By Hal Crowther
"A US study (published in January 2010) found that eight to 18 year-olds log an average daily exposure of just under 11 hours of electronic media. An increase of two hours daily since 2004, it includes computers and social networks, cellphones, instant messaging, television, video games and iPods. Media consume nearly all their waking hours when they’re not in school. Privacy has deep, deep roots in Western civilization, yet a few mediocre gadgets uprooted it in less than a decade. Who knew the young were so lonely, so susceptible, so desperate for connection? Who’s to blame for their loneliness, for their seduction and metamorphosis into electro-cyborgs who bear only a physical resemblance to their parents? What sort of lives were they leading before they were wired? It’s as if prisoners buried in the dungeons of the Chateau d’If, with no previous communication except tapping on the stone walls of their separate cells, were suddenly issued mobile phones with email. What else but a compulsive frenzy of messaging, no content required?
Digital products seemed harmless enough in the beginning, meeting obvious demands for faster, more efficient commercial communication. Business will have its way. But the personal computer and all its derivative technology were not so obvious, not to most of us now left behind. We were sure it was boring – to liberal arts majors of my vintage, most tools more complex than a hammer are invisible. We never dreamed it was more addictive than heroin. “I lost my cellphone once,” a 25-year- old woman with a master’s degree told a reporter. “I felt like my world had just ended. I had a breakdown on campus.”
Some of the wizards who fathered the digital revolution have had misgivings. The late Joseph Weizenbaum, an MIT mathematician and computer scientist who authored one of the first conversational computer programs, became a profound sceptic about technology’s influence on the human condition. Weizenbaum, who was a child in Nazi Germany, believed that obsessive reliance on technology was a moral failure in society and an invitation to fascism. Weizenbaum’s scepticism was shared by American computer pioneer and mogul Max Palevsky, who died recently at 85. Palevsky, founder of the computer-chip giant Intel, told an interviewer in 2008, “I don’t own a computer. I don’t own a cellphone, I don’t own any electronics. I do own a radio.” Given decades to reflect on what they wrought, it’s eerie that many of the scientists who created our electronic cocoon sound like the scientists who worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos.
The wailing of the wire-wary only aggravates the captive multitudes and widens the dreadful gap. But we can’t just fold our tents and quit the field, because we, the pre-wired generations, bear most of the blame. We betrayed them. We turned them over to habit-forming, mind-altering, behavior-warping gizmos when they were helpless children. There was almost no resistance. Politicians, colleges, school boards, doomed publishers, libraries and media all welcomed these technologies uncritically, enthusiastically, like Stone Age savages fainting with wonder over a transistor radio. Americans have always been suckers for technology – our love affairs with automobiles, television and nuclear power haven’t turned out well either. But this was the most pitiful submission, and may prove the most fateful.
No one denies the impact of these new devices, or their usefulness. Who at my age, watching precious time fly, wouldn’t bless email for the pointless, time-consuming conversations it replaces? Who denies that Barack Obama’s epic rout of the Republicans would have been impossible without his mastery of internet communication? But with truly revolutionary technology no one stops to factor in the human cost. Chronic, epidemic obesity among American children, along with unprecedented levels of juvenile diabetes and heart disease, coincides exactly with the advent of “personal technology”. An alarming study that followed 4,000 subjects for three decades indicates that 90 per cent of American men and 70 per cent of American women will eventually be fat.
Worse news is that the American mind is emulating its body – it’s turning to suet. A few years ago the educational benefits of the new technology were hyped hysterically, with futurists and investors predicting an intellectual renaissance anchored by computers. The reality seems to be just the opposite. Though the educational potential of the internet is limitless, it’s becoming apparent that students use technology less to learn than to distract themselves from learning, and to take advantage of toxic short cuts such as research paper databases and essay-writing websites. Entrance exams administered by ACT Inc establish that half the students now entering college in the US lack the basic reading and comprehension skills to succeed in literature, history or sociology courses. Reading and writing skills among eighth graders decline each year, as internet penetration rises. Only three per cent now read at the level scored “advanced” and the state of Maine recently scrapped its eighth grade writing test because 78 per cent of the participants failed. Half the teenagers tested by the advocacy group Common Core could not place the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century, a quarter drew a blank on Adolf Hitler, a fifth failed to identify America’s enemies in the Second World War. A third of America’s high school students drop out – one every 26 seconds – and two thirds prove incapable of higher education.
High tech is a habit too new to boast any record of survivors, recovering addicts, successful rehabs. So far, no one’s coming back. In the words of recovery programs, users have yet to acknowledge that they have a problem. Or that there is a problem. Staring for hours at glowing squares, gossiping with needy strangers, poking away at little keyboards, playing half-assed violent games – does this strike anyone as an interesting and honorable life, or even a preparation for one? And the answer, more often than not, would come back, “Sure, what’s your problem?”
With that last outburst, I probably sacrifice half the readers I have left. But if you’re offended or threatened, console yourself with the impotence and rapid extinction of my kind. We pose no threat to your habit. Technology’s sceptics are ageing and thinning out. Soon, by conversion or attrition, they will vanish. Soon, when everyone is born wired into the hive, no more of them will appear. All the more reason to have our say, leave our protests on the record, exit cursing and fighting."