Stop Praying To Our iPhones

iPhoneDisclaimer: I do not own an iPhone. In fact, I waste a great deal of money on the digital phone I do have (phone, camera, that’s it) because my current calling plan is the minimum discounted plan (I worked for the company) giving me 450 minutes each month … I use 2. But my daughter says she is tired of not being able to text me or share photos instantly and all the other social activities a smart phone allows so I have agreed to be added to her family plan and get an iPhone (which my neighbor laughingly says is not a phone but a pocket computer). This plan will make my daughter happier and actually make my monthly bill go away: it’s a good deal. Now I can only suggest that I will use the iPhone for periodic communication but otherwise, at least it replaces my old, old iPod Touch (and my loyal Flip Phone).

But the topic is not my own limited use of a future device but rather the suggestion made by W. Andrew Ewell in Salon that:

We must stop praying to our iPhones: Dissent and critical thinking in the Internet era

Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon have it right: Apple, Amazon and other tech companies really want everyone the same

Those are fighting words. After just reading several articles about Malala, any suggestion of homogenizing our thought processes is criminal. “I didn’t clip her wings,” Malala’s father offers as his greatest gift to his daughter. Is the iPhone clipping out wings?

Ewell coninues:

I understand the utility of computers, tablets, e-books, and smart phones in certain applications. It’s never been easier (or greener) to administer assignments or circulate photocopies and other course materials. But the study of literature is based on human interaction; digital technologies risk undermining the very principles from which this fruitful endeavor derives.

I’m not just speaking about face-to-face discussion, but also about the discourse that takes place between readers and writers—what Vladimir Nabokov imagined as the reader and author meeting to shake hands at the top of a great summit—and between the culture we live in today and the cultures that Shakespeare, Chekhov and Tolstoy allow us to glimpse in their pages.

As Mark Edmundson has written: “Real reading is reincarnation […]. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.”

Is such a relationship afforded by electronic texts? Does poetry, regardless of the device on which the words appear, still inspire in us what the critic Robert Scholes described as “reflections that can be assimilated to our own situations”?

Tech advocates might begin by pointing out the basic ease and efficiency of e-readers, tablets, and smart phones. These devices offer a greener, more sustainable, less wasteful, and more portable platform for reading than conventional books. And what’s the difference, as long as the words on the screen remain the same?

To which I could only issue a few very minor complaints: pagination often differs from one device to the next; citations can be harder to notate; LED displays beaming up from desktops are distracting in the classroom; batteries run out of juice. But do these inconveniences justify the plunder of natural resources, or the expenses that go into printing a book? Probably not.

You might also suggest that if there’s any future at all to literature, then it’s to be found in the technologies that help it adapt to the digital age. Those of us opposed to e-books are just swimming against the tide, you might say, and the cultural undertow will inevitably carry us down the shore, whether we like it or not.

At which point I would have to admit that certain Internet technologies have already proven beneficial to the welfare of both writers and readers. …

But is everything we seek from great literature actually available in its digital incarnation, or does the tool itself make us act like tools, too—to misquote Marshall McLuhan? The novelist John Gardner described reading as an act of dreaming. “If the effect of the dream is to be powerful,” he wrote, “the dream must… be vivid and continuous.” A novel’s greatest mistake, he said, “is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream. …

E-books also pose a threat to the most basic—but enduring—benefits of reading. Gardner said literature “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are most noble in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.” And it does so not by propaganda, but by critique. As Edmundson has said, “For a student to be educated, she must face brilliant antagonists: She has to encounter thinkers who see the world in different terms than she does.”

The companies that produce e-readers and smart phones, however, don’t want us to “see the world in different terms.” They certainly don’t want us to “face… antagonists.” Instead, they want to reduce antagonism and suppress diversity in favor of homogeny. Evgeny Morozov describes one way this mission is accomplished, in “To Save Everything, Click Here”: “Thanks to its Kindle e-reader,” he writes, “Amazon […] collects a wealth of information about individual readers as well as reading practices across entire demographics […]. Nothing,” he explains, “prevents Jeff Bezos from taking such knowledge and churning out books automatically.”

Of course, this is no surprise. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer understood over 70 years ago that “the technology of the culture industry” amounts to “no more than the achievement of standardization.”

There are many more arguments and examples in the full article and I highly recommend you spend a few minutes and read it all on Slate.

OrwellI’m not too sure of some of the arguments: I find digital books more convenient, more readable, and not lacking in anything that would save my critical thinking from being squashed or my adventuresome nature to be inappropriately limited. But the idea of standardization is very scary … up against the wall scary. The fact there there is a Republican Party here in the United States is enough evidence for me to conclude that there are significant numbers of lemmings in the country who would tip any form of standardization away from freedom and critical thinking into a vat of sameness which can easily be controlled and exploited.Shoot, the top one-percent is doing it today.

If total world domination arrives, I suspect it will wait until everyone has an electronic device, like an iPhone, to received subliminal messages from Big Btrother and be happy turning control of our freedom over to those who know better [sic]. Does it seem outlandish that Google or Apple one day in the near future may to introduce a device that is embedded in your brain, making all external digital devices obsolete?

Remember: She who controls the apps, controls the world!


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