There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the death of Steve Jobs as worshipers at the altar of mass technology mourn the loss of one of the creators of the digital universe.
As Data, the tin man of Star Trek, once commented, the birth of every human being adds to the sum total of the universe and the death of any human being subtracts from the sum total of the universe. In that sense, I, too, share the sorrow over the loss of the Apple Inc. co-founder. But I am not among the worshipers.
I was a young man growing up in a very rural part of my native Guyana when I heard on the radio that the Space Age had dawned. The way I heard it, humankind had entered a new era in which technology would serve all people, freeing them up from some of the burden of labor so they could enjoy more leisure time.
As I grew older, I have found that technology has failed to live up to that promise. Instead, it has become the primary means for mass killing of human beings by other human beings in the most obscenely immoral manner. Technology for the masses has been appropriated by a few men who have recast its purpose to make it the ultimate consumer want and, as people rush to spend hundreds of dollars to acquire the latest versions of their gadgets, the tech tycoons add billions to their personal treasuries.
Even more destructive is the influence which these gadgets are having on the very basic quality that makes for being human — as René Descartes put it, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am.)
While technology does enhance living, I fear that, gradually, we are losing our creativity and intellectual curiosity, that we are losing our interest in language.
Do we still — if we ever did — yearn for an exquisite expression of love of the type that Ben Johnson wrote in Song of Celia:
“Drink to me only with thine eyes/And I will pledge with mine;/Or leave a kiss within the cup/And I’ll not ask for wine./The thirst that from the soul doth rise/Doth ask a drink divine./But might I of Jove’s nectar sip
I would not change for thine.”
Do we still appreciate the fine poetry of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard? Part of that poem reads:
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathomed caves of oceans bear./Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness in the desert air.”
And it is not just this type poetry that we run the risk of not being able to appreciate. There is also well-written prose, such as this excerpt from Lewis H. Lapham’s farewell Notebook piece in Harper’s magazine of November 2010: “On being informed by the propaganda ministries of the Republican right that money is synonymous for peace on earth and goodwill toward men, that the capitalist free market is virtue incarnate, I resist the call for a standing ovation by remembering that Hugo Boss dressed Hitler’s troops, that the Ford Motor Company in the 1930s outfitted the Wehrmacht with its armored trucks, that the Rockefeller Foundation financed the prewar medical research meant to confirm Nazi theories of racial degeneration.”
Are we still able to appreciate the nuance in writing such as this gem in the Findings column of Harper’s of August 2010? “Male topi antelope who issue alarm snorts to imaginary predators in the presence of a female antelope in heat make the female more likely to linger in the male’s territory and have sex; scientists estimated that male antelope gain, on average, 2.8 additional mating opportunities per female per episode of deceptive snorting.”
Doesn’t that put a new take on some of the noises coming from some politicians?
Or take something even more basic, such as Celeste Headlee’s question on a recent edition of NPR’s The Takeaway: “Text messages have turned 18 but are they ready to drive?”
We seem to be allowing ourselves to be lured into yielding more and more of ourselves to machines and moving more and more into the world of fantasy.
We create virtual farms and become mortified if the cattle or the crops die because of some technical glitch. Yet, we hardly bestir ourselves as our real-world farm lands increasingly fall into the hands of big corporations, giving them the power over our food supply, over life and death.
Some people would pity me for not being a member of this thing called social media, for not having tasted the joy of “friending,” not having a Facebook account, not having tweeted anyone since I am not signed up on Twitter. I do confess to using e-mail and knowing how to use a computer. But I have every intention of remaining fully in control of my life.
I do want to live in a digital world but, for me, digital refers to fingers. When I use my digits, it is not to manipulate a gadget that opens a portal into a virtual world. And the light I want to see is not the artificial, eerie glow from an impersonal screen linking me to that virtual world. The light I want to see is the glow on the face of another human being — my wife, my daughters and grandchildren and other relatives, a friend, a stranger, even — when I shake his or her hand or touch his or her face and see their faces beam in delight.
I refuse to allow technology to confine me to a new kind of cave in which people huddle together under that eerie green glow and reduce their language skills to 140 characters and what passes for the prehistoric grunt, such as OMG and LOL.
Mohamed Hamaludin is executive editor of South Florida Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org