By: Br. Farrukh Siddiqui
I still remember the day when our plane touched down at JFK airport in New York City and I stepped onto American soil for the first time as an impressionable ten year old. It was an absolutely frigid yet typical February afternoon and my mother’s attempt at winter clothing, bought in balmy Karachi, did not provide much solace. Yet the prospect of a united family (my father had immigrated a year before us) and the wintery wonderment of watching smoke come out of everyone’s mouths made the time, waiting for our ride home, pass without any complaints. Growing up, my parents emphasized that we moved to America to improve our standard of living that was made possible through the superior technology readily available in our new homeland. With time my friendship with technology continued to grow but as I matured into a husband, a businessman and a father I realized that my great friend had an ominous side that was difficult to perceive and perhaps, even more difficult to overcome.
Neil Postman, in his book Technopoly the Surrender of Culture to Technology, identifies and explains this duality of a friendship with technology. He first highlights the great potential and benefits of such a friendship when he writes,
In fact, most people believe that technology is a staunch friend. There are two reasons for this. First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. ... Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. (xii)
Is it not true that we first become attracted to eventual friends because we can relate with them or they make us feel good until we have unknowingly slipped down the rabbit hole of friendship believing that our lives are now more fulfilling and satisfying as a result.
This was the case with me on that frigid day because aeronautical technology leading to commercial airplanes had made it possible for me to fly thousands of miles, in a matter of hours, to a new world. And before I knew it, we were in my father’s magnificent navy blue Ford LTD, a marvel of automotive technology. I had never experienced such a superb and comfortable car with plush leather seats and a warm embracing heating system. My amazement did not end there. We drove on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway with a glorious view of the Manhattan skyline, a splendid example of modern architecture and eventually to the engineering marvel that is the Holland Tunnel connecting Manhattan to New Jersey. On the other side, I immediately encountered the Pulaski Skyway that was the longest bridge I had ever seen, spanning over the three cities – Jersey City, Newark and Kearny. Our apartment had hot and cold running water, twenty four hour multiple channel television, a vacuum cleaner, washing machine and other amazing gadgets courtesy of my friend technology that made my new life easy and convenient. These might seem like mundane things that we all take for granted in the states but for someone coming from a third-world country, it was truly like meeting and being supported by a great new friend who it seemed had all the answers and solutions to life’s myriad problems.
I can imagine that the sentiment at the onset of the 20th century was similar for the vast majority of people as these technologies were being invented or fine-tuned. Even a great mind like Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was mesmerized by emerging technologies as he writes in Civilization and Its Discontents about how happy he was to be able to listen to his child’s voice hundreds of miles away on a telephone or finding out without delay, via telegraph, when a friend reached his destination safely after a long and arduous journey. He goes on gushing about the advancements of healthcare by stating how amazing it is that medical technology is greatly curbing infant mortality, the dangers of infections to pregnant women and increasing the lifespan of people at large (40). Just like a potentially great friend, technology makes a memorable first impression and we are immediately attracted to it like a moth to a flame. Why does this happen?
It happens because technology immediately captivates us, just like with me on that very first day I came to America, so we never stop and consider if we should do our due diligence by taking a peek to see how deep is this rabbit hole that we are falling into and what are the consequences of our fall? Let us revisit with Postman who continues on to the darker side of a friendship with technology after highlighting its aforementioned two beneficial aspects. He continues,
But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost. ...the accusation can be made that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy. (xii)
What makes technology a friend and an enemy at the same time and how does it destroy the sources of our humanity and its moral foundation?
Karen Armstrong, in her book The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism postulates an answer by distinguishing between myth and logic or as she calls it “mythos and logos” (xv). She states that mythos or in this case the moral foundation of society is concerned “with meaning. Unless we find significance in our lives, we ... fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provide[s] people with a context that [makes] sense of their day-to-day lives; it direct[s] their attention to the eternal and the universal” (xv). Technology, on the other hand, is the invention of logic or science (logos) and is not concerned with myth or context. It only aims to create innovative solutions to practical problems and does not stop to ponder over the potential ramifications or consequences of its actions.
How else can we explain that the human curiosity of trying to understand the nature and structure of matter would eventually lead to the discovery of radioactivity igniting the scientific chain of events culminating with the development and use of the atomic bomb responsible for the almost two hundred thousand estimated casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (“The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”)? This is perhaps the most glaring example of what Postman has pointed out but there are others such as the eventual development of harmful pesticides as a result of advancements in agriculture, the rapidly developing negative implications of online gambling and pornography as a byproduct of the ever increasing and creative utilization of the Internet or the yet to be fully manifested moral consequences resulting from the decoding of the human DNA. These are but a handful of examples illustrating the moral consequences and concerns of a yet to be mitigated reliance and fascination with a friendship with technology.
Let us turn again to Freud not because he is a modern thinker like Postman but rather because, as one of our great minds, he had that intuitive foresight necessary to fathom the deeper implications of technology at a time when the common man could never have imagined, yet alone predicted, the negative moral influence it would wield in the form of an enemy. In the culmination of the aforementioned passage where he spoke of the marvels of technology, Freud presents a rather bleak assessment of those same marvels by declaring,
If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town...; if travelling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage. ... What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene. ... And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer? (40-41)
Freud is most likely too negative in this assessment of the dangers of a friendship with technology but his fears are real and have been realized in more ways than he probably envisioned. All we have to do is look around and see how the epidemics of stress, depression and other psychological illnesses – diagnosed or otherwise – are impacting and even ruining countless lives across our western societies (eastern societies are better off but globalization is exposing the technology rabbit hole to them as well).
It is clear that technology first becomes our friend and before we know it, the enemy emerges by commandeering “our most important terminology. It redefines "freedom," "truth," "intelligence," "fact," "wisdom," "memory," "history"—all the words we live by. And it does not pause to tell us. And we do not pause to ask” (Postman 8-9). To illustrate this point, I would like to shine a spotlight on George Carlin who in an interview speaks about the implications of technology on society stating sarcastically that “everybody’s got a cell phone that makes pancakes so they don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to make any trouble. People have been bought off by gizmos and toys ... and no one ... questions things anymore...” (Olbermann). So if we have been bought off as Carlin so astutely posits and the fall into the rabbit hole is a foregone conclusion, we must wise up and embrace technology but only when it appears in the form of Dr. Jekyll while at the same time protect ourselves from its alter ego, Mr. Hyde. Striving towards this goal can begin by launching a global initiative to “find a new generation of leaders who truly understand [technology] -- both its potential and its pitfalls” (Rothkopf) because it is still not too late for us to reclaim our moral ground once and for all.
Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001. Print.
Freud, S. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1961. Print.
Olbermann, Keith. “Keith Olbermann honors George Carlin, slams Bill O'Reilly.” Online video clip. You Tube. YouTube. 25 Jun. 2008. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Rothkopf, David. “Disconnected As technological development shifts into hyperspeed, governments remain stuck in neutral.” FP. Foreign Policy Group, 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.
“The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Atomic Archive. National Science Digital Library, n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.