June 26, 2013
There’s no app for humanity
Every time I turn around, I hear about a new app that promises to make my life easier, get somewhere faster, find things quicker. This is the golden calf of the digital era: speed. We’re desperate for any clever gizmo that will make things go quicker — including our brains.
But where is the app that will help me slow down and go deeper — the app that will help me appreciate complex ideas and encourage critical and creative thinking?
Apparently, that app will have to wait, because we have entered the post-thinking world.
In this blurry new world, the majority of people don’t read, so much as scan and skip; they don’t write, so much as tweet and text; they look down at their devices more than up at people’s faces; and yes, they think, but they think very, very quickly.
“We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily — even giddily — governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency and convenience,” author and literary editor Leon Wieseltier said in a speech to the graduating class of Brandeis University last month. “The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning — to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work.”
These “astonishing” new machines, he said, “represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: They are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep.”
“In the digital universe,” Wieseltier added, “knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch —– that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external?”
Our smartphones may well be dumbing us down. It’s little wonder that one of the more popular subjects of conversation these days is … technology. We’re spending much of the time we save from time-saving apps kvelling over time-saving apps.
In defending that endangered species of academia called the humanities, Wieseltier asked: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?” He urged the graduates to “uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful.”
Wieseltier’s address championed the deep intellectual pursuit that makes the humanities so crucial to society, but there is another, quieter pursuit that also suffers from our enslavement to technology.
It is the daily, personal pursuit of humanity in our own lives.
How often in this techno-crazy world do we truly pay attention when we converse with someone? How often do we listen carefully to their words, feel their body language, respond thoughtfully, all with the expectation that our undivided attention is being reciprocated?
How many of these human moments can we really hope for when we all have grafted onto our hands these little weapons of mass distraction? When we’re always on edge knowing that these weapons can detonate, at any moment, something more interesting or “urgent” than our real-life conversation — a news item about a tornado, a Facebook message from a prospective lover, an urgent text about dinner plans, an update on our Apple stock or simply a reminder from your daughter not to forget her ballet slippers.
It’s easy, I know, to criticize excess. It’s a given that we derive enormous value and pleasure from today’s technology, and that pleasure, like any good drug, can easily lead vulnerable people into excess.
The problem arises when that excess, that abuse, becomes the norm. When the excess, and not just the technology, becomes ubiquitous.
Here’s a simple test: Next time you’re in a restaurant, if you notice that more than half of the customers are looking at their smartphones instead of at the people they’re dining with, well, that’s as good a sign as any of excess becoming the norm.
The golden calf that sucked in our gullible ancestors 3,300 years ago at Sinai glittered like a precious metal. All that glitter evidently blinded the Israelites to God and to what really matters.
Our modern-day gizmos and apps glitter, too, and they can blind us and dehumanize us if they become objects of worship. Don’t kid yourself. Every generation has its glittering golden calves — it’s just that in our generation, the fool’s gold seems to invade every inch of our living space.
Maybe what we need, then, is an anti-app that will encourage us to look up at the faces of God’s children rather than down at our tiny screens; to look for ideas rather than icons; to roam in nature’s space rather than cyberspace; to seek knowledge and not just information.
You can call it the humanity app.
It’s an app that couldn’t care less about speed or convenience. An app we can download from our own brains any time we want to liberate ourselves from machines.
An app that reminds those very machines that being an astonishing tool is not the same things as having a human heart.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.