Technology, Disheartenment, and a Piece of Torte

 

Those born in the US right after the Second World War arguably have had the easiest life of any humans ever living on the planet. This statement does not apply to people who served, suffered, and died in the Korean, Vietnam, and Middle East Wars or experienced natural disasters during that same era. But otherwise, let’s be honest: the ride for my generation has been easy, fueled by confidence in the American Dream and decorated by every comfort known to man.

Raised when the values and virtues defining our nation were taught to each child, I have been able to spend significant time in actively Communist countries and those previously devastated by Communism. How often I thought: “Ah, my homeland could never experience horrors like indiscriminate censorship, character assassination by legislative or political policy, or the tragic reduction of an individual’s life and legacy to the status of ‘non-person’ (regular features of life under Communism).” I wore my confidence like a badge of honor!

Yet, great minds have long warned us how naïve such confidence is. “Freedom stands only one generation away from disappearing.” Have we not heard this statement? Or, “When we cease teaching our foundational principles, they will disappear or be dismantled.” But I never believed it. Until now, as we watch a tsunami of events slamming into the underpinnings of our Constitution.

trappedSo where do we turn? What do we do? These questions are flooding conversations across this land, both in-person and online. The first answer, of course, is to return to and strengthen the roots and practice of our religious faith. That is always the first imperative, and in many ways, the last answer we need.

But as humans, we want tools to help us in our interface with the machinations of the world around us. One thing on my mind right now is the treasure-trove of maxims and proverbs that once were fastidiously taught to children in schools. Perhaps you have volumes of such sayings that guide moral choices and shape character, including those collected by George Washington. Similar gems were authored and published by other Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin. These words are golden and still 100% applicable in our lives.

Along this line, the effective practice of keeping a “copybook” wherein such pearls of wisdom can be recorded in the best-possible cursive is returning for both children and adults, enshrined even in certain curricula popular with this audience (Memoria Press, for example, offers a series of copybooks). And while the disintegration of our national foundations has not been caused merely by the loss of such wisdom, its loss has pierced deep chinks in those walls.

A sense of helplessness is rarely helpful. We humans were endowed with endless industry and ingenuity by our Creator, something our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew and relied on to survive the slings and arrows of their times. Maybe now we are coming to realize why they did their best to convey, through vivid stories, an understanding of the tumultuous decades of the First and Second World Wars and the Depression.

And here’s the real truth: dismal times are nothing new in the human experience. Humans will never stop hurting one another. The childish “Kumbaya” idea that we are all going to get along or improve by slapping new labels on A, B, and C is just that: childish. Childish ideas are meant to be outgrown:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. —I Corinthians 13:11

Most importantly, history delivers a message that even the worst times are survivable, even though many will suffer along the way. The human spirit has always, eventually, risen like the Phoenix to renew and restore. I believe that sincerely and take comfort in it.

Yet there is a troublesome new factor: technology. Technology has always been a mixed blessing. I love that moment in Downton Abbey when someone (was it Daisy?) greeted the news that a nearby family had installed electricity in the manor house’s kitchen with words like “Whatever for?” And then she pegged the downsides of this new technology. We chuckle at such a scene now. But the potential for fires and electrocution with the installation of the new technology of electricity was real.

But if generally a blessing, what are the curses of technology? Well, let’s consider several examples: technology has progressively weakened our independence and industry in nearly every endeavor. Player-piano rolls and gramophone cylinders dampened the need for us to acquire skills in order to make music. Radio may have enhanced our exposure to the world, but it took away our need to connect with each other insofar as information and entertainment. Film, starting with the “talkies,” limited the appeal and importance of that marvelous endeavor rooted in the brilliance of the Ancient Greeks: theater. Broadcast TV left far too many of us content to watch sports, rather than pursue them.

All of that pales with what computers and the internet have done to change the tenor of our daily lives. If ever there were an example of the proverbial “double-edged sword,” computer technology is it.

Who has not been blessed by, or dependent upon, this technology? Yet, as it progresses, its wonder fades. Do you remember when sending an email seemed astounding? I remember the day I first booted my computer to light up a color monitor. The shift from black & white to color in The Wizard of Oz was not nearly as dramatic!

May we never cease to be astonished every time we click to rent and play a film over the internet. Or visit with family members or take a class on Zoom. Yet these glories of man’s technological creativity have been so tainted by waves of mindless, ill-spirited, evil chatter and clatter. True, the historical record of dissimulating, grabbing power, and imposing servitude is the oldest story recorded. So is silencing freedom of thought and expression.

