is the same. I believe more and more people are realizing that their lives are less than optimal lived in the fading light of postmodern culture. Progress is dangled before us and we snap at it, yet it only enmeshes us further. We are more connected than ever, and more lonely than ever. We sit at home nights and wonder what to do. We surf the web, we watch television, we go to movies, we go out to eat. We do all those things our culture tells us people do for fun.  And a hollow emptiness pursues us that we try to fill with busyness. In the April, 2010 issue of AARP magazine, author David Dudley laments the vanishing art of conversation due to encroaching technologies. He tells the anecdote of  going to the park with his five-year-old daughter and spending the time sending emails on his iPhone and feeling a flush of satisfaction at getting work done.  At one point he looks up “to see all the other silently staring parents, slumped on benches or standing around, buried in the screens of their own smartphones. The kids ignored them: they ignored the kids; the birds sang, and the sun shone. And that flush faded to something closer to a chill.”

If you doubt the validity of any of these assertions, try to imagine, if you are old enough, how you  got along without computers or cell phones. Try to go three days, four days, a week, without using either and see how you feel.  The effect of technology is to erase the idea of a pre-technological past, as Sven Birkerts writes in The Gutenberg Elegies. It’s hard to imagine life or progress without it.

Certainly these issues are all over-generalized. There are many who are in control of the place technology holds in their lives. And I am by no means against technological progress.  But I do feel that its assumptions should be challenged and the consequent losses understood. Somehow we must master it, instead of it mastering us. And I am abundantly aware of the irony of writing about this subject on the very technology I am decrying. Again, I am not against technological progress or use per se,  but I am against it mastering lives. And the few issues I bring up here are only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. This is not the place for an in-depth look at this topic, but I struggle with Nigel Goodwin’s statement. I want to be involved in knowing what is happening. I don’t believe that it is wise to ignore such things, but I also think Nigel  is right in saying that we must seek out and nourish what is good. Life is too short to focus exclusively on what is wrong.  But technology is a huge part of our culture and it is important to understand the trade-offs of unimpeded advancement if we are to live wisely.

One of the ways we nurture the good and keep the negative at bay is by investing in those things which make us and others more human. Meeting together face-to-face. Spending time with others in quality conversation, talking and discussing important issues. Sharing life stories. Volunteering. Getting involved in organizations that are doing something good for the world. There are a host of ways. I see my Thursday night pipe-smoking group as a means for nurturing the good.

Though it may feel like we are being left behind, it is good to climb out of the flow of progress and camp on a rock in midstream and think about these issues. Because it is only when you climb out that you can see the stars and the great panoply of the real world, the world that we so often miss by being immured in the stream of culture, which is always rushing somewhere, but not always getting somewhere. Yes, we should invest in what is good and make it flourisheven more. But we should also, if not fighting outright against it, be aware of how technological progress is shaping us so we don’t become mindless drones caught in the onrush of a progress that threatens to devalue our humanity.

Interview with Nigel Goodwin, 2/11/10

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 1

The Economics of Good and Evil, Part 2

Continue this discussion. Ask questions. Disagree with me. Leave a comment. I’ll be reading and responding.

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~ by Mark Neal on April 6, 2010.

3 Responses to “Reflections From the Culture Wars: Questioning the Price of Technological Progress”

  1. I appreciate this topic of interest and the descriptions therein. I agree with you that we cannot stop the onslaught of technological advancements, nor, should we! These advancements have provided, as you stated, many opportunities for better medical products, safer transportation and probably a whole host of items that I am unaware. Yet, it is imperative, as was written, that we become aware of the costs. The lack of communication… quality time spent conveying ideas and feelings to one another at a level of depth that cannot be achieved through a short text or email. We are increasingly becoming a culture of quicktakes rather than one of long, contempletive thought and reflection. This shows in every dimension of life for the Westerner, and in recent years for the Easterner as well. So what is the answer? I’ll have to leave that for a book to respond to, but I know that what Mark is doing is crucially important. He is making us aware of where we came from, for what purpose we live and how the recent upsurge of development can derail, in many ways, the progress of the human soul. So is this doom and gloom for all? Yes, for those who do not know God, who cannot fathom the future. But for those who trust in the Lord, we go to the ancient text that forewarned of all that is taking place. The Gospels, II Peter, Revelation… even Daniel. In the end, this is not our destination. The Lord foretold of all that is taking place and more importantly to not look upon it with dread and fear but with confidence that despite it all He is still with us to comfort and encourage us. Furthermore, to remember that this is the battleground and the battle is over people. This is not our final destination. In fact, this is the worst we of faith will have it. But, like Mark is doing, we should constantly be thinking of ways to reach people, helping them become aware of why they live and the things of this world that threaten to rob them of the purest joys and happiness found in deep relations with God, humanity and nature. Well written Mark. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mark,

    Amusing Ourselves to Death by Postman is one of my all-time favorites. Your quote nicely encapsulated the accuracy of his stunningly prophetic voice. I have found myself drawn to more and more of “The Old” – and have decided, wisely, to become a Pre-Modernist, just so I can tap into what is known and tried and experienced to give me a greater life experience than what is vaguely unknown, unmarketted and not-yet-available.

    G. K. Chesterton was also very aware of the bursting forth of the 20th century in his day and said, [I think I shared this once before, pardon me] “It is of the new things that men tire… of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate- it is the old things that are young.”

    Stay young, brother. Read something really old.


  3. Justin: Thanks for the comment. You bring up an important aspect in the last few sentences of your comment about the things that rob us of joy and happiness. That is the crux of the issue. Postman and others have seen that though technology is a friend, it has a dark side, one which robs us of our humanity. Our humanity is what is at stake. No, we can’t and shouldn’t do away with technology, but it is critical to understand what is happening with each acquiescence to new technology. The forces that contribute to the devaluation of our humanity often go unnoticed because they are so subtle and our passion for whatever will make life easier and faster trumps our ability to see what is really happening. We must become conscious of these things. In a way, we can be likened to being asleep with pleasant dreams. We must wake up. It is the only way to live responsibly and humanly.

    Justice: Thanks for continuing the conversation. I like your idea of being a Pre-Modernist and G.K. Chesterton is right on. I know that you aren’t advocating it, but your comment This brought to mind that our responsibility is not to withdraw, but to engage the culture with our knowledge. I agree that we should turn our eyes to the old and tried, as long as we don’t stay there. There is a sense in which we can live in the old while engaging the new. I think the danger in all this is to see oneself as possessing special knowledge (that of seeing technology’s dark side) and therefore withdrawing from culture. My goal is to help people wake up, not so they can retreat, but so they can attack, confront, and engage in an intelligent way. Technology is there to be used, as a tool, but nothing more. When it runs our lives, we have become the slave instead of the master.

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