Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Faceless Generation

"The more time people spend before the computer screen or any screen, the less time and desire they have for two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation. The media invade, and in many instances destroy altogether, the silence that promotes reading and the free time required for both solitary thinking and social conversation." -- Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon, 2008), p.247.

I was explaining to a prospective student for the fall at The King's College why I do not permit the use of laptop computers in my classroom. She was surprisingly agreeable to this policy, and I found her reason illuminating.

She told me that relationships among her peers are mediated by screens, whether computers and cell phones. Their social life centers on Facebook and MySpace. They communicate via text messaging and cell phone. Consider all the 14 year olds walking around constantly on the phone. One way or another, they're distant when they do not have to be. Face to face relationship is one of the most precious goods in life--when it is done right. A kiss between two people is a particularly intimate face to face relationship. God's promise to his redeemed people is that they will see him one day "face to face" (I Cor. 12). But it is disappearing among those of the emerging generation.

This self-imposed distance between close friends is changing the nature and quality of human relationships. In electronically mediated relationships, people are more careless in what they say, and in particular they are bolder in what they say to the opposite sex. They say things they would never say "to your face." People of the rising generation are socially more awkward and have a more difficult time sustaining a friendship. Marriage will be even more difficult than it has been for previous generations.

You might find Maggie Jackson's recent book, Distracted, on the effect of email on one's attention span, interesting.

An older and more philosophical writing (and more difficult to find) is George Grant's essay with the intentionally ironic title, "The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used" (in Beyond Industrial Growth, Abraham Rotstein ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. 117-31).


Roundhead said...

Hi David, nice plug for a Canadian philosopher! though, lord knows I've had my disagreements with Mr. Grant, especially re: `Lament for a Nation.'

In any case, like yourself, I hypocritically bemoan the lack of unmediated contact between persons these days - hypocritical, yes, because here I am in front of a screen communicating with you by mediation.

In my own domus, I try to keep the intrusions of `screens' down to a minimum. One thing that I've noticed, over the last twenty years perhaps, is how the practice of turning of the TV when guests arrive, has gone down the tube (as it were).

It frankly drives me crazy how, when visiting people, you have to compete with the TV (or other) screen for their attention.

David C. Innes said...

If I re-read Lament For A nation, I might not think as highly of it as I did 25 years ago when I last read it. Since then I have come to appreciate the American political project more deeply (partly through actually understanding it), and I have come to view Canada not only as an impossibility, but also as inherently incompatible with civic virtue. This is so because by its very nature, unity is impossible. After the French began asserting themselves (and why shouldn't they?), the idea of BNA became necessarily a thing of the past and the future of Canada as such had to become some kind of tolerance of anything and everything. Nietzsche's Last Man becomes the moral ideal, and then not just the state but the regime itself becomes fundamentally hostile to liberty and destructive to virtue. Canada's only hope, if there is one, is to split up into three sovereign nations, leaving the west with the possibility of some sort of governing conservative majority. At this point, at least.

I suspect that you agree with me that the British connection at this point is a farce. It is actually facilitating tyranny because it allows the ever increasing concentration of power in the PMO. Correct me if I'm missing something.

On the other hand, if Canada as it stands were to adopt a new system of government, it would no doubt be a monstrous institutional entrenchment of all sorts of special interests in power, e.g. quotas for women, various ethnic communities etc. in the legislature through a system of proportional representation which of course would also ensure the seating of many narrowly focused little parties.

Roundhead said...

I can't say I disagree with a thing you said about Canada and `Lament for a Nation'.

Like you, I'm frustrated and weary of the Cdn government institutions, but fearful that any attempt at `reform' will, just as you said, entrench all sorts of (truly) corporatist government.

this is what they attempted, btw, with the 1992 Charlottetown constitutional amendments, which would have had an elected Senate in which voters would be compelled to vote for two candidates, one female and one male (as just one provision of these amendments).