Copyright © by Len Holman, 8/13/12
I do not have a smart phone. I do not have a phone which talks to me like a friendly neighbor, which directs me to the nearest chocolate croissant, or which has a brilliantly-colored application for finding the North Star. I do not have a phone which plays games and keeps me posted on the latest from the Kardashians. My computer is not very new and I use it sparingly. I have no tablet. I have minimal contact with the digiworld Out There. I read actual books and sometimes, I just sit outside, drink hot tea, smoke a nasty cigar and veg out. But it seems the rest of the civilized world is getting liberal amounts of dopamine from their tech gadgets---enough dopamine to create an addiction to our tablets and phones and computers and…are holograms next?
This reward-chemical stimulus, say experts in the field, shrinks the structures used for concentration, empathy, and impulse control, with new neurons growing which are very receptive to instant gratification. This malady has a name now: “Internet Use Disorder” and, next year, for the first time will be listed in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This furrowed-brow angst reminds me of the old joke about the kid who murdered his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan, because we did this to ourselves. While we invented, over-used, and indulged like a Mob boss with a class table filled inches deep with coke, the “experts” begin whining about the ruination of Civilization As We Know It.
But, typically, when we run into what seems to be a problem, we want to blame it on someone. We COULD blame it on extraterrestrials, but our space technology hasn’t gotten far enough to make that very believable, so we start by blaming the gadgets. But that criticism doesn’t work very well because they just sit there if not turned on and taken for a spin. Employers are to blame. Yes, those evil, mustache-twirling Simon Legrees who demand that we workers be on call 24/7. The American culture is also to be blamed for making us feel guilty for taking time off and feeling obligated to meet the growing demand for nonstop productivity.
I find all of these explanations (except, perhaps for the E.T. ones) ridiculous. I will use myself as an example of what CAN be done. I work part-time at a community college, which believes that everything tech is Good. If I want to have my syllabus copied, I need a copy code, which I can get from the Social Sciences office. I should then sit at a computer, load my syllabus, and send it to the copy center, with the appropriate code, and wait for it to be delivered to the mailroom. I don’t do that. I walk to the copy center, fill out a form (check a few boxes), chat with the people there, and turn it in. It still gets delivered to the mailroom. Or my parking permit, the receipt of which is supposed to be made so-o-o much easier by filling out two forms online and sending it in, so I can go pick it up when school starts. But I STILL have to go down there anyway, on the first day of class. If I am patient and can wait five or ten minutes while a mob of students push and shove to get THEIR permits, I walk to the window, fill out a card and get my permit.
Anyway, I don’t need a computer or tablet of a phone with pretty colors on it to touch and fondle and which is the size of a deck of large-print playing cards. Where is, in short, the blaming of the user? Some companies, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are now teaching their employees meditation (count those beeps!) and “mindfulness.” This is like teaching an arsonist to put out a gasoline fire after she torches the village. I’m sure the Buddhists who work for Google are pleased with this turn of events, though how effective it is can be seen by the fact that, for example, more people are watching the Olympics on line, on a mobile device, than NBC TV. What does all this say for our political culture, our law-making culture, our perception of what is and is not, and the ability and willingness to slog through days or months or years of negotiations, compromises, actual reading and writing of bills, and actually considering the consequences of any proposed legislation?
As our political class gets younger, we will enter the dopamine phase of politics. This will be the coming class of people raised on colored, instant-gratification, touch-screens, who have not fingered a book except to prop open a door. How will humans fare in the newest tech world? We’ve put an SUV-sized rover on Mars, and that takes a long time to plan and execute: knowledge, patience, tolerance for enormous pressure, resistance to repeated failure, and no dopamine for killing virtual zombies—just the satisfaction and pride of a major undertaking done well. Plenty of computers, all right, but also plenty of late nights with pencils and paper and white boards and messy dry erase markers. Humans can still do the hard work of thinking and failing and re-starting. So there is hope for the race which, so far, still rules the planet, despite the bumper-sticker slogans and irrelevant babblings of people running for office. Maybe someday, people will realize what THEY have wrought and cease—or at least slow their roll. Maybe.
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