The American intellectual Leon Wieseltier recently told of his fears for reading. “Reading is a cognitive, mental, emotional action, and today it is under pressure from all this speed of the internet and the whole digital world.” What’s more, he believes technology is shifting our way of seeing the world, that we have become “happily, even giddily, governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience”, so that we now “ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work”.
Perhaps there was similar angst at the birth of the printing press. But this change is reaching into every corner of our humanness. Once it looked like hype, but now those pioneers seem right: the internet really has changed the world completely – and us along with it.
There is nothing unusual or distinctive about Freedland’s essay, and that’s just why I’m quoting it. I see an essay like this one — very like this one — every day. Technology is changing everything. Sometimes one of these essays will quote another essay of the same type, as Freedland quotes Wieseltier here, but for the most part their authors rattle on in seeming obliviousness to how drearily they are repeating what a thousand other authors have said in almost exactly the same terms.
And the lofty heights from which they address us, the vast wooly abstractions they use to describe “our” condition! “Technology is shifting our way of seeing the world.” “The internet really has changed the world completely.” Pray tell, what is “the world”? Seriously, I want to know what people mean by this. If “the world” has been changed completely, why does the silver maple outside my window still stand as it has for decades? Why is the gazpacho at Emilio’s as good as it was when I first tasted it, twenty-five years ago? Why does the prose of Sir Thomas Browne still delight me as it did when I first encountered it at age nineteen? Why do I still love my wife?
If you answer, “Well, that’s not what they mean by ‘the world,'” I counter, “Then what do they mean? Because all those things I just mentioned are in the only world that I know.”
And if it’s “technology” that is changing everything, which technology is that? Drugs that treat AIDS? Unmanned bomber drones? Sous vide machines?
Oh, it’s none of those? It’s “the internet”? That seems like an abstraction about as vague as “the world,” given that “the internet” allows people to find out how those AIDS drugs work, to purchase sous vide machines, and to manipulate drones remotely.
No more, please. No more essays about how “technology” or “the internet” is “changing everything.” They all say the same thing, which in the end amounts to: absolutely nothing. So let’s get down to cases. What technologies did you rely on today? What did they help you do? What did they allow you to avoid doing? What did they prevent you from doing that you wanted to do? Specify. As the proverbs tell us, both God and the Devil are in the details.