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Monday, June 10, 2013

Player Piano XV

"People are finding that, because of the way the machines are changing the world, more and more of their old values don't apply any more. People have no choice but to become second-rate machines themselves, or wards of the machines." (290)


In the United States, at least, the past century has seen dramatic technological "progress", and, simultaneously, we've seen a seismic shift in values. The question is: has the development of new technologies been a driver for shifting cultural values? Just because two things happen at the same time does not necessarily mean that one causes the other.

For example, you could ask what effect e-mail has had on hand-written letters. Obviously people write fewer hand-written letters or notes because of the advent of e-mail. But that's not necessarily a "value". "Communication" seems to be a higher priority today than it was decades ago, because technology has given people greater mobility. No longer are families necessarily concentrated in proximate geography. Separation of space has led to ever more elaborate means of communication (telegraph, telephone, email, text message, video-phone, etc.); but one could reasonably question of the quality of newer modes of communication. Obviously you cannot express in a single tweet what you would have written in a letter 50 years ago; but that's not the purpose of Twitter. You could turn that letter into an e-mail without losing much. But I will say that "communication" seems to be growing more telegraphic (no pun intended) with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and text messages. When was the last time you sent or received a lengthy e-mail that contained significant personal information? I would argue that while we have more means of communicating at our disposal than we did 15-20 years ago, the general quality of our communication has decreased in recent years. The "value" seems to be on quantity, not quality.

Has technology driven this shift (if you agree with my assessment in the previous paragraph)? Driven is a strong word, but I think we can say that technology has contributed to this shift. Technology has certainly enabled this shift. It's easy, today, to "feel connected" to people through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., but I suspect that much of the "connection" that we feel is veneer, and a thin one at that. Stars, retweets, likes, and inane (and often impersonal) comments are no substitute for long, deep, consistent conversations about life's enduring questions.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche bought a typewriter when his vision began to fail toward the end of his life, and within a couple months of using it to compose instead of writing long-hand, he noted a change in the style of his writing. He felt that the technology of the typewriter altered the way he composed. Composition style isn't necessarily a "value" either, but I think there's good evidence that technological changes are impacting us at a micro and macro level as humans.

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