Mobile phones have ruined fiction—or at least, made life more difficult for writers. Isolating the main characters and forcing them to face their problems on their own is hardly credible in the world of ubiquitous connectivity. The poor writers, judging from mumbles I’ve heard in movie theaters, don’t even get a break with historical pieces. People below a certain age are certain to ask, even for a film set in the 1930s, “why doesn’t she just call for help?
I hear a lot of grumbling about skills and disciplines that are lost thanks to the Web and our continuous access. Who needs to read a map when they have GPS? Why should you learn proper spelling when people understand abbreviated Tweets? Do we really need library skills when Wikipedia provides all the answers?
I’m just old-fashioned enough to complain about the implied perspectives of all of the above and to point out the shallowness of some of the thinking behind them. I, too, despair at younger generations losing those capabilities that are highly tuned within my brain. (Surely, the good nuns who forced me to memorize the multiplication tables would despair at seeing the ubiquity of calculators.) However, I have this strange sense of optimism because I’ve read about the complaints of the death of memorization brought about by the mass production of books. Something was lost, but something was also gained.
I really need to go to another level when considering the dangers of instant access to information. Certainly, I share concerns about the two-way nature of the technologies. Privacy and third-party tracking of all individuals sacrifices some of the powers of individuals and is open to abuse. But my mind goes to more subtle losses. With answers at our fingertips, do any of the answers really mean more than settling a bar bet? Are we being denied the joy and adventure of all those things we used to discover along the way as we searched for answers? With everyone just a few clicks away, do we know how to be alone anymore? Do we understand the value of quiet? Do we have the time for real deliberation?
So, emerging habits of mind (especially at a time when critical thinking skills seem not to be taught) can rob us of some of the most valuable but delicate ideas our species needs. I know personally that I have, at times, spent many hours constructing concepts that rely on connections built just strong enough to keep the intellectual edifice standing. The insights, which ultimately have been very important to me, seem to be at risk of being lost or forgotten with the slightest distraction. Indeed, I have had to reconstruct, at great cost, some ideas after interruptions. And some dreams have evaporated forever. I not only recognize that this has happened to me, but I worry about the possibility of it’s happening to others. I’ve come to fear that too few intelligent people, for whom the connected life has become almost continuous, appreciate the wonder of the wandering mind.
It almost seems mundane to point out that the constantly interpreted and denoted lives we are coming to lead are filtered by others. Augmented reality, for instance, provides a wonderful richness of data overlaid on the real world. To be able to walk through museum and have narrations, demonstrations and side notes on each exhibit can enhance the experience. But it also prevents me from discovering and sensing in a fresh way what is before me. We already understand that our news is selected, that graphs provide only one interpretation of data, and that all pictures—not only those that have been manipulated by software applications—lie to us. But the willingness to surrender critical judgment seems to increase in a connected world where, before we have a moment to form our own opinions, friends, relatives, experts and politicians are already whispering in her ears.
Overall, I tend to see positive potential in technologies. I certainly thrill in what continuous connectivity has brought to me. I won’t be throwing away my iPhone anytime soon. But I do wish, at times, that we would get regular warnings that the world is not quite what people say it is, and it would be wise if we engaged our brains. Maybe we need to have writers who steal our mobile phones from us, drain our batteries and otherwise force us to work things out, now and again, by ourselves.