By Darryl Gladstone
Darryl Gladstone’s cultural analysis and opinion essay on the benefits and dangers of new media and technology was written for English 2100 and was nominated by Professor DJ Dolack. Dolack writes, “The essay is exquisitely written and carries Darryl’s signature combination of rhythmic prose and wit. It is a great example of what we as writing instructors strive to instill in our students: as sense of clarity, maturity, and personal style. ”
- Learn more about how Gladstone uses transitions to create structure and flow in his writing.
Almost thirty years ago, a freelance writer by the name of Marie Winn wrote an article admonishing society about the dangers of television. At the time, television was the newest form of technology. It was the one commodity that every person or household had to own. Fast forward to the 21st century and this fetish with new technological media has not changed at all. Today, we keep our eyes keenly open, waiting for the next iPod to come out and standing in long lines for the newest laptops or video game systems. These “new media” have become almost necessary staples for existence. As economists would put it, technology is one of our “artificial needs.” At the time Winn may not have known it, but when she wrote “The Plug-In Drug” she was presciently warning us all of the dangers that may arise from all forms of new technology. One person who might not have been so surprised to see the modern effect of technology would have been renowned German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Long before Winn cautioned everyone about the problems television could cause, in 1955 Martin Heidegger criticized and questioned the foundations upon which new technology was built. Through countless works and essays, he made the controversial claim that technology posed a threat to what he referred to as “the being.” In essence, he said the rise of technology, if mishandled, posed a substantial threat to the basic elements necessary for real human existence. Looking at the way the current general populace has replaced emotional forms of communication like face-to- face conversation with such things as mass texting and instant messaging, one finds it hard not to agree with the arguments Winn and Heidegger proposed about television and technology as a whole. Although new media such as the cellular phone and the internet have expanded the basic channels for communication, it’s hard not to notice the adverse effects they have had on one of the essential components that make people like you and me uniquely human: the ability to communicate intimately.
One of the very unique qualities that we, as humans, possess is the ability to communicate in complex ways. We speak in many different tongues and ascribe meanings and emotions to certain words. By nature, we have a need to communicate. This ability to emotionally communicate with each other is the one thing that separates us from the rest of the ecosystem, and makes us uniquely human. Heidegger affirms this notion in his famous text Being and Time. He describes the human as someone who is “fixed, embedded and immersed in the physical, literal, and tangible day to day world” (Hornsby). In essence, one must be in touch with the world to be what Heidegger describes as a real “being.” One of the key aspects keeping us in touch with the everyday tangible world Heidegger refers to is the simple act of communication. However, in an age in which communication seems to be dying, how can we achieve real humanity—humanity that involves being in touch with the tangible world as opposed to the personal worlds we create by fetishizing technology?
I. The Human Fetish
In an age of innovation, technological advances, specifically new media, have changed the way we communicate; new media technologies have become our crutch for communication and information. Books, newspapers, and magazines are no longer our pastime friends. Instead of books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison, Perez Hilton’s blog is now our most revered reading material. “Meeting up after school,” once a common activity, is now replaced by “I’ll just IM or text you later.” This wide array of new technology has expanded our basic forms of communication beyond just a simple in-person conversation or a mailed letter. It has, without a doubt, made reaching another person easier and quicker than it was previously. In fact, this new form of technology is so efficient in helping us communicate that we sometimes ignore the basic forms of communication and information we used to rely upon.
Today, we are so transfixed by new media and its advantages that we no longer feel the need or even desire to be in touch with the tangible world. In The Will to Technology & The Culture of Nihilism, Arthur Kroker illustrates this numbing effect that new media has on today’s society by describing a disturbing scene at the San Francisco Airport:
Just landed at SFO, Palm in hand, I check my email while waiting for my bags. Everyone else is doing the same. A corporate lawyer with that Palo Alto computer-burn look is saying something about trademarks and intellectual property rights into his cell phone….San Francisco…digitally has reached that point of economic maturity where all the algorithms necessary for b-to-b commerce and struggles for market share have mutated the business cycle beyond drudge work to aesthetics (33).
