Electronic Splitting of the Human Atom
By Anonymous on Wednesday, Oct 19 2011
Although I've done more than my share of academic writing, this is my first foray into the blogosphere. That's why it's appropriate that this essay should be an apology (defense speech) for my techno-logo-phobia. My misgivings have to do with the electronic splitting of the human atom a.k.a. the soul. The 21st century threatens to do to the soul what the 20th did with the so-called, literally un-splittable, physical atom. I fear that we could be left with radioactive souls. The dangers are even more serious than those posed by nuts with nukes. This time the enemy isn’t radical evil. We’re threatened by our techno-banality, a concupiscent consumerism that promises to turn us into happy gaming animals. And we salute it with all the zeal that our non-judgmental souls can muster. It seems to be the ideal non-adversarial game: a Special Olympics where all are winners. Fleeing the zero-sum cutthroat economy, a game we’re losing to China and India, we’ve instead realized the dream of Nietzsche’s Last Man and invented the art of happiness. It’s a victimless crime performed in daylight at a college near you. You could call it 2nd semester intellectual abortion. It’s all about choice and the consumer is always right.
I am a tenured professor at a small Catholic liberal arts college in New England. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? It’s the sort of place where everyone knows your name. The college prides itself on its niceness. Yet the very future of this academic Eden, this teeming womb of future social workers and special ed. teachers, is badly compromised. We’re reeling under the impact of a contagious cyber-virus that’s left most students illiterate and addicted. It is our task to keep them entertained and safe. It’s all about the right to a diploma. Yet the vast majority of our graduates cannot read one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Many of their professors are also infected by consumerism. Aided and abetted by a brave new generation of book-kindling librarians, they will knowingly peddle video entertainment in the classroom. All talk of great books threatens their academic freedom. They envy their students. They will do anything to be forever young. Their dream is to be Fonzie for the next generation of Happy Days. Once the Fonz became the shortest regular on the show, it was only tacitly conceded, that he was terminally cool. But he’s the role model for a generation, a Peter Pandemonium of Ph.D.’s.
But the Fonz was the last of a dying breed. He was a mechanic. The gap separating the mechanical age from the electronic eon is exponential. While our WW II GI’s were the envy of the world because they could strip and reassemble their equipment -even a jeep- in a blindingly short time, their counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan cost a million dollars a year, per soldier, to maintain on the field. Their gear is smarter than its operators. The latter are merely mahouts or weapon bearers. Their equipment is easier to replace than to fix and it’s impossible to understand. Even worse, such an army is totally dependent on its very long electronic tail. It’s doomed to win every battle and lose every war. Yet the real struggle must be waged within our civilization. Most of us don’t know what culture is. Many learn to blame the West for all that’s wrong with the world while others, with equal ignorance, define it as free trade and libertarianism. Our troops –who once embodied the freedom they fought for- are but once and future consumers in service of technology.
While there’s disagreement as to whether the greater threat is from the bang of technology or the whimper of religious submission, Western Civilization is surely faced with two grave dangers: the Macworld and the Jihad. They both represent different forms of violence and submission. In each case the danger comes from letting others do our thinking for us. The result is the loss of the Greco-Christian logos: a kind of wrestling rational articulate speech. Mindless jargon, whether from the Imam or the programmer, should never replace it.
The trouble with our culture is that it craves diversion and denies reality: God and man are no longer the measure of truth, the computer is. Post-Modern man has declared his body a pleasure zone. Quite happy to let others do his thinking for him, he only asks to be entertained. Thus the world is duly organized to maximize its cyber-efficiency and we may no longer be able to understand reality, not that this generation even expects to.
The risk is that the master-slave dialectic will duly exact its toll. Those who leave their thinking up to slaves usually become slaves and addicts themselves. However since these cyber-slaves are not human, there will be no counter-revolution. All things will be quantified and qualitative aspects of human reality like justice or love will be deemed meaningless by the regnant power of cyber-positivism. Once we allow most of our thinking to be done by spreadsheets, maximizing the profits of billionaires, pension funds and international hedge funds, both the nation state and the citizen will wither away.
Further since thought will no longer be something that humans will be able to perform efficiently, most jobs will become slavish. In most of the world already, the real distinction is between those who are and aren’t worth enslaving. Today’s students no longer want to learn about the world; they only seek security and diversion. Bread and circuses could become the cultural content of quotidian reality and inevitably there will be less bread and more circuses as obsessions and addictions replace human moderation.
These are the challenges facing our Republic. They must be confronted and discussed.