President Obama has been taking some heat in techie circles over comments he made at a commencement address over the weekend about iPods and iPads and other digital distractions. Because of these things, he said, “information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” To his critics, it made him sound, well, like a Luddite, not the cool, tech-friendly, BlackBerry-carrying president they thought he was.
I hate to say this, but he’s right. In fact I’d expand his list of distractions to include Web sites like Facebook and Twitter. And I’d go further on the notion of emancipation and say that in many ways our digital tools serve only to enslave us. This may sound like heresy coming from a technology editor but hear me out.
Remember when computers were supposed to save us time? Now it seems just the opposite. The Internet just keeps giving us more ways to do nothing.
We have more information than ever before. We’re never away from it. The air around us fairly hums with it. Computers are all around us too—they’re on our desks, in our pockets, on our coffee tables.
And yet I can’t shake the sense that we are all becoming stupider and stupider—and that we are, on average, less well informed today than we were a generation ago.
I mean, look at us, lining up outside Apple stores like a bunch of kooks. Or walking around, staring down at our phones. We’ve been turned into zombie people.
Oh, but we’re very, very busy zombies. We’re reading e-mail. We’re tweeting and retweeting. We’re downloading apps, and uploading photos. We’re updating our Facebook status and reading our news feeds and telling the whole world what we like and don’t like, because for some reason we imagine that the whole world actually cares. You know what we’re not doing? We’re not thinking. We’re processing. There’s a difference.
We’re putting our brains into neutral, and revving the engine. We’re digitally dithering, clicking on links and swimming through a torrent of useless garbage being thrown at us by idiots and self-promoters, pundits and PR flacks and marketing people.
We’re immersing ourselves in games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, obsessing about earning energy packs, spending billions of dollars on virtual gardening tools.
We’re turning the world around us into a videogame, using sites like Foursquare to tell our friends where we’re eating lunch, and competing to see who can become “mayor” of some restaurant.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, Glenn Beck has become an influential television commentator, and Sarah Palin is a credible candidate for president in 2012. You think this is a coincidence?
No way. What’s happening is this: we are being so overwhelmed by the noise and junk zooming past us that we’re becoming immune to it. We’ve become a nation of Internet-powered imbeciles, with an ever-lower threshold for inanity.
Beck and Palin are the inevitable outcome of that devolution. They are what we deserve. They are, in fact, what we’ve created.
We have amazing new systems and tools for communicating information. The problem is we’ve become so fascinated with the means of transmission that we’ve lost sight of what’s actually passing along over the wires and airwaves.
Sadly, I don’t see that changing any time soon. If anything, I imagine it will get worse.