But these horrors used to require human actions as their agents. Soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire had to sail across the Adriatic to put down an early 16th-century revolt of Slovene peasants seeking relief from persecuting overlords. Jeeps and trucks stuffed with Gestapo had to drive to a Jewish watchmaker’s shop in order to drag him and his family into a truck and onto a railway car bound for Auschwitz.

Now, the nearly instant destruction of people, their livelihoods, their families, and their legacies, comes from a click on a piece of plastic. What could be easier, cleaner, quicker, or harder to repair?

If ever there was a time to ponder, indeed pray about, the role of technology in our individual lives, this is it. The baubles of technology remind me of those candies that explode in your mouth with a ting and rush of flavor, but leave the mouth dissatisfied and dull, craving the next thrilling piece.

What we want to do is find ways to use technology to nourish, and not destroy. I won’t rage about the unspeakable horror of little children parked in front of screens, rather than being read to, taught, led, encouraged, coached in games and sports, or instructed in creating beauty through crafts, dance, music, and visual art. That rage I express plenty, and I suspect many of you share it.

Rather here I am right in the pool with the rest of you. I dare not think how many hours I spend on the internet. Now some of that time is very much for good, whether it’s crafting material for our courses and publications, teaching online, or working with colleagues across the past eleven months to maintain as many of the offerings ordinarily enjoyed in conferences and symposia. Then there are the many things Hank and I do for our own education and edification like courses (Anthony Esolen on The Divine Comedy anyone? Highly recommended!) and tutorials. Thank heavens for YouTube videos that show how to put a new control board in our stove. (Tell me, when did four years become an average life for appliance parts?)

But each of us knows and has experienced the darker side of daily life on the internet. You also know how easy it is to be caught up, disenchanted, disheartened, and dismayed by what we see particularly in the low-level, crass, crude, and vicious comments found virtually at every site, be it a political essay or a group of reviews for a lawnmower.

What in the world has happened? The basic answer is annoyingly simple: families and public schools ended the instruction of our children in virtue and ceased to instill discipline, dignity, and self-reliance. The loss of the traditional family and the critical role models from noble and dedicated fathers, mothers, and extended family made it worse. The toleration of public crudeness and reviling behavior sealed the deal. Think of how much in what I have just described would have been instantly corrected or never tolerated by previous generations.

So yes, we see the problems. And we also must celebrate the increasing efforts of a vast number of folks to fix these problems, child by child, family by family, church congregation by church congregation. Let us never forget the extraordinary innovations (some of which are made possible through technology) that are restoring, refreshing, and strengthening not just us, but our families and whole communities of people who yearn for that which is noble again to occupy our minds and souls.

Some of today’s best minds are writing piercingly about what lies ahead and how we can harness our individual and communal resources and efforts. If history is our guide (and it always is), the entrepreneurial creativity of mankind is waiting in the wings to explode with new possibilities again. So, though, are the usual things that plague humanity, starting with the threatening forces of enemy nations (yes there are enemy nations) and the insidious aspects any new technology will pose.

twitterAs the author of Invictus reminds us, we are the master of at least part of our fate. So right now, for me, that means re-examining my relationship with technology. All that is helpful in our work here at Professor Carol will be retained and enhanced. But certain things will be left behind, starting with a “service” that, when historians analyze our era, is likely to earn endless derision: “Twitter.” Really, seriously, why have we let this take over our lives? More importantly, how did the emanations from this agency come to simulate truth? Historians will not judge us kindly here.

Today, let me close this longer-than-usual essay by mentioning how Europeans approach the consumption of sweets. Unlike the omnipresent cookies, candy bars, doughnuts, snack cakes, and every other overly sugared sweets intruding upon our lives, Europeans treat the consumption of sweets with restraint and respect. Pastries and tortes tend to be freshly made. They are only lightly sweetened and made with quality ingredients. Most importantly, they are consumed at specific times, with a degree of ceremony, conscious appreciation, and emphasis on enjoyment and conviviality.

