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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — November 2012

Out of This World

On Staying Human in the Digital Age

As if increase of appetite had grown by what he feeds on.
| Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I

Out of This World

I’ve been observing lately, and with distressing frequency, the encroachment of personal digital technology on those areas of human life that used to provide us with ready contexts for engaging, interacting with, enjoying, discovering, and learning from each other—so much so that I’ve come to believe that human estrangement is part of the inherent protocol of this technology. The man having a loud conversation on his cell phone in a public place, the driver checking email at a red light, the friend who suddenly disengages from a conversation to read or send a text message, the person who’s social life has moved increasingly to chat room and social networking, the steady decline of bookstores in favor of ebook downloading—all demonstrate how the now ubiquitous digital technology has fostered isolation, disengagement, and a culture of distraction. Whether this protocol is deliberate, and if so, what its reason possibly could be, one can scarcely imagine. The effects, however, are beyond question. Let me give an example: A father takes his nine-year-old son out for the day. The boy wants to go to the local video arcade, the father accedes to the child’s wishes. In the car, on the way to the arcade, they’re talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, bantering—in general, present to each other and having a wonderful and memorable time together. When they get to the arcade, they find that the place doesn’t open for nearly an hour. The father suggests driving around the corner to one of the local bookstores, and off they go. At the bookstore, an animal shelter has brought in a few dogs and cats, the sort that seem especially friendly and gentle by nature, and the customers, kids and adults alike, are having great fun petting the animals, asking their names, and so on. It’s not every day that one sees cats and dogs in a bookstore, after all. After some time with the animals, the boy finds an oversized book about dogs, and he and his father spend time looking at all the different varieties, adding funny captions to the pictures, laughing together, and having the same sort of experience they had earlier in the car. Soon, it’s time to go back to the arcade, which by now has opened. Back they go, and this is where the story takes a hard left turn.

As they approach the games, the child enters a state of distraction that immediately insinuates itself between him and his father, separating them—a kind of trance state, such that from this moment until they leave the place, there will be no interaction between them, no engagement, no time together. All of this has been summarily hijacked by digital images flashing on the surrounding screens, silently but persistently demanding tokens and attention. The boy’s altered state has become a surrogate for engagement, and a brand of “fun” that bears no resemblance to the time in the car or the bookstore, because the games have stolen the real world and in its place, substituted an artificial one with artificial goals and artificial experience. In seconds, the real has been supplanted by the virtual. As the boy goes from screen to screen, shooting dinosaurs, racing imaginary motorcycles, and winning false jackpots, the father checks email on his smartphone (the arcade provides free wi-fi) and exchanges a few text messages, shadowing his son who wanders from one console to the next like a sleepwalker. A couple of hours pass, and it’s time to leave. On the way to the car, the child wants to play games on the father’s phone. The father accedes to the child’s wishes; the boy returns to the trance state. There is no further contact between them, no conversation, no laughter, no shared moments. Instead, the boy sits silently in the back seat accumulating points, levels, rankings. Like the tickets spat out by the video games at the arcade that the children use to buy concession stand junk—plastic balls that light up or finger puzzles or candy made in Pakistan—these digital achievements have no real value. They provide only a simulation of the real, a lifeless engagement that, unchecked, has the power to take our children out of their bodies and the world, arrest their development, and rob them of their childhood.

We live, of course, in the 21st century. Digital technology is part of that life, and a remarkable part of it provided that we use it rather than letting it use us. But it is every bit as ignorant and dangerous to ignore the power that this technology has to do as much harm as good as it would be to fail to recognize that the same electricity that lights our cities can electrocute us, just as the fire that cooks our food can burn down the house. The prudent use of these forces requires that we respect their power, and use them in the service of human life—and this is the point: As humans, we possess the peculiar ability to live less than humanly. In the fullest sense of the term, human life depends on engaging human things—our own spirit, each other, the questions and values and issues that matter most, humanly speaking, and without such engagement, there is a real sense in which we are not yet fully human. More than anything else other than perhaps love and empathy, children need many, frequent, and consistent opportunities for such engagement, appropriate to their age and level of development. And personal digital technology has become so pervasive, so assumed, and remains for the most part so blithely unexamined with respect to its power to seduce and estrange, that these crucial developmental opportunities are being abandoned in favor of a perpetual infatuation with a digital banality that leaves no room for this world, for conversation or creative expression, for self-connection and real, undistracted connection with others.

Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, iPods, Nintendo DS and Wii, PlayStation and Xbox, YouTube, MMORPGs, arcades, smartphones, television, DVDs, Blu-Ray—there seems to be no end to the incursion of digital technology into our living rooms and our lives. Some children are sacrificed to these disembodying, off-world technologies as many as four, five, six hours a day—sometimes more. And any child who is spending more than at most a total of a couple of hours a day engrossed in media—including on Saturday morning—is practicing being out of this world, out of his or her body, out of the vital rhythms of healthy human interaction and development.

Remarkably, a bit of observation reveals that kids who remain immersed for too long in the virtual world of digital entertainment generally don’t even get much enjoyment out of it. If one watches them closely, one notices that they aren’t having fun in the fullest sense of the word, only a kind of contrived fun driven by the rules of the game. They may get a rush of excitement when they defeat a virtual enemy or outwit forces programmed to keep them from “leveling up”; they may attain a certain ranking or proficiency, but in the process they rarely laugh, learn anything new about themselves or the world, experience pleasant surprises (like finding cats and dogs at the bookstore), or express their intelligence or curiosity or native wit. The stimulation of the video game is artificial from start to finish. It is noteworthy that the most fun the father and son in our story had was in the car on the way to the arcade and during the unscheduled trip to the bookstore, because in both cases there was room for them to experience their real-world surroundings, themselves, and each other spontaneously, without the contrivances and limitations and agendas set by computer game developers. This leads ineluctably to the conclusion that most of the popular forms of digital entertainment aren’t even entertaining. In place of fun, they offer a series of mechanical, predetermined, goal-driven interactions that have a cumulative effect not unlike Pavlovian conditioning, which we should remember is autonomic and, in this sense, “mindless.” Worse the artificial, conditioned, contrived goals of the digital world almost always involve some form of violence, often graphic to a point that many adults would find distressing, such as simulated beheadings or dismemberment. Children who have grown up on these games, however, have no emotional reaction to such representations. Our children, while they’re checked out of their body and the world during video game immersion, are being systematically desensitized to the violence that it is the aim of the game to inflict, often on virtual human beings—as in realistic first-person shooter games. The only real-world application of this kind of conditioning in which violence and disembodiment go hand in hand is military training, for within the military reality, which means the reality of warfare, the human assets of creative self-expression, empathy, self-knowledge and discovery, conversation and the willingness to question, staying present to one’s body and the world, and all other forms of human engagement only get in the way. To do his job, the soldier must live in a trance state not unlike that invoked by video gaming. Many soldiers are rudely awakened from this state of disembodiment by the shock and brutality of combat, torn by the toll it takes on their humanness, to the extent that it may be accurate to say that no one who goes to war survives the experience.

Of course, we don’t become and stay healthy merely by refraining from what’s bad for us. We also need what’s good for us, and plenty of it. Nutritious food, clean water, fresh air, exercise—these strengthen and sustain our bodies just as human engagement, social interaction, the love of friends and family, self-expression, and heart-to-heart conversation strengthen and sustain our spirit. In this sense, human life depends as much on real connections in the living present, on shared laughter and stories and the willingness to meet and touch and be affected by each other as it does on oxygen, for without these things, we exist but are not alive, not humanly, not fully. At the start of this essay, I quoted Shakespeare: If indeed the appetite grows by what it feeds on, then we have to ask: What appetite are we cultivating in our kids when we allow them to be continually subjected to the disembodying effects of digital technology? It is an appetite for disengagement, and so, ultimately, an appetite for the inhuman and inhumane. Whether we realize it or not, deferring to virtual experience increasingly costs our children their native ability to engage humanly, and worse, eventually even their natural inclination to do so. No matter how much they may insist, no matter how convenient it may be to hand a child an iPhone or let the television take over Saturday morning, no matter how tired we may be or at a loss for a better alternative in the moment, we have a sacred trust as parents and grandparents to see to it that our children do not consume so much of the prevailing technology that they end up consumed by it, and that they are given frequent and regular opportunities to engage their inner and outer life in ways that will nourish their spirit. The world is a miraculous place, on loan to each of us for only a brief time. Let us be mindful then, and take care that the children we brought into this world have their chance to discover it.

November 15, 2012   Comments Off on Out of This World