Eerily, the scenario Kroker describes is not too far from an accurate description of how most advanced societies all across the world act today in the face of technological advancement. Our fetish with our technological toys tends to help us distance ourselves from the world around us. Unfortunately, although some people may see this as harmless, our once-occasional distancing has seemed to turn into a regular routine: a regular routine that seems to pose a danger to the current generation and generations ahead.
II. Its Wide-Scale Effect: The Entire Human Society
Of course, the ideas of new media and the rise of technology are more relevant to the current younger population. Eighties babies and ’90s babies, unlike the children of previous generations, were born into an age in which such technologies as the internet, cell phones, and MP3 players are easily accessible and better understood. Consequently, possession of such devices usually becomes the norm. As opposed to previous generations, in which letters and face-to-face conversations were the norms for communication, the younger generation find themselves in an age in which using such things as cell phones, instant messaging, and the internet is widespread. However, technical communication tends to be void of most of the unique characteristics of face-to-face conversations.
Face-to-face conversation, an activity among friends that seems to be on the decline, includes several characteristics that make it more intimate than its counterparts. When speaking to a loved one or a friend in person, we get the chance to observe and study such things as his or her facial expressions, body language, and tone. Because such aspects as these are present, this form of communication tends to be more impulsive. The thought and need to restrain what we say is secondary. As a result, we have to deal with more consequences when we speak this way. It helps us develop real relationships that require gaining knowledge of the other person. Instead of developing relationships based upon arbitrary ideas, this form of communication helps us develop relationships based upon an intimate development process, one that relies upon a real personal form of communication.
Unfortunately, this is not the situation among the younger people of today, the e-generation. Our world of communication and the friendships based upon it rely heavily upon new media and the way we use it. In fact, Baruch College is a great example of this. With a student body that consists of more than 3,000 students, internet friendships are the trend for most people who attend. In an attempt to socialize with one another or to be caught up on class work, students develop relationships with their peers through various networking sites. Networking sites, a phenomenon best exemplified by the infamous MySpace and Facebook, have become our main channels for communication. On any given day a student at Baruch is more likely to text, chirp, IM, Facebook chat, or email a friend than to actually see that person face-to-face. These forms of communication are inherently dangerous to how we interact with each other as beings.
Students, like the millions of other people who use new media as their main avenue for communicating, generally fail to realize the lack of intimacy and real personal connections in a lot of their “relationships” with others. Let’s take texting for example. Texting, “bff” Jill and Grandma’s favorite way of “kit,” is how most “close” friends talk to each other on a regular basis. By reading the former statement about bff Jill kit with Grandma, any person familiar with text-speak would understand that texting is Grandma and her best friend Jill’s favorite way of keeping in touch. However, if you look it at a second time, one might realize that the statement has no real significant value. If an employer says we’ll “kit” after an interview, what would one say in response? Texting has reduced the English language to various short and arbitrary abbreviations that at times we forget what such words and phrases originally meant. A great example of this is the recent tendency to end text messages with the new phrase “ily.” “I Love You,” three words that use to mean so much, have been reduced to, if read out loud, “illy.” What emotion is displayed with “ily” when it’s simply typed into a text message? Furthermore, how does one emotionally respond to receiving a text message that says “ily”? Even more disturbing than our reduction of I Love You to ily, are the reasons we sometimes resort to using the cute little expression.
