Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Digital Life

The Disaffected Lib recently wrote a post expressing ambivalence about the ubiquitous role that technology plays in our lives. It is an ambivalence I think many of us, especially those of an older generation raised on typwriters, print and analogue television, feel. On the one hand it has been an undeniable benefit, connecting us with a much wider world than we could ever know without the digital technology we now take for granted. On the other hand, the question arises as to whether or not a generation raised on instant access to information may have missed out on key critical-thinking skills that develop as a result of slow, deliberate and careful contemplation and processing of information.

Personally, I am not sure of the answer to that question. Every generation thinks that upcoming ones are not made of the same solid stuff of their elders. I do know, however, that there is the potential of great distraction thanks to today's technology, distraction to which none of us is really immune.

In today's Star, an opinion piece by Doug Mann entitled It's almost midnight for print culture posits a thesis that can be best reflected in this excerpt:

...the midnight of print is only a symptom of a more sinister cultural darkening brought about by digital media. This is a decline of the complex narrative as the centre of public life, the midnight of depth meaning.

Essentially, he argues that society's boredom threshold has declined as a consequence of the digital age, and that boredom is chiefly reflected in the declining interest in three key components of the examined life: complex arguments in theoretical thinking, extended adult narratives in fiction, and long serious conversations in everyday life.

From my perspective as a person of a certain 'vintage,' complex arguments may take a bit longer to process and grasp, but I am still very much interested in them. Mature fiction still appeals to me, and long serious conversations are an ongoing source of delight for me with certain select individuals. However, Mann's concern is not for my generation, but for the aforementioned young people without the larger context that we older guys and gals have.

Is he correct? I hesitate to embrace his thesis wholeheartedly, and even if my instincts suggest his logic is compelling, I could also argue that the above criteria have never had a wide appeal and may not necessarily be a victim of our current digital age, but rather a function of education and extensive and varied reading. While that observation may sound a bit elitist, I think it is true.

I would be very interested in hearing other people's views on this matter. Feel free, as always, to comment.


  1. Lorne, I'm from the in-between generation, going metric for example, for which I am grateful because it gives me the ability to 'see both sides'.

  2. Linda, I was raised on the imperial system, and was able to make the transition, especially with regard to Celius in place of Fahrenheit; I do still use a converter, however, whenever I want to figure out my fuel economy in miles per gallon.

    The ability to see both sides is in many ways, I think, invaluable, and one that perhaps gives an edge to older people who now embrace technology, as context is so important in so many areas. I guess that is the big question about the digital impact on young people, Without that context, do they have the necessary evaluative skills?

  3. We have three sons, Lorne. The first two were thoroughly immersed in print. But our third son is much more comfortable with electronic communication. His cell phone is always within reach. He seems more impatient for his brothers and he demands immediate answers. Unfortunately, life does not always provide them on the spot.

    He's much more comfortable with this brave new world than I am. However, I continue to hope that one day he will read Moby Dick.

  4. Both my son and daughter were raised with print, Owen, and avid readers as youngsters, I would say my son is far more reliant on electronic communication than my daughter, who is still quite a reader and quite involved with the arts. I suspect the differences between them may have more to do with their personalities, but then again, their approach to technology only differs by degree. Neither would want to be without it.

  5. I agree with Mr. Mann in the sense that a transition in communication is taking place. We are moving from the world of the written world to a world based on icons and sound. We are 'evolving', as McLuhan said, back to a pre-literate world. But I think there will always be a Druid class that will keep the written word alive and relevant to some extent.

    I disagree with Mr. Mann's idea that the new technology represents a 'sinister cultural darkening'. The new technology represents a cultural change, that is all. New complex ideas, I think, will evolve with the 'new' icon and oral-aural based communication. In fact, the new ways may represent an improvement for human civilization. The rise of the written word during the industrial revolution has, after all, brought us to a precarious place.

    Will the new communication methods and technology make us any happier? I doubt it. As the publisher Alfred Knopf once said, people were no more happier after the invention of the light bulb than they were before it.

  6. I tend to agree, Anon, that the written word will always have currency; I have never really joined in the sky-is-falling hysteria that some people express over new technology. Such dire predictions are perhaps more a manifestation of absolutist thinking. Hopefully, old and new methods can co-exist and perhaps even be synergistic.

  7. It's my perception that the myth or trope or meme (that wonderful 'internet' word) that today's technology will undermine our culture and cognition is a subset of an older suspicion of the politics, economics and morality of new technologies in general. The three versions of this trope or meme I see most often are:

    - the cell phone / car accident connection (even though the explosion of cell phone use between 2000 and 2010 did not result in a matching increase in car accidents);

    - the texting / bad-spelling connection (even though the telegraph and British word games encouraged similar brevity and creativity a century before, as Cambridge professor David Crystal frequently points out);

    - the audio-visual / death of print connection (which typically confuses book sale numbers with incidents of reading, and recasts business decisions that limit consumer choice as consumer choices which drive business decisions).

    These last two, of course (and as noted in the post above), fit nicely with the "today's schools are no good" and the "kids today are ignorant and lazy" tropes.

    Anyway, my point is, Doug Mann is just reporting on and running with a popular and mostly unsubstantiated trope.

    By the way, it may be true that Harry Potter books aren't Moby Dick. But, then, neither were Michener novels or those terrible things Alister Maclean and Louis L'Amour used to crank out. What's interesting is the *hunger* with which, say, The Half-blood Prince was received. Maybe everybody would read more print if they only had more print to read?

  8. You make some excellent points here,Wendell. I did feel, as you point out, that Mann really offers very little to support his thesis. As well, the historical reactions to new technologies, etc. that you mention do seem to recur with each generation. I remember reading an article several years ago by Rick Salutin, I believe, in which he examined reactions to those technologies when they were new. For example, radio was predicted to end the reading of books, the television would be the death of movies, etc. etc.

    Thanks for your insights, Wendell.