Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gagging on Gadgetry

I have often said that I am most comfortable with things made of wood; I am a man of the Nineteenth Century. I was uncomfortable in the Twentieth, and am distinctly ill at ease in the Twenty-first. I do not care for electronic gadgets, and am trying my best to get them out of my life. Alas, I cannot. I use my computer to write, as it is far more versatile and efficient than my old typewriter, and my cell phone is connected to my home burglar alarm. Two Christmases ago, my older son gave me a Kindle, possession of which I had carefully avoided, but I must admit that I have read a couple of dozen books on it since. It is an excellent tool for research, which is half of what I do for a living, enabling me to acquire the text of a book (not the book itself) quickly and inexpensively. I read as much of it as my project requires, and then am not obliged to find shelf space for the rest of it. Nor does it collect much dust. As for all the other gadgets, I have successfully resisted them to this point.

Sixty years ago, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that he was waiting for the rebirth of wonder. I am watching it die, having the life strangled out of it by high technology. Call it a kind of romanticism, if you will; and I suppose it is - a kind of nostalgia. It is nostalgia for a time when there was quaint charm in distance and piquant anxiety in not knowing; when curiosity was driven by that which we had trouble finding out, and mystery had an allure reserved only to Garbo: silent, aloof, and perfect in its inscrutability. Now all these things are fading like daguerreotypes from the American frontier, to be replaced with more and more pixilated images of anything and everything we want to know and don't need to.

Please don't misunderstand: I appreciate the fact that high tech has made our lives easier (though in the latter half of the Twentieth Century they weren't all that unbearable) but it has also made them more precarious. In prior ages, it took drought or disease or barbarians to destroy a civilization; now it can be done by a solar flare or a cyber attack. Take Target, for example: At a stroke, the identities of 40 million people were placed in peril by some mischievous kid in the Ukraine, and for the capital sin of Christmas shopping. I know... I was one of them. And so if high tech has made getting along easier, it has likewise made going under inevitable.

The irony, of course, is that, now that we can know virtually anything instantaneously by looking it up on a smartphone, most of us seem to know nothing much of anything worth knowing. We don't understand, for example, that all this convenience and its concomitant dependence have made us horribly vulnerable. Every day I witness my fellow citizens numbly trading their individual liberty for electronic connectedness. We are accepting the death of personal privacy for the promise of collective convenience. And as the vacuum of liberty deepens, the government, as our Founders warned us, is only too eager to step in and fill it. We watched, just yesterday, as the president offered token fixes for massive domestic spying, unable to specify how even those bandaids would be applied, thereby confessing both his personal ignorance of the true nature of the problem, and his servile acquiescence to the faceless forces that are threatening the very existence of liberty in this nation. And the media, faithful curs that they are, blandly nodded Yes.

In the wonderful play "Marat/Sade," one of the revolutionaries exclaims: Don't believe them when they tell you that you've never had it so good; that is merely the slogan of those who have that much more than you! I would echo that warning to our gadget-dependent culture: Don't believe those who tell you that you've never had access to so much information; that is merely the slogan of those who know that much more than you - and are keeping it secret.