The German and Austrian tradition for sweets, called Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), takes place most days between 3 and 4 p.m. Usually, the table is nicely set. Modest slices of Pflaumenkuchen (plum torte) Bienenstich (cream-based torte with honey and almonds), Strudel (fresh dough filled with cherries, poppy seeds, or apples), and other treats are placed with care on real plates, eaten with real silverware, and accompanied by fresh coffee, hot tea, juice, bubbly water. Seasonal table décor is often added.

torteThe experience of living in the cycle of nearly daily Kaffee und Kuchen is wonderful: sweets do not overwhelm your body with a sugar rush or wreck it with tons of calories. Plenty of the day is still before people for work, study, walking, and generally living. Consequently, until a recent invasion of Western junk foods, it was rare to see obesity problems in that part of the world (or the explosion of associated problems like diabetes).

Could we not approach our dependence on technology as the Germans approach consuming sugar? Rather than being bombarded by a swirl of chaos, as one gorges on bags of cookies and then complains about the side effects, let us figure out what is good, healthy, useful, or at least does no harm. Find the writers and resources that inspire and contribute to the quest for the “R’s” so many have embarked upon: rediscovering, renewing, revitalizing, reconstituting, resurrecting, and restoring the principles and expressions of goodness, tradition, and things that are true and beautiful. Anything outside of that has the potential to drag our human spirits down and dishearteningly cloud our vision.

Let us pray as those in previous centuries have prayed, starting with the countless millions affected across the centuries by plagues, interminable wars, and famines. Let us aspire to clad ourselves in their strength and wisdom. We do need each other—and always have! As a clever statement I read the other day says, “the Internet used to be where we went to escape real life; now real life is the place to go to escape the internet.” Come escape with me, at least a little, and join hands to restore our humanity.

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  1. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Your opening paragraphs capture my own experience growing up in post-war suburbia. The expression “It’s a free country” was common then. I have only recently begun to realize how close the adults in my life were to the stresses, horrors and losses of WWII which seemed to be ancient history to my childish mind when I thought about it at all. We are much farther down the road from the infamy of 9/11 now than we were from 7 December 1941 in those days.

    It seems that popular culture has chipped away at the norms of that time until little by little they have been lost. With a few things, such as black and white relations, things improved before taking a downturn more recently. For other things, such as the stability of the nuclear family, the erosion seems to have been steady. Once arguments about “slippery slopes” were laughed off. Now we see where those slippery slopes have taken us.

    At a time when informality and casual is the norm, perhaps we have lost, at some level, an appreciation for structure and manners and the good that can come from those concepts.

    My mother used to say that she thought the Beast of Revelation was the computer. I don’t believe that the Internet itself is the Beast, but I can see how it could be used as its most powerful tool.

    Your piece here is very thoughtful and I can’t really add to it except to say that it resonates with me and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • #1
  2. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    Very nicely written article. I think Gen-X had it easier than boomers. No draft and good economy. I am a fan of technology. It allows us to be more productive that is a big part of prosperity. Another big part of prosperity is well-being and I agree that is suffering. Families have been degraded in the lower classes as promoted by elites that still practice strong families. Social media is designed to cause acrimony in our society. It is a mental toxin sold by big corporations the same way cigarettes were designed and sold by big corporations. Hopefully we will wake up to that and reverse it.

    When I was a kid we said the Pledge of Allegiance and we meant it. I didn’t fight in a war, but all my male relatives were veterans and patriotism was part of life. The “Spirit of ’76” was alive and well. We took that spirit for granted and we let bad actors chip away at America’s reason for existing. We’ll need to rebuild that spirit from the ground up over the next generation while at the same time fighting the bad actors that are more powerful than ever. Many people don’t realize we have enemies and we’ll need to point them out as a start. Revival or Bust!

    • #2
  3. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    The internet culture rot, as it is currently constituted, and as it selectively feeds us using algorithms designed to silo us and encourage our worst passions, cannot be easily counteracted using the internet. You are right, we have to work to try and deal with people face to face.

    The fiction writer Paul Kingsnorth recently penned a short story called The Basilisk, which looks at the spiritual side of all this.

    https://emergencemagazine.org/story/the-basilisk/

    • #3
  4. KCVolunteer Lincoln
    KCVolunteer
    @KCVolunteer

    Netflix just asked last night if it could share information about us to better serve us.

    I don’t think so, I’m not that naive.

    • #4
  5. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    I recall on first reading Dune that one of the things in the Herbert’s universe that I didn’t get was the “Butlerian Jihad” and its prohibition:

    Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.

    But now I’m beginning to understand.

    • #5
  6. Shauna Hunt Inactive
    Shauna Hunt
    @ShaunaHunt

    Beautiful article! Thank you so much!