The e-generation not only seems to ignore intimacy as a part of their relationships, they also seem to be at times petrified of it. As mentioned before, face-to-face conversations hold us accountable for our actions. Essentially, we have to live with the consequences that may come about as a result of the unique qualities that face-to-face conversations possess. However, in a world in which we can just IM or email, allowing editing that erases all traces of first thoughts, consequences are avoidable. The pain one experiences when he or she receives an impulsive, appalled, and disgusted reaction in response to the words “I love you” is now hardly experienced anymore. Instead of telling a person these special words in person, one can avoid the pain by texting that person “ily.” It provides a safety net and acts as a safeguard to that person’s feelings and protects the “relationship.” Sadly, this is how most of the e-generation thinks today. Instead of living out real substantive and meaningful relationships with people, they live out mechanical and planned ones that don’t reflect the hard reality of life.
This detachment from reality and the inability to really connect with the world is what Heidegger discusses in many of his works. In his essay “Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger describes this decrease of intimacy as a new indulgence in ‘nihilistic’ culture. Our will to indulge in technology turns us away from our natural ability to be empathic and toward a calculating way of thinking. As opposed to being more intimate and personal, we are more mechanical and calculating. Renowned philosopher from Tulane University Michael Zimmerman explains Heidegger’s theory perfectly, stating that:
For modern commercial-technological humanity, nothing is “sacred.” Everything has its price; everything can be calculated and evaluated according to the economic interests. In the technological age, however, instead of conforming to the natural order, people force nature to conform to their own needs and expectations. Whenever nature proves unsatisfactory for human purposes, people reframe it as they see fit. For Heidegger, such technological ”reframing” compels entities to be revealed in inappropriate ways (207).
The reframing that Heidegger refers to is the trend among the e-generation today. Through the use of new media, modern society avoids the natural order of things by indulging in a form of communication that doesn’t deal with all the consequences that natural life does. Our reframing of the way things are has even gone further and now includes reframing ourselves to avoid consequences. To avoid the pain of rejection, a natural occurrence in life, we reframe our being and who we are as people on the various networking sites available on the internet. We attempt to create idea images of ourselves. Also known as avatars, these “perfect” and idealistic embodiments of ourselves help us feel accepted among the people we admire. In this sense, the tangible world we lose touch with doesn’t include only the people around us, but ourselves. This way of thinking, where we go about achieving our desired end without addressing the means by which we do it, is the hallmark of the calculating thought and nihilistic culture that Zimmerman and Heidegger refer to.
One of the more pressing issues here is dealing with the fact that there is a problem with being nihilistic and thinking calculatingly. What happens in a world where everyone finds it normal to think in a utilitarian way? What happens when nihilism is the norm, and the way we go about achieving our desired ends is ignored? The answer is: we become today. Almost seventy years ago, Albert Einstein laid the scientific groundwork for a revolutionary form of technology: the atomic bomb. In the wake of the excitement about this weaponry, a small town in Japan, Hiroshima, was bombed. The point here is not to engage in anecdotal entertainment, but to convey what the world becomes under the influence of a utilitarian mindset. The same calculating and nihilistic logic that we use today is the same logic that the United States government used when it killed and maimed millions of innocent people in Hiroshima. They bombed these helpless people with the idea that a few people’s lives were expendable when it came to technological advancement. Although we now disdain the actions taken during that period, we are no different. Even though the gap between murder and deceiving others and ourselves, for our own personal gain, may seem far, the basic logic is similar. Our engagement with technology has made us mindlessly emotionless and, more important, unsympathetic. Will we ever realize that lying to ourselves and reframing the world is just an ignorant ploy to avoid reality?
III. Its Local Effect: the Chain Effect on the Family Unit
As mentioned before, humans are a naturally communicative species. Most of the time we use this natural ability to communicate for survival, companionship, or social cooperation. A perfect example of this natural human interaction is the family unit. The family unit, the primary source for most human communication, can be seen as a starting point for how most people learn how to communicate with the world. The way our mother and father behave and communicate with each other provides a basic template for how we should behave and communicate with other people out in the world. Well, at least that used to be the case. With each passing age, the family unit seems to become less of a communicative haven than it used to be. Most of this predicament can be blamed on technological advancement and the rise of new media.
