Those Machines Are Killin’ Us

This and the Words, Words, Bogus Words essay are looking at the relationship between identity and communication. Now let’s turn our attention to technology and how it is used in modern communication and social connecting. The problem is the false self, of course, but the symptom FOM or “Fear of Missing Out” flows specifically from the need for affection and esteem. Columnist Kevin Horrigan introduces that human behavior. People who are wired 18 hours a day—assuming they spend six hours sleeping—report symptoms of anxiety, even addiction, to their Internet connections.  This would seem at first glance, a fairly benign neurosis considering all of the more serious problems facing humanity today, but let’s look a little deeper.

Horrigan lays out the syndrome of our latest human disease. Now comes some startling real news that ubiquitous interaction with the glowing rectangle—particularly computers, cell-phones and other Internet-connected devices—may be altering not only the way we interact with other people, but also our fundamental intelligence.  Or perhaps we could say that these habits are reinforcing our already dangerous tendency to act unconsciously, over-rely on our intellect and use process and substance abuse to distract us from our existential anxiety. In other words, the sensation center of the false self continues to thrive and mutate in P-B.

Perhaps we are over-reacting on scant evidence? Two years ago, Nicholas Carr introduced the subject in a piece in The Atlantic entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Now he reinforces his thesis with a book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr quoted developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf in his book: “When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”  

In P-B we are already in “the shallows” grasping for air like beached whales and now we are watching P-A recede further from our tenuous grasp on Reality. Horrigan and Carr continue to sound the alarm that warns all of us of our tendency to use technology in self-destructive ways. The effect is not just philosophical or theoretical, but biological. Carr explores the science of neuroplasticity, which has demonstrated that the neural pathways in the human brain can be rewired. “Evolution has given us a brain than can literally change its mind—over and over again…”  We can rewrite our narrative, change our identity and transform our behavior by actually rewiring the brain. The bad news is not that we cannot change, but that we don’t realize that we can.

Horrigan states the obvious which should cause all of us to question whether the habits we are developing with the latest inter-connective technology are being used in a wholesome way, or more importantly, in a wholesome context. In theory, the Internet, over time, may rewire our brains so that we are less capable of sustained attention and deep thought.  Most of us are already incapable of attaining present moment awareness and living in a sustainable way, we don’t need to move further into self-destructive behavior patterns.

Carr continues: “The mental functions that are losing the ‘survival of the busiest’ brain cell battle are those that support calm, linear thought, the ones we use when traversing a lengthy narrative or an involved argument, the ones we draw on when we reflect on our experience or contemplate an outward or inward phenomenon.”  The cause of the human condition, the madness that surrounds all of us, continues to become clearer each day. What is less clear is whether we will choose to do anything about it. 

Are we over-reacting to the threat of the new machines? We human beings have been projecting our existential fear onto machines for some time. The word sabotage comes from the wooden shoe (sabot) that Dutch workers would throw into the cogs of the machines that they thought would take away their factory jobs.

In Victorian England, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) fell under the influence of the theories of Charles Darwin and T.H. Huxley. What Wells  shows us is a projection of Victorian laissez-faire values, a time when machines have destroyed human initiative—and, in being allowed to do so, have destroyed Homo sapiens as well… Wells means for readers to understand that progress, as defined in his own times by proponents of cultural evolution and the survival-of-the-fittest ethic will only produce negative results.  

Notice that Wells does not blame the machines but rather the “ethic” or worldview values of Victorian society. It is the emotional reaction, the beliefs, attitudes and values of the false self that are problematic for humanity, the intellect and the machines that it produces are neutral. It is how we have used them that create human suffering.

The Time Machine functions as both a warning of present dangers and a veiled prescription for halting the downward spiral toward the death of the human species….To remain unthinking and unquestioning—as a capitalist or as worker—would insure the destruction of human vitality and the natural human impulse for good that Wells believed were the key to human progress.”  Using the natural energy that we possess as creative beings and expressing the compassion that is the heart of our true self seems to be what Wells was in touch with. If so, we can only applaud his insight and his sage advice.

In the meantime, we would do well to slow down, breathe and consider how our relationship with the new IT technology is affecting our identity. If we don’t, we might find ourselves becoming more and more like the Morlocks in Wells’ The Time Machine,brutish, thoughtless and mean creatures living in subterranean caves—void of the most powerful human attribute—compassion.


References and notes are available for this article.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.


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