My early childhood was haunted by a nightmare in which skin on my body progressively thickened till it turned as dense as crocodile hide. Every sensation then proceeded to disappear—I could no longer feel a thing.
Digital tech’s stampeding progress through our culture now reminds me a great deal of my old-time dream. Perhaps, that kiddie vision of numbness being forced upon me might’ve been prophetic in some way.
Electronic life enhancements initially may strike one as both appealing and useful. Upon closer inspection, too often we find them shoving us back from the natural world. They deprive us of true sensual immersion in physical space, and substitute for it only a shallow, jittery excitement that can be grounded in nearly nothing.
I would argue also that digital mesmerization en masse impairs our writing and impoverishes storytelling.
LO, THE STRIVING SCRIVENER
To be clear, I don’t slag computers as a tool for manipulating text. Not at all! For that job, computers do perform outstandingly. They handle text composition with an ease that soars light years past the hastily scribbled and crossed-out, legal pad draftings of my youth. However, I qualify this by stating that my needs and desires in this regard were utterly sated by Word in Windows XP. While I’ve certainly deployed all subsequent embellishments of Word, I don’t find myself leaning on them very hard.
How can digital devices harm storytelling? First, by decoupling sensation from language. In printed and audible stories, every listener or reader is invited—if not compelled—to complete the creative process by importing language into their brains, interpreting then visualizing the result. In that way, you not only win a story, you also score abundant neural exercise. On a digital screen, much of that work is done for you, whether it’s a game, a video clip, film or TV series.
(Note: Yeah, E-readers do get a pass from me on this criticism, since they are primarily a way to tote a highly condensed library of print books. More on this aspect in a moment, when I’ll riff on the diff between a toy and a tool.)
Second, if you attempt to connect on social networks, or absorb info from news or commentary websites, you’re also, ipso facto, getting fed again, this time by algorithms that steer you toward like-minded content and contacts. The reason is simple. Tech companies who provide you with “service” hope to keep you stuck on the screen for a longer session, so they can proceed to stuff you with more targeted ads—a primary way for them to make cash. Ads are the porn of commerce.
Thirdly, digitized content can be disassociated from reality in any of its forms. Digital producers easily build facsimile worlds, wherein our needful interactions can be replaced by shallow mimicries. That impairs our links to the Earth, to our own bodies and minds and actual lives. Not to mention, such content can distort many situations where we must make major decisions about our joined fates.
This trend looks to crest in a threat from “deepfake” presentations, wherein completely phony clips of supposedly real people are rapidly becoming indistinguishable from actual camera captures acquired on-site. That shall present us with an upended cornucopia of social manipulation—one for which we should never, ever give any thanks. It’s the point where a famed slippery slope transitions to a vertical mine shaft.
A further assault is mounting via “prose” and “poetry” and even “journalism” conjured for us via AI.
It even shows up in cultural confections. I’d cite the superhero movies that dominate popular entertainment—then rest my case. Could any fizz of vacant fantasy be possibly less relevant? To anything? I don’t condemn every form of escapism, by the way. Life’s not just about work; relaxation also holds value. But to get that, give me a cohort of hardcore stunt women and men who can work their magic in a visceral and realistic and believable manner. Then, producers can go play with their CGI someplace else. Preferably in a galaxy far, far away.
A TOYS VS TOOLS SMACKDOWN
Now, I don’t fancy myself a Luddite (an early 1800s weaver who protested the advent of textile machines) or a saboteur (supposedly, protestors who went so far as throw their wooden shoes into machinery to literally clog its gears.)
I am not an old man yelling at the Cloud, or screaming for the wizards of high-tech to get the hell off all our lawns. I’ve long been a fan of the operating philosophy of OAT—or the Office of Appropriate Technology, a creation of California Governor Jerry Brown during his first term. Simply put, OAT’s job was to discern and recommend economically sound and environmentally benign solutions for society’s ills, primarily in the realm of energy supply. Extra points were awarded for local control and sustainability.
That’s become my own operating philosophy, which I apply to digital devices or any other sort of implement, electronic or not. Growing up poor taught me the value of a robust minimalism. For instance, recycling is almost a religious obligation for me. The Yankee maxim, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do,” is a primary axiom.
In essence, it all comes down to the difference between a toy and a tool. A toy is meant to amuse, to seize your attention but then do nothing truly useful or pragmatic with that precious mental energy. A tool, on the other hand (or IN your other hand), is meant to strengthen your access to purposeful action. A tool utilizes your time, while a toy is designed to entertainingly waste it.
I’ve already cited the mental effort involved in reading, versus the relatively passive absorption of digital streaming. What I prefer in my implements is a quality that awakens my brain, that requires my involvement, and enhances my interactions with the physical world.
