• Paul D. Wilke

How Technology Cripples

Our machines are getting smarter, yet I'm pretty sure I'm getting dumber. No kidding. I can almost feel my mental muscles atrophying from reliance on cyber crutches. Endless information is now available that I have instantaneous access to, but I remember almost none of it. I lurch about on these crutches of my own making, remembering neither the before nor considering the after. The past is all blurry now; I seem to remember so little of the last ten years. As more of my experience gets mediated by a screen, less of it is worth remembering.

What a bargain this turned out to be, outsourcing my mind to the cloud! I get the world at my fingertips, so much data, and all I have to do is surrender any ability to think for myself. And why think for myself if someone else can do it for me, and do it better, and faster, and more thoroughly than I ever could? It's a simple matter of efficiency, you see, a form of technique, and our society today is all about that. Amazon knows what books I'll like before I do. Youtube knows what videos I'll watch before I have even the faintest idea; Netflix too.

And often they're right. Think about all the unexplored avenues I never went down because an algorithm subtly nudged me down some rabbit hole rather than something else of my own devising. Is that really freedom? Of course, I'm led to believe it is, that I'm a free and independent being who thinks original thoughts all by my self.

But that's bullshit and I know it.

Even my eyes are not mine anymore, with every gaze directed by what the algorithms want me to see. And I guess that means my vision is crippled too, making it something else I can't really use freely anymore. Every moment staring at a screen is another tied to puppet strings. After all, why truly see anything at all if someone can see it better for you? Just relax! And so I do, sitting back and going along for the ride, barely aware of the trick being played on me. Meanwhile, I get dumber and notice less of the real world around me as my cybernated eyes no longer function without digital cues to direct them.

And dammit, even my emotions have been hijacked! Where did the ability go to create emotions from my own experience rather than from digital content created for that purpose? Feelings of joy, sadness, love, hate, surprise, contempt, and disgust - how many of these basic human emotions are now restricted to what I see online? How often do I express these emotions naturally in my daily life? Rarely.

That's part of the problem. How can the real world compete with this abundance of faux-feeling available on-demand for us to consume at our leisure? No, better to live vicariously, with all the thrill to be found online and none of the messiness of real life. Yet this tradeoff comes at a price. Hiding behind a screen allows me to feel something without any of the risks. That, alas, is the kicker. I can feel hate, love, joy, and sadness when I'm watching something online, but I know at the back of my mind that I'm only watching someone play a role. It's not real but performance, all of it, and I'm just an emotional tourist, a silent member of the audience, and nothing more.

You see, these faux-emotions are meaningless diversions without the vulnerability or danger of expressing genuine emotions (even negative ones) that may evoke some kind of reciprocal response. They're safe indulgences for the solo self rather than offering the richness that comes from relations with others. Human emotions like hate, disgust, and sadness are now almost entirely repressed from our daily lives. We express them at our own peril and repress them for our own good, which then hinders our growth as emotional beings.

Dangerous emotions are instead forced to find refuge online where they can spread like malignant tumors, never forced to resolve themselves in person by engaging in any sort of dialectic with others. Here there be trolls! There is a price here as well. The phoniness of digital culture eventually bleeds out into the real world. People self-censor to a frightening degree, saying only what should be said, never what must be said.

But oh how impoverished this makes life, even if many are too numb to know what's happening! I can say that I've done this for so long that it's now a way of life. Yeah, I want to break out, but end up hiding in the shadows like everyone else, knowing that expressions of feeling and emotion are often met with acid baths of mockery, irony, and sarcasm. Trust me, too much emotional expressiveness makes people uncomfortable, no matter how loudly we proclaim otherwise. Grown-ass men don't act that way, and so I don't anymore.

What to do then?

I'm trying to recapture some agency and escape this digital cage of corrosive norms while it is still possible. The clock is ticking, though. We have a generation of kids coming of age who have lived most of their conscious lives staring at a screen. They are more comfortable there than not. Even the older generations who remember a time before this creeping digital singularity are often spending soul-rotting amounts of time online. What poverty! This terrifies me.

The future also terrifies me because as the crack between reality and virtual reality widens, soon (if not already!) it will become difficult to cross back and forth between the two. When that happens, and if we don't learn to build bridges between these two worlds, it will be the beginning of the end of our world, which perhaps will be remembered by posterity as the Age of the Sleepwalkers.

Where does that leave me? Caught between two worlds, that's where. In my personal life, so many people I know, some of them quite close to me, live most of their lives online now. I, too, struggle to unplug. Yet I must find a way to carve out my own space and cherish some personal agency that does not depend on an internet connection. I suspect I'll find that as virtual reality recedes from my life, a void will open. I'm hoping the void is not emptiness but an opportunity to refill life with more precious forms of meaning of my own choosing, meaning that can be experienced directly and not mediated by technology.

What kind of meaning you may ask?

I don't know yet, but meaning is manifold and there for those who seek it. I'll search for beauty in the real world. I'll let my eyes wander in the hope that my mind will soon follow. And, yes, I'll learn to remember again, to savor the before and after as much as the present.

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