I know by writing this essay I will have allayed any suspicion that I am a happy, practicing member of this new electronic age. I am not. But neither am I a hard-core Luddite – running away from any decent potential that new technology may harbor. My first foray onto the electronic highway (more like the median strip) was in 1982 when I became the proud owner of an Apple II computer. It was Halloween when we set up the computer. We suddenly became the first place for parents to look for their tardy offspring. The (real floppy) floppy disk containing the game Falcons was better than candy as more than one child sat down in front of the black screen to take their turn at shooting green dots that turned all sparkly as they fell to the ground. I realized that owning a computer made us almost as popular as the 10 puppies our dog had given birth to the spring before. But, from this communal camaraderie, we have come to a cultural crossroad with one direction leading straight to this zombie producing nation of kids plugged in and plugged up as they walk along busy streets with the ubiquitous dangling side-locks of the earpieces. I cringe when I see young people today, staring glossy or vacant eyed waiting and thumb typing the time away. These young people seem to measure their lives not in coffee spoons, but in text messages and Facebook tags and likes. They walk along busy streets, seemingly, emotionally blind to their surroundings, blind to any beauty and (sadly) any potential danger lurking unnoticed. Also, I am uncomfortable with the idea that young children have to be entertained all the time. As a culture we put this canard front and center in our capitalist zeal to sell. Witness the car commercial in which a high angle camera shot follows a luxury SUV traveling through some of the most beautiful landscape this country has to offer – U.S. Coast Highway 1. Once the camera moves inside the car we see all the external beauty going to waste, unrecognized as the faces of the young occupants in the rear seats are cast in the sickly blue light of the video being run on the latest, built-in technological baby-sitter. Looking back, I’ve always been at odds with new technology in way or another. I was living in L.A. when the first rumblings of pay T.V. started shaking the cultural ground. Yes, I too gave the derisive sneer along with, “Please – who is going to pay for television?” I was obviously blind to the concept of Home Box Office – the great and lucrative idea of showing movies on television. Once we moved to rural western New York I did not have to consider paying for television. Our one-hundred and forty-year-old farmhouse sported the latest in aerial technology – meaning the antennae was easy to reach when we wanted to change the channels and get better reception with less snow. It wasn’t until 1986 – when my beloved Mets were on the fast track to a world-series championship – that I relented and agreed to a satellite dish. I was a reading teacher, at the time and fully aware of the message given by the huge, in your face, aluminum mesh dish in my orchard.
As a writer, technology, for the most part, has been my friend giving me any number of innovations to improve the look and content of my writing. But I always left the computer store fearing that by the end of the two-hour drive home my new acquisition would be obsolete. But obsolescence, I know now, was not planned. Those inventors, in their rush to figure out ways to push information faster and further seemingly, gladly, never slept in order to be on to the next new thing that would help us improve our ways to communicate important news and information. But what now? We can pass information around the world in nanoseconds, we can explain, detain, and maim in social networking environments with some restricting the makeup of our word-based weaponry to 140 characters. And innovation makes all of this good?
My fear is that while we may be on the cutting edge of electronic expertise, that technological Damoclean sword will certainly cut just as deeply on the backswing. Nothing pushes my point home better than the television commercial for Google Nexus 7 in which a middle-school boy asks the meaning of the word glossophobia. Does he ask an older brother or sister? No. Does he ask mom, who is sitting right beside him? No. Does he ask dad, who is nowhere in the picture (but that’s another rant for another day)? No. He goes to his beautiful android-tablet device for the answer. And the viewer is taken in with a sweet historical vignette in which the young boy learns about another “ordinary” individual (King George VI) who suffered from the same fear of public speaking. And yes, it ends well – he gives the speech of his young life and gets the girl of his dreams. In all fairness, there is another longer online version of this commercial in which FDR is featured telling us what it is we should fear. And in this longer version the mother uses the reminder app to wish her son luck on speech day. Cool technology meets warms and fuzzy. But, for me, the warmth did not last long as I fully expected the boy to get up and go find dad and ask him how to ask a girl out – you know, like handing down gender tips from one generation to the next. The boy does not seek any help from his parental units because the electronic parent is there to answer all questions – even the hard ones, without any parental wisdom for the child to store in his own arsenal of future references. The underlying message here is that mom and dad are obsolete and unnecessary for this generation of hooked up, plugged in, self-absorbed adolescents. And this is what makes me angry; the idea that we live in a culture in which we pay (mightily too) to stand in line for the right to become hardened to beauty, nature and, saddest of all, human contact. We will not survive as a species if this becomes the case.