    • #6
  7. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Great article, thanks. Technology allows us to extend our conservative voices much farther than we otherwise would have, at very little cost. Ricochet has members all over the world. My personal blog has nearly 500 followers, again all over the world. Just in the past few days, I have had readers from Thailand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Switzerland, Communist China, Taiwan, and India. We need to keep the faith.

    And Ricochet has dozens of home-schoolers, who are teaching their children in the way they should be taught. We are giving our children and grandchildren the real story of America, and our efforts are not insignificant.

    • #7
  8. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    In my 2008 post Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?, I noted that:

    The idea that emerging communications media change the way people think and perceive the world is not a new one. Socrates expressed concern about the development of writing, fearing that people would “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful,” and, worse, that they would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Concerns were also raised when the printing press was introduced.

    In the early 19th century, a journalist writing about the introduction of the telegraph marveled:

    This extraordinary discovery leaves…no elsewhere…it is all here.

    Heinrich Heine, living in Paris in 1843, made a similar observation about the coming of the railroads:

    I feel the mountains and forests of all countries advancing towards Paris. Already, I smell the scent of German lime-trees; the North-Sea breaks on my doorstep.

    Closer to our own time, we’ve seen the introduction of the photography, radio, the phonograph, and television. Eric Weitz’s Weimar Germany, has some intereresting comments about the impact of the first three of these innovations. Arnold Schoenberg, for one, was a harsh critic of radio, saying that it “accustoms the ear to an unspeakably coarse tone, and to a body of sound constituted in a soupy, blurred way, which precludes all finer differentiation.” He worried that radio gave music a “continuous tinkle” that would eventually result in a state wherein “all music has been consumed, worn out.”

    Weitz quotes Joseph Roth, who lived in Berlin in the 1920s:

    There are no more secrets in the world. The whispered confessions of a despondent sinner are available to all the curious ears of a community, which thanks to the wireless telephone has become a pack…No one listened any longer to the song of the nightingale and the chirp of conscience. No one followed the voice of reason and each allowed himself to be drowned out by the cry of instinct.

    Roth didn’t much like photography, either:

    People who had completely ordinary eyes, all of a sudden obtain a look. The indifferent become thoughtful, the harmless full of humor, the simpleminded become goal oriented, the common strollers look like pilots, secretaries like demons, directors like Caesars.

    Marshall McLuhan wrote famously about the impact of television, arguing that the nature of the medium had an impact entirely separate from any content transmitted–that, for example, Jack Kennedy had won the election against Richard Nixon because TV is a “cool” medium, well-suited to Kennedy’s personality and hostile to that of Nixon. McLuhan had earlier written about the impact of printing on perceptions and thought processes. (Recent research, I understand, is critical of the JFK/television theory)

    The impact of social media, especially Twitter, surely includes the promotion of on-line mobbing, with the ‘electronic village’ encompassing some of the less-benign aspects of the traditional village. See Freedom, the Village, and Social Media.

    • #8
  9. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Professor Carol: How often I thought: “Ah, my homeland could never experience horrors like indiscriminate censorship, character assassination by legislative or political policy, or the tragic reduction of an individual’s life and legacy to the status of ‘non-person’ (regular features of life under Communism).”

    So did I. But now the left (and some on the right, mostly never-Trumpers) favor such repressions, as long as the “truth’ (defined by them, of course) is put out there and those who say otherwise are stripped of everything they have – their jobs, their social media, their safety . . . it’s pathetic . . .

    • #9
  10. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Sorry, I don’t buy it at all. It’s not about technology, but about people and their condition. Technology is neutral. 

    And there isn’t indiscriminate censorship, character assassination, etc. It is highly directed.

    And if you are going to defeat those controlling the technology, it requires a new generation of technology that will be funded by the government – just as the last generation of technology was. 

    Professor Carol:

    Yet there is a troublesome new factor: technology. Technology has always been a mixed blessing. I love that moment in Downton Abbey when someone (was it Daisy?) greeted the news that a nearby family had installed electricity in the manor house’s kitchen with words like “Whatever for?” And then she pegged the downsides of this new technology. We chuckle at such a scene now. But the potential for fires and electrocution with the installation of the new technology of electricity was real.

     

    One of the funnier and sillier passages. Yeah, fires in kitchens that burned down houses never occurred before electricity. </sarcasm>

    Simply look at the original architecture of buildings like Mount Vernon to understand that.