Thus, I drive a 20-year-old stick-shift. I have zero desire for a vehicle that takes over any portion of a driving chore for me. I want to be 100-percent present in the driver’s seat, controlling (inasmuch as one can) all that happens.
Thus, I use my iPhone for calls, texting, and as a wi-fi hotspot for my laptop. That’s about it. Since I never want to be an oblivious pedestrian hypnotized by a tiny glass slab who strolls into a hard metal lamppost. If I have some task that requires my use of an online connection, it can jolly well wait till I’m sitting in front of my laptop. Meantime, I want to see what actually surrounds me as I move through space—as well as anything or anyone that might be approaching.
I’m not opposed to fresh electronic developments, as long as the tech is, you know, appropriate. That is, if it enhances my awareness instead of diminishing it.
Here’s a recent example. I rented and drove a new, 2022 model car. It had a cool feature: a wee light that glowed near the side mirrors if another vehicle happened to be passing through my blind spot. If I could wish a wise alert device like that into my old RAV4, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
Also, I’m currently amid a house remodel project requiring use of an adjustable tool dubbed an angle square. I couldn’t find mine and so bought a new one. I chose a digital model with a readout giving the precise number of degrees between handle and blade. With old ones, you could bump the blade and never know the angle had changed a bit. With the new one, you touch a button and instantly read if the angle has been maintained. A quite useful item of appropriate tech.
WHEN NURTURE SICKENS NATURE
It’s become laughable to watch pundits opine on whether it’s a good idea for folks to lose themselves in a teeming swarm of digital screens. That humongous herd of android horsies galloped pell-mell out of our cultural barn many moons ago.
The Pew Research Center found five years ago that children ages 8-12 had begun to average 5.5 hours per day on their devices, while those aged 13-18 scored a remarkable 9 hours per day.
Since then, those numbers have improved. Or worsened! Two months ago, the Instituted for Family Studies and The Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young combined forces for a new study sampling 1,600 youth nationwide. Verdict: those ages 11-18 spent an average of 10 hours plus on their digital devices per day.
Of course, that such trends accelerated in a period of pandemic and remote schooling should surprise no one. Neither should a widely reported consequence that their skills have declined precipitously in math and reading, while they also grew to feel more isolated, alienated and anxious.
I’d feel that way too, if I found myself endlessly siloed in digitalia.
The cure isn’t more of the same. It sadly amuses that various big tech companies seek to build and promote VR (virtual reality) options—as if a deeper degree of digital mesmerization was just what the doctor ordered. Well, no, I’d say, if that doctor happened to be a child psychologist.
Probably, what’s really needed is the reverse of a metaverse. VR could have profound uses in education, say, in the same way that highly convincing flight simulators train pilots and astronauts. But as a digital replacement for face-to-face contact and physical play outside with peers? No dice.
LET’S PLAY DISTRACT THE DRIVER
But hey, let’s not lay all—or even much—blame on the kids. After all, just exactly whom have they seen posing as their role models?
That auto that wobbles while it goes 10 mph below the speed limit, supposedly driving in the fast lane? Dollars to donuts its adult driver has grown more preoccupied with the flickering of his/her phone and/or dashboard screen than with those red flashes of brake lights on the highway ahead.
That’s where the digital entertainment factor screeches to a literal halt. Distracted drivers treat their tool like a toy. In so doing, they transform their rolling armchairs into big, explosive, and rather unguided missiles.
And by the way, this deficit won’t be cured any time soon by making cars themselves “smarter.” One hurdle to that solution is that any device connected to the net which can be programmed may also be hacked.
THE USE IT OR LOSE IT TRAP
A delightful scientific study underscores my theme. Just over a decade ago, the University College of London (UCL) studied brains of the city’s taxi drivers, who trained themselves by riding mopeds all over the maze of 25,000 streets lying within a 10 kilometer radius of Charing Cross (at this capital city’s center).
“Maze” barely begins to describe it. London is a modern city built on top of an old town built on top of an ancient village, and one finds precious little rhyme or reason for its routes. A map of them has been compared to a skein of yarn tangled up by a frisky kitten.
In any case, it took up to four years of on-site training for an apprentice cabbie to master what’s called The Knowledge and so get licensed. And the UCL study discovered that the posterior hippocampus region of their brains—which tracks spatial navigation in humans—expanded over that period. MRI scans show it grew significantly larger, compared to a test group of folks of similar age, intelligence and education.
Since they were drivers, they all were at adult ages. Yet their neural pathways responded as eagerly to this learning challenge as if they were kids. What does this tell you? That gaining competence at tool use increases our capability. Perhaps some toys can do this as well, but I very much doubt that it would occur to the same extent. You see, with tools the stakes are higher, so the motivation stays stronger.