In the 1960s, the introduction of the television set changed lives all around. Every family and household had to have a television. At the time, television was new media. Like current new media, it expanded channels for information, and efficiently connected people all around the world. Initially, watching television was perceived to be a pastime activity that brought families together. However, as opposed to the utopian vision imagined for the device so long ago, watching television obsessively became a catalyst for damaging intimacy and empathy among the human population.
Marie Winn’s essay “The Plug-In Drug” discusses this issue and the adverse effects the television had on the family unit. As Winn describes it, the television did indeed act as a device that brought the family together in one room but it “…[destroyed] the special quality that distinguishes one family from another, a quality that depends to a great extent on what a family does…and [the] shared activities it accumulates” (353). Almost fifty years later, after the creation of the television set, this problem still persists, just in a new form: new media.
Both text-ready cellphones and computers with high-speed connections are devices that each family unit has now become accustomed to “needing.” Like the television before, new media has made less quality time for intimate family relationships. A son bops his head to an iPod up in his room while a mother spends three hours on her Blackberry conversing with Becky. This is a typical scenario played out by the modernized family unit. The family, which used to be a starting point for communicative development, no longer fulfills that function. Although all members of a family live in the same house, they have no real connection with each other. As long as dinner is served, the rent is paid, and everyone lives in harmony, in-depth and personal communication is no longer that important. The localized unit of human communication, the family, is no longer any different from two strangers passing each other on the street. The way we interact with the outside world is unfortunately the same we behave with our family members now.
Looking at the way new media has flourished, one can say that an argument about the adverse effects of technological advancements, based upon the idea that new media has decreased our will to be intimate and sensitive, ignores its positive effects. Indeed, the speed of email, texting, and the internet makes communication a much faster task than it used to be before. One might even say that our newly attained efficient way of communication is in many ways better than the less efficient way we used to interact with each other. However, one has to look deeper than the outer surface to realize the inherent dangers surrounding new media. In a world of desensitization and calculating thought, there is no room for empathy. We are willing to sacrifice people in the name of our desires. The avatars online, although a blatant deception, are norms. It doesn’t matter that we deceive the people on the other end as long as we’ve gotten the attention we so desperately seek. Lying to everyone about who we really are doesn’t emotionally prick us anymore. If lying to our own selves is no longer problematic for us, will it be long before we start deeming other acts acceptable simply because they give us what we want?
Furthermore, advocates of new media fail to recognize that cellphones and the internet are not as accessible to everyone as they may seem. In fact, take a look at New York City. Pay phones, which used to stand on about every corner, are slowly vanishing. In just a few months, a law that all televisions must be high-definition will take effect. Technological advancement has become such an obsession that it’s reached the legal sphere. If this is possible, what happens to those who can’t afford to “obey the law”? Are they then reduced to being criminals or social pariahs who can’t afford to be normal like everyone else?
Despite its efficiency and its aesthetic appeal among society, new media poses a danger to the way we as a society interact with each other. Do I love you or do ily? Am I really the person you’ve wanted to meet your entire life or was that person just my Facebook profile? Indeed, most, if not all, individuals are guilty of immersing themselves in a distant world they create for themselves, one that new media so conveniently assists. However, sometimes one has to wonder if any of us really wants to be consciously in touch with the real word or if we’re all fighting a longterm battle for the role of R2-D2 in the next Star Wars movie.
Hornsby, Roy. “What Heidegger Means by Being-In-The-World.” Today’s Reality Tomorrow. 24 Nov. 2008. <http://royby.com/philosophy/pages/dasein.html>.
Kroker, Arthur. The Will To Technology & The Culture of Nihilism: Heidegger, Nietzsche & Marx. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
Winn, Marie. “The Plug-In Drug.” Patterns for College Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirsner and Stephen R. Mandell. 10th ed. New York: St. Martins, 2007. 351-58.
Zimmerman, Michael. Heidegger’s Confrontation With Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Published February 7, 2010