     

     

    • #10
  11. Jim Beck Member
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Afternoon Hang On,

    I do not understand what you mean by technology is neutral. The effect of the printing press on Luther’s the critique of the Catholic Church is impossible to measure. Had Luther posted his critique a couple of hundred years before the printing press, his impact on the Catholic Church would have been different. Luther might have remained an obscure monk.

    In my lifetime, the television of the Vietnam War changed public support for the war. Had the Korean War had the same television coverage, I would argue that we would have exited the war much earlier. If the horrors of WWII were shown on tv nightly, I believe that public sentiment might have been changed as well.

    Perhaps you don’t think Prof Carol’s example is the best, but her assertion that technology is a mixed blessing seems almost an obvious point. We develop autos giving us great freedom of movement, yet these autos pollute the air we breath. This ying and yang aspect of technology seems to be the rule and not solved by a better technology. We have never found that utopian technological advancement, that has only benefits and no negative consequences.

    • #11
  12. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    Jim Beck

    Afternoon Hang On,

    I do not understand what you mean by technology is neutral. The effect of the printing press on Luther’s the critique of the Catholic Church is impossible to measure. Had Luther posted his critique a couple of hundred years before the printing press, his impact on the Catholic Church would have been different. Luther might have remained an obscure monk.

    In my lifetime, the television of the Vietnam War changed public support for the war. Had the Korean War had the same television coverage, I would argue that we would have exited the war much earlier. If the horrors of WWII were shown on tv nightly, I believe that public sentiment might have been changed as well.

    Perhaps you don’t think Prof Carol’s example is the best, but her assertion that technology is a mixed blessing seems almost an obvious point. We develop autos giving us great freedom of movement, yet these autos pollute the air we breath. This ying and yang aspect of technology seems to be the rule and not solved by a better technology. We have never found that utopian technological advancement, that has only benefits and no negative consequences.

    It is neutral in that it is whatever is made of it. Technology has no moral compass.

    • #12
  13. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Jim Beck (View Comment):
    Jim Beck

    Afternoon Hang On,

    I do not understand what you mean by technology is neutral. The effect of the printing press on Luther’s the critique of the Catholic Church is impossible to measure. Had Luther posted his critique a couple of hundred years before the printing press, his impact on the Catholic Church would have been different. Luther might have remained an obscure monk.

    In my lifetime, the television of the Vietnam War changed public support for the war. Had the Korean War had the same television coverage, I would argue that we would have exited the war much earlier. If the horrors of WWII were shown on tv nightly, I believe that public sentiment might have been changed as well.

    Perhaps you don’t think Prof Carol’s example is the best, but her assertion that technology is a mixed blessing seems almost an obvious point. We develop autos giving us great freedom of movement, yet these autos pollute the air we breath. This ying and yang aspect of technology seems to be the rule and not solved by a better technology. We have never found that utopian technological advancement, that has only benefits and no negative consequences.

    It is neutral in that it is whatever is made of it. Technology has no moral compass.

    You seem to be overlooking the reality that so far, technology has not made itself. (Although as AI is ramped up, that will be one of the first things to change.) Human beings are and were the master minds behind the creation of technology.

    So yes, technology might be “Neutral” when looking at reality through a moral compass.

    But the humans who design the technology do have a moral imperative. Which is why at one point Einstein stated that “I wish I had been a plumber.”

    Stephen Hawking offered up a major warning when he stated that he doubted that human beings would survive for more than a short period of time after AI became dominant over all affairs involving life. We who are worried about where this “COVID pandemic” is leading us certainly notice too many warning signs already.

    People have their homes outfitted with SIRI and SIRI-like “robotic employees.” But it is already known that these devices can be set up to report on our conversations, video our activities – and this is just what we are allowing.

    A government that can hear all our discussions, examine every byte of info we stream on our social media, and video our lifestyle, can then employ drones to our homes to subdue us – this is no longer the stuff of sci fi. It is a reality only a few short years down the future ground from where we stand now.

     

    • #13
  14. Jim Beck Member
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening Hang On, 

    One could say that fentanyl is just a chemical with no moral content. In a literal sense fentanyl is just a drug, however humans have vulnerabilities. There are moral implications of these vulnerabilities; in many places there are more deaths from drug overdose than from the China virus. Humans are often presented with temptations that come with new technologies. Almost all of human life are involved physical work in societies where folks were engaged with their neighbors, we now often have lives of inactivity, so we don’t burn the high calorie, inexpensive food that tempts us to sloth and gluttony, for example.

    • #14