Now, I don’t know if London cabbies these days have made a shift and come to rely instead on guidance from sultry smart phone voices that consult GPS intel from satellites. (“Turn left on Drury Lane, go one block, right a few yards on Great Queen, immediate right on Wild, then quick left on Wild Court…”). If so, good luck on getting where you want to go should they lose a signal.
Here’s what I always do. I study my destination on Google, hand-draw a paper map, commit it to memory, then tuck that map in a shirt pocket for use if needed. Mainly, I want an image of where I’m headed to be carried in my very own brain. Put those neurons to work and keep them lively, not just have directions pumped into my ear from an outside source, which I might then obey like a robot—till I find myself trapped on a snowbound rural route that could conceivably be traversed just fine, but only during summertime.
I want to partner with good tools, but don’t desire to surrender any of my hard-won competencies to them.
WIRED, WIRED HORSES CAN’T DRAG ME
By now, it should be obvious I’m nobody’s idea of a digital native. In fact, I’m more like a time-traveler, a low-rent Doctor Who, arriving in your present era from an analog past.
I’m altogether comfy with such an identity. So are other people. My newest publisher, Bronzeville Books, has chosen to brand me as a “historical novelist” on the strength of a book they’ll soon bring out. It’s entitled “Splinter.” It’s a World War II adventure/romance set in Norway in 1940, amid the Nazi invasion. This novel’s release is slated for May of 2023.
Becoming able to write “Splinter” demanded extensive research into that time and place, and also into the tech and techniques that dominated ordinary existence then, as well as the contemporaneous style of warfare. Radio beams were state-of-the-electric-art; radar was just beginning to be deployed. Human limbs were bolstered by piston engines and electric motors, but they couldn’t and didn’t supplant all muscular effort. Keeping warm in winter could depend on who knitted your sweater, and out of what quality and quantity of natural fibers. Eating could depend on your ability to fish and hunt, or forage for greens, or how much bottled moose meat happened to be left in your uncle’s pantry.
Transistors, let alone microchips, were far from even dreamt of.
I’m exactly the right dude for that type of scribbling job. I do need and do wish to be able to work a laptop and smart phone at a basic level of competency. But I’ve also learnt how to field dress and skin and butcher a deer, then tan the hide and turn it into durable clothing. I know what it takes to disassemble a firearm, clean it well, put it together and sight it back in. I can string a bow and fletch an arrow. I grasp what sort of knife works best in which circumstance.
Abilities of this ilk make me a fairly decent interlocutor between then and now.
“I BUILT MY HOUSE OF BARLEY RICE” – Cat Stevens
Okay, let’s refer back to that house improvement project.
After I completed a 14th draft of a different novel and sent it out to solicit reader comments from topical experts (to acquire my wherewithal for a 15th draft) it became time for me to replace some single-pane windows. And sure enough, my new digital angle square got one helluva workout.
Plenty of other tools played big roles, both manual implements and electric ones. A half-century ago, I worked as a union carpenter by day while writing my first novel by night. I hung onto some venerable tools, such as a beloved chisel, and was able to fish them out of a stash. I also retain a few long-retired skills and was able to resurrect them—though they limped a bit on their way out of the mausoleum of memory.
My task was to replace windows in stucco walls. That sort of project can strike terror in the heart of a craftsman. Who knows what secret flaws might lurk behind a wall of opaque mud?
In this case, it turned out to be plenty. Surfaces out of plumb and square, crappy shims, random studs, shitty nailing, all concealed behind stucco and paint. Each required a fix. But the giant hex was: standard window sizes from fifty years ago do not comport to standard window sizes now. The amount of futzing demanded to cope with this situation not only exceeds my descriptive ability, it might well exceed your desire to read about it.
Some people may consider carpentry a simple matter of hitting the right nail (NOT the one on your thumb) and making little pieces of wood out of large ones. Au contraire. It can become a mental test akin to championship chess.
So anyway, now, job done. Hopefully, it’s all weather tight. We’ll find out.
And I can tell you that, seeking to fall asleep with fresh scabs covering my scuffed-up hands from gouges, cuts, bruises, slivers and blisters… I sure found myself quite a distance from being unable to feel a thing. My childhood nightmare is way-y gone, and I don’t think it will ever come back. The cure has been pleasing enough overall, though pleasant in a sometimes painful manner.
RHAPSODY IN GREEN
In short, while it’s tempting to gape agog at new advances in digital tech, it’s crucial to keep in mind that we already live immersed in one of the highest technologies imaginable. By which I mean, a technology for turning sunlight into life.
I recall reading in the 70’s that, “There is more information in a cubic yard of soil from a wilderness forest than there is in all the computer banks of the world.” I’d wager that this bold statement yet holds true.
I’ll finish up my paean to the analog realm with a citation from seer and woods rambler Henry David Thoreau. He wrote this journal entry in 1846 after summiting Maine’s Mount Katahdin. “Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in matter—daily to be shown matter—to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?”