More than 50 years ago, media critic Marshall McLuhan predicted a revolutionary shift from printed to electronic communications. We are living amid that arrival. An estimated 80 percent of Americans use smartphones regularly, and 11 seems to be the typical age of entry.
Americans crossed the electronic Rubicon some time in the 1990s. Then came Wikipedia and Google, followed by Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The Apple iPhone arrived in 2007. Today, electronics mediate global activities, changing our daily lives even more radically than steel, electric lighting, and automobiles did a century ago, fundamentally altering the way we relate to nature and our neighbors.
Tech’s upside is obvious in terms of convenience, efficiency, and speed, which explains why we’ve warmly embraced it. But many of us now feel free to use tablets and phones in what were once silent, sacred, or solemn places. Inescapable monitors demand—and get—attention, fleetingly or not, in restaurants, airports, hospitals, clubs, and churches. Emoticons supplant complex thought and feeling. “Human contact is now a luxury good,” The New York Times declares. Elites “have grown afraid of screens,” and school their children tech-free. “The richer you are, the more you spend to be offscreen” to make experience human. The little people remain tethered to machines for information and cut-rate services.
Confident future-is-here techies who stand to profit from mind control and changed consumption channels dismiss critics as dinosaurs and reactionaries, while continuing to accumulate extraordinary power. Resisters are identified as phobics and codgers who simply can’t keep up, poor things.
The idea that the young, because they are “digital natives,” understand computers better than adults is pernicious and false. Most of them, like adults, are unconcerned and clueless as to the tech infrastructure they depend on. They use a small number of applications that guide and shape their social lives, studies, entertainment, and taste. Technologically uninhibited, unsuspicious of any downside, they have few inner defenses. According to The Wall Street Journal, the video shooting game Fortnite collects data, constantly modifying itself to entice and captivate players. The game currently has enough market power to make or break sales at Best Buy, the big electronics retailer.
What the poet Samuel Coleridge called the Grand and Beautiful, “the objects and facts of natural history” that “God opens before the eyes of his creature, Man,” go missing or are being tampered with, gleefully desecrated, ruled off limits, radically re-defined. The psychological, emotional, intellectual, and moral impact is yet to be determined. Human congestion adds to the problem. Experiencing nature is a rare activity in metro car culture, if an activity at all. Why bother when Google Image or Snapchat can do it for you—and there’s GPS and Siri at your elbow?
Once upon a time, people had to use muscle and reasoning skills to survive and make things work. Nature and the tangible world was what you had. Experience was primary, not secondary, and by today’s standards could be extremely dangerous or taxing. Does social media help explain the presence of flat personalities with limited emotional range and monotonous views? Does it empower high-performing, emotion-free trimmers skilled at brand recognition and calculated virtue signaling, looking for returns on their investment?
Neuroscientists speak of rewiring brains, and psychologists observe states of arousal that seem to be genuinely addictive. Oxford University’s Susan Greenfield suggests that social networking websites, computer games, and electronic media shorten attention spans, inhibit absorption, and make young people more self-centered. The blinking lights and ravishing color discourage concentration, close reading, memorization, and idea formation. Deep knowledge and empathy are losers, says Greenfield.
But like it or not, the internet follows children wherever they go on their smartphones, providing portals to everything from Khan Academy to hardcore pornography. Instead of connecting to surrounding habitats and institutions, children stare into screens, often alone, gaming and typing in darkened rooms. Thus mesmerized, many 12-year-olds find it impossible—I mean impossible—to concentrate, write, or even read. Some are diagnosed with learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity. For hard cases, as in a trance, the link to what appears to be a colorless, slow-paced natural world seems tentative. Efforts to curb use induce temper tantrums and anti-social behavior, parents and psychologists report.
Instead of providing a counterforce, schools add to the problem. Up-to-date curricula turn to elaborate, expensive software packages and activity learning modules—all the latest. Today’s school principal might have fallen in love with animated characters and Hollywood fantasies as a child. She reads much of her own news on Facebook. School libraries turn into shells, repurposed as computer and audio-visual centers, with books removed to storage or discarded to make way for beanbag chairs.
Computer-based instruction on classroom tablets emulates video games. In reading and arithmetic lessons, cute little dwarves might pop up to congratulate kids on getting the answers right. Cartoonish pink chipmunks break dance on grade-school whiteboards, exhorting children in catchy rap rhymes to Respect Differences and Fight Racism. Prompted by the YouTube feed on the colossal screen, their older brothers and sisters sing John Lennon’s Imagine like a hymn, holding hands in the high school auditorium.
The psychologist Carl G. Jung feared technology could dull instincts and lead to collective “de-individualization.” George Orwell’s 1984 accounts ordinary men and women lulled by lowbrow entertainment (prolefeed) and subjected to constant propaganda who grow “bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.” Social critic Neil Postman foresaw media’s impact in The Disappearance of Childhood and Amusing Ourselves to Death. Christopher Lasch, were he alive today, would confirm tech’s contribution to narcissistic solipsism and social reclusion. He would verify the ongoing concentration of power and wealth among tech-fueled elites.
Is there a way out of this nasty state of affairs? Probably not. The dancing chipmunks are irresistible, winning hearts and minds. They ask Americans of all ages to sing along, and as time goes on, more and more of us do—Mom and Pop and the Kids along with Grandma and her new boyfriend from SilverSingles.com. The electronic retreat from reality and nature did not begin yesterday, but more than ever it’s a pressing, accelerating challenge to social cohesion and general mental health.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.