During the recent HBO television show The Newsroom, intrepid studio producer Jim Harper, played by John Gallagher, Jr., has an intense conversation with his girlfriend Hallie Shea, played by Grace Gummer, who has just taken a job at a news network which is requiring her to write stories concerning her life as a single woman in New York City and then post them on their site as significant news stories. After Harper admonishes her for caving into the more superficial reality TV culture that is rapidly becoming increasingly relevant, she tells him that his problem is that he’s afraid of the new Internet technology; his response being that it’s not the new technology, rather it’s the superficiality of social media.
In point of fact, as one who is critical of the increasingly superficial, shallow culture that social media has spawned, one tends to hear this argument a lot; that people who make a point of condemning social media for spawning a more superficial, dishonest culture are really just afraid of the growth of digital technology, and how we are being left behind because of it. No doubt, those of us who are alarmed by the possibility of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse causing people to accept a shallower reality, the veracity of which can’t be trusted, will hear this same argument made with us over and over; that we’re really just afraid of a technology that we don’t understand how to properly use.
The late Neil Postman, author of such great books as The Disappearance of Childhood and The End of Education often spoke of two relevant questions which need to be asked whenever any new form of technology comes into existence: What present problem does it solve, and what new problems does it create? That is, in terms of the Metaverse, does this new technology in which people are able to inhabit a different or alternative reality really solve any of our pressing problems, or does it simply cause us to become shallower inwardly as we experience the real world less and less without really solving any pressing problems related to humans communicating with each other?
Likewise, does a kindle e-reader solve any problems related to human literacy at the same time that it potentially causes those to use it to connect in shallower fashion with what they are reading when they don’t have the advantage of a direct physical connection with it, as they do whenever they hold a book in their hand? Or does the new Apple watch facilitate faster, easier connection with others when everyone who could afford the watch can also easily afford an iPhone, while at the same time, it might easily cause Internet addiction to become more prevalent simply because it is something that is literally on someone’s arm?
Obviously, new technologies appear all the time that everyone must get used to because that is simply the new world in which they live. Examples being things like the electric light, the automobile, or even the personal computer. However, these are also things which made everyone’s lives substantially easier, even if they did create a newer set of problems. However, if things like the Metaverse, the e-reader, or the Apple watch come into existence without solving any pressing problems, and even though at the at the time of their appearance they seem cool or trendy, they present a new set of problems related to potentially shallower inner lives and shortened attention spans, then it seems one has to indeed ask if they are worth the trade-off.
When Jim Harper told Hallie Shea during their breakup on the Newsroom that “It’s not the technology” what he meant was that she was conflating the issue of people not being adept at using certain Internet-related devices with their concern with an increasingly shallower culture that those same devices may be helping to foster. Unfortunately, by conflating the two, the second issue, the more important of the two, might never be discussed or properly addressed. Let’s hope that this doesn’t continue to occur.
Lyn Lesch’s new book Toward a Holistic Intelligence: Life on the Other Side of the Digital Barrier, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is now available from booksellers.