A story about technology, society and our ability to find a happy medium—literally

By Erica Rakowicz

The digital age took us by storm, kept us by storm and continues to drag us through the storm. Progress is good, but is this really progress? Are we more in-tune with our surroundings and daily happenings because it’s a finger’s length away, as opposed to the old arm’s length away?

Even if you’ve never held a newspaper in your hand and ruffled through the long pages to finish with ink smudges on your hands and wrists, chances are you know somebody who does. The somebodies are scarce and many predict they’ll soon be extinct. Does this really matter? Maybe the environment will revitalize and the air will freshen all because the relative disappearance of paper, but it’s unlikely. So, what does this almost paperless society do to us? Once again, is this really progress?

“With an image, appearance trumps substance. Look at our politicians and ask yourself, do we elect the most competent managers? Do we elect the most effective leaders? Some would argue we elect the most photogenic, those who look best in their suits, those who are masters of the sound bite, those who know how to create a setting that makes them ‘look knowing’ on screen. This is the heart of the digital divide, the chasm that divides dead tree media on one side from the image/screen on the other,” said Robert Micallef, Professor of Religious Studies/Philosophy.

If you think of it in more dramatic terms, we’re all bugged. Our social programming tells us to think a certain way and we’re told there’s some sort of reason behind it. This all makes sense because someone said it does. If our president is attractive, he must be worthy. You send text messages because it’s easy. You keep all of your news, entertainment, books and ideas on one device because it’s convenient.

You’ll lose the transactions at the library store and the bookstore, the smile on the cashier’s face when he/she talks about how much they love that story, and you’ll lose the rustling of the bags and the struggle from the store to your car with your stack of books. You’ll lose the walk to the paper dispenser when you grab the Detroit News. You might say, “That’s so trying…who carries quarters anymore anyway?”

It seems like print is too thick an idea for people to fathom in 2013.

“So am I concerned about the demise of the printed text? Certainly, given that I am living with a generation that has learned more words from machines than their own mothers,” Micallef said.

The realization is striking. Just think about requirements nowadays. It’s necessary to graduate most colleges with some sort of computer literacy class. Honestly, are you unable to prosper without the knowledge of Microsoft Office? Most basic level computer courses teach the use of search engines. Instead of asking someone knowledgeable about a certain subject, or researching through books at the library, you’re taught to call up Google. Remember Ask Jeeves? Looks like Google took the place of our wiser elders and our encyclopedias.

Micallef considered perception in regard to the take-off of technology. “Our tools not only shape the world around us, they also 'turn around' and shape how we perceive and act in our world. Technologies change us…” he said.

Being a student of the liberal arts can complicate research and choosing a side on the technology vs. traditional debate.

“Yes I am concerned because of the insights I’ve gained from being a student of the liberal arts. Those insights are a kind of warning, which could be crudely summarized along these lines—that the loss of the critical faculty, the loss of literacy, may be a sign of regression, a return to far more violent and cruder pre-literate cultures. Everything thought in our mind is linked with words and concepts, if that repertoire of words and concepts shrinks, then will our experience of reality become diminished. I think it will,” Micallef said.

Society points us in a certain direction because of its preoccupation.

Micallef quoted late media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

It seems as if that idea is a bit misguided. Isn’t the information more important? When did that idea get set on the backburner?

“Everything is accelerating today. We increasingly live ‘hours ahead of ourselves’—rarely ever in the moment, rarely do we just listen to music, rarely do we read and think, since the general culture discourages that kind of ‘slowness’,” Micallef said.

Personal interactions have become so distant. Text messages are like phone calls and phone calls are like lunch dates. Is “lol” the same as a smile and laugh? Do we feel as connected through cell-phone keys as we do handshakes?

“We’re saturated with data, with terse textual communication wrapped in a flood of imagery that happens so quickly it militates against reflection,” Micallef said.

Sure, our eyes have never been as open to technological observations, but at what cost?

“We see images everywhere, there is a constant flow of information, things and technologies to be learned and mastered, before the next hot thing to be learned and mastered. Yes, we master more devices, but in a way we become more deskilled by technology. Who bothers learning long division when their cell phone can do it for them?” he said.

Even The Postal Service plans to call it quits on Saturday delivery. What about the birthday cards? They’ll be late. Better think about those goofy e-cards instead.

“Digital culture can even break through the firewall of the mind,” Micallef said.

Micallef quoted Franco Berardi, contemporary media theorist, “To be touched increasingly means to be in touch.”

Berardi also noted, “We can reach every point in the world but, more importantly, we can be reached from any point in the world. Privacy and its possibilities are abolished. Attention is under siege everywhere. Not silence but uninterrupted noise, not the red desert, but a cognitive space overcharged with nervous incentives to act: this is the alienation of our times...”

Try a social experiment. Before you send that text message, maybe, just maybe, consider paying the recipient a visit. Shake their hand, give them a hug, or maybe ask them about their day. Really read into a piece of literature, an article or a movie. Consider life before your iPad and your simulated world. See the other side, if only for a day.


More than paperless? Are we people-less?