Monday, February 28, 2005

Isolation by design: The tyranny of having our own way

Andrew Sullivan writes in the Times UK:
What was once an occasional musical diversion became a compulsive obsession. Now I have my iTunes in my iMac for my iPod in my iWorld. It’s Narcissus heaven: we’ve finally put the “i” into Me...

...It wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t part of something even bigger. Americans are beginning to narrow their lives.

You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won’t challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market — for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones can receive e-mail feeds of your favourite blogger’s latest thoughts — seconds after he has posted them — get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio.

Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves — where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.
I am amazed at the clarity with which this author puts his finger on the insipid problem with technology in a market-driven, individualist society. Necessity has long since ceased to be the mother of invention (at least, in this country). Rather, convenience, expedience, and pleasure are the mothers of invention these days. Of all the research and design dollars spent in the United States, I wonder how much is spent on anything that might be called necessity. Compare that with the amount of recreational money used to research and design devices for entertainment, self-gratification, and escapism?

One wonders if all public interaction ceases with the simple addition of an MP3 player, then what will it do to consumers to pull a shiny new immersive virtual reality deck off the shelves of Walmart 2020?

The important question raised by Sullivan is this: if human beings are allowed to create their own environments, will that environment help or harm them? Taken further, does complete control over the environment make a person more or less human? If, as Sullivan suggests, people retreat more and more into their own tribal subcultures, then what happens to humanity in the process?

Dwayne recently wrote about C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. Sullivan's article reminds me of another work by C. S. Lewis, called the Problem of Pain, in which he explores the subject of hell. If a person needs the radical transformation offered by Jesus Christ in order to experience and contribute to the greatness of heaven, then a person who chooses to refuse the offer of that transformation is then radically left to himself. Lewis thinks this is an excellent depiction of hell.

His take on it is the logical extension of Sullivan's narcissistic iPod world: once the life-giving hand of God is refused finally and utterly for all eternity, the human is wholly given over to its selfish, internally-focused desires, its preoccupations with self-gratification, and its utter contempt for the needs and desires of the world around it. If heaven is the place where truest unity, joy, and love can be found in infinite abundance, amidst a community of other transformed humans and God himself, then hell is where the human is left untransformed and the Hand of Mercy is forever removed. Man is left alone in the universe of his own creation. A terrible fate indeed.


Dwayne Hilty said...

"a terrible fate" might be an understatement. Interesting intersect between culture and faith that you've made here. There are times in life when I am optimistic about human nature. Your thoughts remind me of my low view of humanity and how deflating the condition of sin is to the creaive purposes of God.

Gunslinger said...

Even our own Army is given over to appealing to individualism in its recent slogan. "I am an Army of one." I have about 3 blogs worth of rants about this, so I will leave it at that.

Alien Shaman said...

I am glad to see Sullivan pointing out that Apple is evil. Aside from that, I don't know if I entirely agree that a majority of technology is focued at entertainment instead of necessity.

What defines necessity?

Are automated systems that allow people to work in other areas and focus on other things a necessity?

Are drugs that cure disease a necessity?

Is a more efficient weapon of automated destruction a necessity?

Is education a necessity?

Are super-efficient farms a necessity?

Is the ability to talk to family half a world away a necessity?

I could argue both sides of the above statements, but an important thing to remember is that it is all about perspective.

CapitalistPig said...

Andrew Sullivan's take is wrong. Technology isn't being used to isolate ourselves in our own little virtual worlds. (A) It's allowing us to be exposed to other people and other ideas like never possible before, (B) while at the same time filtering out much of the irrelevelent garbage that our commercial society forces upon us. It is "point B" that worries Andrew Sullivan the most.

Take the i-Pod for example. Prior to digital music distribution the major record labels chose for us what music we could listen to. If you didn't like what was on the radio you had the choice to turn it off or listent to one of the CD's that music executives in Los Angeles had chosen to be available for sale in your local music store in Oregon.

Now a days, thanks to portable MP3 players and satelite radio, people always have the ablity to choose exactly what music they want to listen to, where previously the only choice was to just tune out.

Blogs have had a similar effect with news and analysis. We no longer have to choose from the menu offered by the Mainstream Media, and *gasp* people are choosing to ignore the professional punditry class from which Andrew Sullivan spawned. So naturally he would see this as "narrowing our view", when in fact it's the exact opposite.

Thanks to technology we no longer have to tune into the souless mainstream media for our entertainment, news and analysis. This is a good thing.

ted said...

I think it is important to recognize that technology has allowed us greater freedom in the area of hygiene. If I don't want to go out to buy a new CD because that means I'll likely have to shower, shave and brush my teeth so as not to be attacked by Marion County Animal Control, I now have the freedom to sit at home on my ass and just click away to my heart's content. This is especially handy if you only buy albums that start with "Greatest Hits" because you won't have to pay for any songs that you can't already hear on corporate radio. You'll be safe from having to listen to the likes of Neil Young's Old King, Zepplin's Bron-Yr-Aur, Jimi Hendrix's Castles Made of Sand, or Metallica's To Live Is To Die.

ted said...

Or really any songs by Queensryche.