Tools: Extensions, not Substitutes

Monday, May 13, 2013

I'm late to this one, but I can't help but mention that one man's account of going a year without using the Internet reminds me of an article from The Undercurrent from a couple of years ago.

Paul Miller of The Verge begins his tale:

I was wrong.

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was "corrupting my soul."

It's a been a year now since I "surfed the web" or "checked my email" or "liked" anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I've managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I'm internet free.

And now I'm supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I'm supposed to be enlightened. I'm supposed to be more "real," now. More perfect.

But instead it's 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I'm watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.

I didn't want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
Miller's journey began with a notion that has gained wide currency in our culture:
I'd read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I'd begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was "doing to me," so I could fight back. But the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
But what are people? More to the point, of what is one's character made? Miller is right that our choices are a big part of the answer, but what if we are unhappy with those choices? Valery Publius of The Undercurrent makes a similar point when she argues against the idea that techology is making us less intelligent or creative:
[D]oes technology really mold our minds? To be sure, it is a tool that extends the reach of our hands and of our senses. As a tool, it can be used poorly or used well. People who watch a lot of television can become illiterate couch potatoes. But they can also become media critics. Twitter can be used to share meaningless gossip about celebrities, or it can be used to foment political revolutions. Even media critics and revolutions are not guaranteed to deliver anything true or meaningful. If we sometimes don't like what they deliver, isn't it obvious that we shouldn't blame the tools--but the choices made by the tool users?
Publius goes a step further than Miller, who, to his credit, sees that he was blaming a tool and owns up to it.
Consider an alternate big idea: the manmade world we see around us is the product of the choices of individual human minds. If we don't like the world, we should rethink the choices that produced it. [bold added]
I see a strong dose of determinism in modern critiques of communications technology. Determinism obviously suggests the Internet as a scapegoat for one's problems, but Miller's piece still ends with an air of uncertainty. Even though he sees through "What has the Internet done to me?", it's as if Miller isn't quite sure where to go from there. Is the pervasiveness of determinism in our culture making it harder for Miller (or many others like him) to realize that one can make the deeper changes necessary to find happiness? The tools for doing so exist, although they have (understandably) been blamed for failing to do just this.

-- CAV

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