What do you do when your work day is done? What do you do on your days off? What do you do with those moments of inactivity that punctuate even our busiest days?
Do you plug-in to some form of the cyberspace? By cyberspace I include iPhones (any phone), iPods (any music delivery system), the internet (I include smart phones, lap tops , PCs—you know, computers). I realize it is rather sloppy grouping these together; my point is they are all members, as it were, of the same collective.
I appreciate computers. Before I became a teacher, I was fortunate enough to run the computer system for a very busy building materials company. I ran accounts receivable, accounts payable, inventory control, and point of sale. The amount of work a well run computer system does is, quite simply, remarkable.
As a teacher I use the computer every day. I use a Smart Board in my class; we have a moodle that acts as an adjunct to our class activities. I have five (whoa) email addresses; some I use for school, some for family and friends, some for my hobbies (numismatics is one). I have four blogs; again, they have their specific personas: a professional blog, a school blog, a summer school blog, and a blog focused on what Montaigne calls essays.
I use my computer at home for work and pleasure (I watch more Dodger baseball games and Notre Dame football games than ever!).
The computer is, quite simply, remarkable.
But I must admit that with the advent of this remarkable machine, I realize I’ve made a trade off, and it was the birth of my first child that inspired this epiphany (as histrionic as that word can sound, there is no other word to use). Aristotle says, “All philosophy begins in wonder.” By that, The Stagirite does not mean, “I wonder how that works?” No, he means something much more basic, something much more essential. Aristotle means, “Wow! Is that wonderful or what!” Aristotle means that all philosophy begins with our ability to take the necessary time to appreciate wonder. Seeing how wonderful my son is makes me realize that there is a huge difference between wonder and pleasure/amusement.
I (we) live in a world that has come to idolize all things cyber. I (we) worship the pleasure of the often mindless “know-how” (“yeah! I can write code” or “finally, I got that application to work”). I think the computer has helped nurture the infantile cult of youth (you remember: the old computer cartoon where one dog sitting behind his PC is telling another dog sitting on the floor, “On the computer no one knows you’re a dog!”).
In his ariticle for CNN, “Mind control: Is the internet changing how we think?,” Matt Ford writes, “Earlier this week Baroness Greenfield, the Oxford University researcher and former head of the UK’s Royal Institution, called on the British government and private companies to investigate the effects on our brains of computer games, the internet and social networking.
“We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad,” she told reporters.”
“For me, this is almost as important as climate change. Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”
Greenfield calls the effect of too much time in front of a computer as “mind change.” Nicholas Carr, author of a new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, goes further in his analysis and talks about how the way we think is shaped by the tools we use to think with.
“This was true of the map, the alphabet, the clock, and the printing press, and it’s true as well of the internet. The net encourages the mental skills associated with the rapid gathering of small bits of information from many sources, but it discourages the kind of deeply attentive thinking that leads to the building of knowledge, conceptual thinking, reflection, and contemplativeness.”
“So, as with earlier intellectual technologies, the net strengthens certain cognitive functions but weakens others. And because the neural pathways in our brain adapt readily to experience, the changes occur in the actual cellular wiring of our brains.”
Back in 1948 (the same year that Orwell was writing 1984), the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a slim text entitled, Leisure, the Basis of Culture. He echoes what Aristotle says at the beginning of this blog post: unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture-and ourselves (http://www.amazon.com/Leisure-Basis-Culture-Josef-Pieper/dp/1890318353).
I do not count my voice as one with those who intone that Luddite like cacophony aimed at the internet. On the contrary, the internet is a wonderful tool. Tool.
If we were, like Shakespeare, “. . . to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure . . .” (Hamlet; III, ii, 22-4)—what image of the zeitgeist of our era would be reflected there?
In an un-Aristotilian way . . . it makes me wonder.