Jacques Ellul And The Desensitizing Impact Of Our Technological World: Or, How To Reclaim Your Life From Technological Distraction
I feel out of touch–literally. Even now, pressing fingers over smooth keys I feel an emptiness of feedback. There’s no feedback in our technological world. The world of touch is a digitized landscape of ultra smooth surfaces and two dimensional images. Our only experience of this world, really, is through the eyes–the other senses are left out.
Do you know that the skin has been proven to ‘see’ colour? What about the skin in this digital world?
Have you ever done research on sensory deprivation? Researchers will take people and pay them money to have no sense of touch or smell or hearing or sight, etc. Then they’ll see how long they can go before they completely freak out. In a world of consensual sensory deprivation, is it a wonder we are feeling so out of touch with the world and each other? Is it a wonder we are all feeling so lonely?
My attention span has diminished also–it seems to be getting worse. I used to spend hours on a single passage of philosophical or poetic text, analyzing the argument, scribbling microscopic notes all over the margins in ultra-fine pencil. I can’t do that any more. Sure, part of it might have to do with age; but I know of 70 year old scholars and writers who could put me to shame. No, it’s not age–it’s that my attention is taken in so many directions when I’m just trying to read something. The quiet page is too dull, too painful, too demanding.
I talked to a friend who’s in IT. I asked him the same question:
“So, how is your attention span these days?”
“It’s brutal–” he said. “I can’t focus on anything. I used to be much more precise, analytic . . . Now I can hardly get through a book.”
I couldn’t believe it–he was repeating the same things I had been telling myself just days prior. My friend continued.
“Ya, it’s even effecting what used to be entertainment. In the past, I could get through a show or movie without distraction. Now, I get five minutes into a movie before I move on to another one, or my phone distracts me and I lose interest.”
“What can we do?” I asked. “Technology seems to have reached another phase transition–it’s speeding up. Is there a way to push it back?” He looked at me with puzzlement and nodded in agreement.
“I don’t know,” he went on. “I would like to think we can, but it seems too late. I work in this stuff. My job is to create technological systems for people to use made up of the latest technological tools. I wish we could push it back, but I think it’s too late . . .”
It was too late for Jacques Ellus back in 1964 when he wrote one of the most prescient books of our times, The Technological Society. He saw way back then that we had already lost control of our technological tools.
It was then that I started a quest to somehow reclaim my life. It sounds cliche, I know, but I want to recapture what was lost. I want to have time again. I want to feel life, beauty, the sense of wonder I had as a child–back when telephones didn’t have answering machines, TV only had a handful of channels, and I was out all day on my bike returning only when the sun went down.
The next few posts will be an attempt to share some of that reclaiming . . .
A Whole New Set Of Skills for the 21st Century
This is a book I picked up at a garage sale for a surprising–and unwarranted–mere fifty-cents. Indeed, it’s worth much more than that. In this book, Stahlberg–a Hungarian-born writer who left Hungary after surviving the uprising of 1956–takes one through a series of very carefully observed scenarios all of which have a high level of plausibility, regardless of their seemingly alarming or far-fetched nature within conventional consciousness. No–this is a serious work, and I highly recommend that all of you who stumble upon this blog and read these words order yourselves a copy.
As a ‘civilization’ (and I use that word almost in jest), we are at a cusp point at which the systems that we have put into place are starting to run us, not the other way around. As Kevin Kelly argues in his book regarding technology, these systems are indeed eco-systems: they have a life of their own, and emerge spontaneously and capriciously. This cusp point is demanding that we has human beings apply ourselves to learning a whole new set of skills: in our thinking, and ability to access and systematize information, in how we design and create (and I use these words very deliberately and literally) new life-solutions that are separate from the market fetishism that words like ‘design’ and ‘create’ have been applied to ignorantly and in complete bad faith, and in how we skillfully apply our thinking to surviving on this planet. Life on earth is being pushed to the edge of a cliff–a force that we put in motion centuries ago, but has now taken on a life of its own and is now pushing us. Many claim it is indeed too late–we should cut our losses, and just hope for the best. If it is indeed too late, or we are on the brink of ‘lateness’, then we need to seriously think about and plan how we’re going to survive in a world when all that we have learned in the past, over generations of cultural and manufactured practices of producing and consuming, is obsolete. This can be a renaissance of human creativity and ingenuity, and it can be just as much a time of catastrophe, chaos, and collapse–I don’t see any reason why the two will not co-exist.
The video above is archer Lars Anderson whose meticulous and tireless study of his craft led him to discovering ancient archery techniques that have lain largely dormant for centuries. This is one example of a skill that is important for one to consider, quite simply in the event that we are all left to survive as hunter/gatherers again–and no I’m not talking about Walmart.
This also means that children will need to be educated in completely different ways as well: not so much specifically on the theoretical maths and sciences, i.e. educated as specialists, but more as generalists who can access multi-disciplinary information, collaborate with each other, and design, build, and use stuff. In such a model, designo is just as critical as scientia. Our children will need to learn survival skills also, in spite of the culture of helicopter moms and dads who–contrary to their own upbringing–hover over their armoured kids and don’t allow them near knives and fire and hammers and nails. Nevertheless, the world may be at some point soon divvied up among those who are prepared for these capricious unpredictable times and those who are not. The difference between the two is simply a matter of 1) admitting to yourself and others that we are at a tipping point of human civilization, and 2) taking the time to learn about these issues and put real intentional plans in place for your family’s and your own protection and survival. What Stahlberg’s book does successfully is begin that self-realization and the dialogue among those around you. But time is running very fast, the world is growing more complex, and change is emerging well beyond our ability to immediately react–and it is only getting more intense.
My research and professional work as a writer and educational designer are centred on these issues. I have worked with world leaders on these very issues that Stahlberg, and others I will write about here, outlines in his book. These issues are not mere ‘hot button’ issues to be carelessly broached for entertaining dinner conversation, but are shaping our social, economic, political, religious, and ecological world as we speak. I will be posting more of this material here from my research. Moreover, I am in the process of writing a book on these issues from my experiences internationally and pedagogically, parts of which I will also be posting here as they emerge. In my experience, leaders of our world are drawing out plans in the several decades, even into the hundreds of years–we who are stewards and occupiers of this world must do the same.