Friday, October 14, 2016

Homo Deus is a threat to our souls

I was a regular reader of Andrew Sullivan's blog--in its various avatars at different places.  I checked in with his blog every day, just like I did with, say, the New York Times.  I liked to find out what he had to say especially because of the unique intersection of his various attributes that we normally do not expect: An immigrant, with a PhD from Harvard, deeply committed to Catholicism, gay, a Republican ...  And, he was on the forefront of blogging.  I can safely bet that he was the pioneer in the kind of public-intellectual blogging that we now take for granted--and he even made money from it!

And then, one day, just like that, he pulled the plug.  He closed shop.  He went away.

The digital/intenet life of "living-in-the-web" nearly killed him.  Literally.
In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
So, why did Sullivan keep doing that?
But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve.
And what was the problem with this?  A problem more than the health effects?
The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.
Sullivan realized that he used to be a real human being before this life on the web.  And even worse, he did not know how to get back to being a real human being.

I read his essay a few days ago and I put it aside.  I was drawn to it a second time because a student in my class tweeted about it.  It is one awesome class; more on that some other time.

In many, many ways, technology is rapidly redefining our lives even before we have even had a minute or two to think about the changes.   Today is not anything like yesterday, and tomorrow will be even more different.  Even if you want to call a time-out to pause, well, it is not as if there is one person whose foot is on the accelerator and we can request that person to instead step on the brakes.

Continuing along this path of no return threatens "humanity"--as in what it means to be human.  This book-review essay notes:
The next great stage of our evolution has begun. But what will our successes look like – and will they be that different to us?
At the recent conference, when having breakfast with two retired geographers, I told them that virtual interactions are rapidly diluting, eliminating, an important attribute--empathy.  The face-to-face interactions through which we truly understand the other and the other's feelings are now rare.  The less we have real world meaningful interactions, the less empathy we will have, I told them.

Sullivan writes:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.
In my classes, for the first time ever, this term I have made it clear to students--right in the syllabus--that I will not permit any use of laptops or smartphones.  For the nearly two hours that we meet, they have to shut themselves off from the outside world.  I was worried that this might backfire.  But, three weeks in, the trend that is emerging is clear: It is working great.  Students are engaged.  We are actually connecting as humans.

I recognize that my classes and my blog won't make a damn difference in the grand scheme of things.  But, when the time comes, I will assure myself that I gave it my best.

I will have Andrew Sullivan's words wrap up this post:
There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.


Ramesh said...

Anything done to the excess is obviously a major problem. In the past, perhaps it was the TV. Now it is perhaps the device in then hand. Tomorrow it might be whatever avatar the awful Google Glass takes. In due course, each one of us has to find the right balance - you blog every day, but you are not insanely addicted to this medium. You have many dimensions to your life including quixotically stopping by the BP machine at Walmart and shepherding goslings across the road !!

I am sure a balance will be found after a bout of excess.

You have given a few teasers that your current batch of students are awesome. Blog about it.

Sriram Khé said...

The important aspect is that one word: "Addiction"

researchers are finding more and more evidence on how this digital/internet addiction works--it is completely different from the television aspect you comment about. In this internet addiction, because of the randomness of when a friend might "like" a photo or comment on something or email about something, all of which apparently messes up the dopamine enough to make many addicted to the internet via the various portals. Which is why people check the gadgets even when talking with people, for instance--they are seeking out that next hit. This internet addiction is unlike anything ever.

It then means that we individuals have to figure out for ourselves for best to balance all these out. Guess what? most of us are absolutely incapable of that--which is why we find people watching their screens all the time in public places, even at restaurants when having dinner. Speaking of which, more on the food aspect in the post that I just published ;)

Yes, sometime as the term ends, I will write about the experiences in classes this time around ...

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