The better technology gets, so also we develop a more efficient method of telecommunication. Always near at hand are the cellular devices like “smart phones,” laptops, and “tablets,” as the intellectually lopsided homunculi known as “tech engineers” have hilariously christened those weird mini-computers. All this cellular hardware is charged up, on hand, and ready to “bring humanity together”…or whatever hollowed out, watered down, techno-cultist salve Apple is currently peddling to get people to buy stuff they don’t need.
So how come I cannot, from friends or family, buy a reasonably timely return call or email? Calling and emailing are, after all, the two headlining corollaries appurtenant to cellularity. The last time I received a swift call-back was, like, 2007, before most phones had been edified. Indeed, prior to that, on the abiding aristocratic model of phone-education, whereby only “elitist” phones were educated, people seemed actually to use them for calling. (Perhaps, by this measure, one would go so far as to suggest that phones should not be educated at all??)
Well, it could be that I am The Office’s Michael Scott incarnate, and even my friends and family “go fishing” whenever I come calling. But this would reflect a very sudden change in the general speed of things: I remain in sufficient standing with a fair portion of my own community. And more convincingly, I am not the only one who has noticed the phenomenon. It seems to be everywhere. In fact, prescient minds like Martin Heidegger noticed it from a lot further back than the heyday of the smart phone.
“Technological man is an alienated being,” Heidegger wrote in 1927 in Being and Time: technology (techne) alienates us from being. What Heidegger meant was that technology tempts man everywhere to seek utility and “functions” in things. Since, for Heidegger already “being is that which hides” from mankind, the human stultification resultant from the smart phone would presumably only serve to make being’s hiding spot safer.
Although the political philosophies of the existentialists, deconstructionists, and National Socialists which followed Heidegger were all risibly (and in other instances, less risibly) misguided, he managed to offer subtle ontological insight. The Heideggerian technological insight circumscribes the way that physis—being, reality, or whatever you please—interacts with techne, and thus, with nomos (human culture). And a hefty part of nature for mankind, the social animal, is to interact frequently. Technology mediates—goes between—culture and nature so unyieldingly as to threaten permanently to divorce them. Which is why none of us can get a call back.
In the 1920’s, when the so-called “practice of medicine” still involved frightening Medieval Times-like torture devices, this Heideggerian proposition was susceptible to some doubt: perhaps the inchoate status of techne could be blamed for its grim failures or resultant human desolation. But all of this doubt has since been removed by the advent of the smart phone—technology’s ostensible culmination—as indubitably useful as it is.
Among less-than-imaginative conservatives in our own century, the view of technology has grown frighteningly linear, when the prospect of electronic commerce countervails upon the prospect of self-restraint, or vice versa. It betrays a frightening utilitarianism, which gives way to an unprecedented techno-consumerism. Luddites are taken to be not only the worst sort of retrogrades or dangerous drifters, but also as uneconomical. Fear of opposing the economy of the future has always gripped the American people, notwithstanding the famous motto inscribed by conservatism’s oracle (William F. Buckley) on the wall at our analogue to the temple in Delphi: “stand athwart history yelling halt.” When coupled with crippling fear of opposing the economy, folks are usually willing to “give in to deliciousness,” as Homer Simpson says, and thus to throw Buckley and his Delphic wisdom into paper-wastebasket of yesteryear (which was, indeed, a time that had waste made of paper).
This in turn has supplied the flimsiest sort of rationale for American techno-consumerism: “I support the market as a conservative, don’t I? In my state, California, the only other exports are pornography and regulation-beleaguered oil and gas, so perhaps a single non-subterranean Californian commodity deserves a fighting chance. The likes of me cannot settle to be anti-market, after all!”
What usually follows upon a devil-may-care shrug and a little consumerist chuckle pursuant to doing one’ s part for the economy, is an i-Phone i-Conversation concerning how i-CangetmoreApplestuff …for…I and the I’s that I live with: “Apple, please give me six iPads for myself, my wife, and our four small children. Quick! Two of them are just infants and have virtually no patience!”
Even one-time conservative Ann Coulter scoured Breaking Bad for the series’ exclusive usage of “flip” phones. How dare they! Yes, Ann, but Jesse and Walt were “cellularly correct”: they actually called one another back, unlike smart phone users! (In the same piece, Ms. Coulter also manages to falsely ascribe to Pope Francis an endorsement of relativism, meaning I count her to be 0 for 2.) The point is, I believe, that even the mightily erstwhile have given in to intelligent cellularity. (Even myself…gasp!). All of the lame excuses in the world have been brought to bear. You know them: “My son has a phone for convenience’s sake; for hand-eye coordination’s sake; for safety’s sake; for entertainment’s sake; for availability’s sake; toward the end of GPS-trackability, a la Jack Bauer; for the sake of menu-readiness at restaurants.”
None of us veritably buy it.
People want their tradeable tech gear without the least regard for the ontological displacement at work. But the fact remains that smart phones have not brought people together. They have separated us. And even among those of us admittedly less concerned with our ontological status than Heidegger, most of us remain attuned to our anthropological status…or profess to be so. So the point is: even if we are willing to accept that our smart phones make us dumb, we probably should not be so willing to accept that they render us Heraclitean exiles living hatefully amongst, yet apart from humanity. Or perhaps, if we are so willing to live stoically apart from other human beings, we ought, like Heraclitus, to have the courage of our convictions and seek actual exile, abandoning our desolation only on occasion to “play knuckle bones with passing children,” like the mighty, obscure “weeping philosopher.”
All exaggeration aside, I was at a restaurant recently and witnessed a family of four: mother, father, and one of the two kids had i-Phones out. Although I sat adjacent to them as they ate, the space was utterly silent. At the end of their desolate meal, mother spoke to father in what I presume was the most “regular” tone she could recall, and still, it literally sounded like she hated him. How else can one describe this except to name it the worst sort of alienation. Technological alienation.
One does not need to be the sort of robot-ophobic nerd caricatured by the techne cultists—or the opponent of market capitalism—to be wary of machines. I have never feared a robot overlord (although it would be a comically accursed fate). Rather, a more grim reality seems already upon us, whereby we have given sway not to the dominion of some imagined (and ultimately, hilarious) robo-master described in Black Sabbath lyrics, but instead to a sort of dominion by pseudo-will—a whim—engendered by the overproduced compulsion toward gratuitous techne inside each of us.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.