Happy New Year. To celebrate it, read Sally Thomas’s provocative piece–“iPhones Have Consequences”–on the effects of the new technology from November’s “First Things” and chew on passages like this:
“Television, vehicle of Masterpiece Theatre and Match Game ’74, has now been joined by a whole Information Superhighway, with a seemingly infinite number of exits to places that might be, but too often are not, Project Gutenberg’s collection of electronic texts. Rather than connecting the new generation with the thought and achievements of previous generations, the Web, says Bauerlein, “encourages more horizontal modeling, more raillery and mimicry of people the same age. . . . It provides new and enhanced ways for adolescents to do what they’ve always done in a prosperous time: talk to, act like, think like, compete against, and play with one another,” nowadays in a hermetically sealed, youth-culture cyber-bubble.”
“While apologists for digital technology in the classroom trumpet computer smarts as an entirely new form of intelligence, an “e-literacy revolution,” Bauerlein offers page after page of studies that suggest e-literacy is merely newspeak for illiteracy. If students visiting interactive sites and playing video games develop, as the claim goes, “the kinds of higher-order thinking and decision-making skills employers seek today,” these skills come at the cost of time spent reading, digesting, and retaining hard knowledge. In fact, says Bauerlein, the average person’s “screen reading, surfing, and searching habits . . . mark an obdurate resistance to certain lower-order and higher-order thinking skills [including] the capacity to read carefully and to cogitate analytically.”
““It is the nature of adolescents,” says Bauerlein, “to believe that authentic reality begins with themselves, and that what long preceded them is irrelevant.” But when the larger culture collaborates in this belief, the outcomes are, if not actually disastrous, at least depressing. Bauerlein notes that in a Time magazine cover story reporting on the “Twixter generation”— the demographic of twenty-two to thirty year-olds—“not one of the Twixter or youth observers mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them. Nobody ties maturity to formal or informal learning, reading or studying, novels or ideas or paintings or histories or syllogisms. For all the talk about life concerns and finding a calling, none of them regard history, literature, art, civics, philosophy, or politics a helpful undertaking.”
The piece is a thunder-clap in a room humming with digital sounds. Read the whole thing and process its insights. The new technology offers us incredible resources, yes, but it also threatens to draw us into a world of our own making that revolves around insubstantial versions of ourselves.