I think it’s overrated. Yes, it’s quite wonderful and gratifying in a subversive way to be able to access the universe on a 4×7 sliver of technology in your pocket. But is it really so great to be able to know everything there is to know about anything on a moment’s whim?
You don’t have to be very old to remember a time of card catalogs and trips to the library; of asking someone with more knowledge about a subject than you; for that matter of the “phone a friend” option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The universe still had mysteries, and specialization meant unique access and value. Instant access to everything there is to know may be a form of democratization but it has diminished the value of expertise, with devastatingly predictable results. Fake news. Zero quality control on published information. Less person-to-person communication. Access to weapon-making skills on the part of insane people who always should have been locked away from society, but who now have the ability to cause untold damage because skills are at their fingertips that were formerly reserved for professional war-making machines like governments.
Now it seems the only way to actually possess an information advantage, at least in terms of raw information, is to become an expert in something so arcane and technical that no one without formal training can actually understand it. Like nuclear physics. Or molecular biology. Or how the damn smartphone actually accesses a universe full of information virtually instantaneously. (Lots of us remember a quaint construct called a switchboard where wires had to be connected to make things work.)
I’m not railing against modernity, or being overly wistful about some gauzy mental movie set in the past. I am, however, suggesting that technology has got us all by the throat with an ever-tightening noose. We are at once able to access all of the information in the universe and, if the college students I teach are any indication, becoming completely unable to hold or articulate a substantive body of knowledge about anything. This is probably the inevitable outcome of the loss of a common body of experience.
Take the news, for example. Three channels of vetted, professional, credible evening news and major newspapers in every city once provided a common body of information. Today it’s 24/7 muckraking, with a focus determined by the ability to titillate rather than the obligation to inform. Or consider public service. We have a government that’s been so shredded by decades of prevaricating and dishonesty that we have no expectation that either political party is acting in the interests of the people. We were once horrified to the point of expulsion by Nixon. Today we’re barraged with horrifyingly obvious misbehavior, yet can’t muster more than a news cycle’s indignation over a candidate punching out a reporter. A frightening proportion of the “body politic” probably couldn’t name the three branches of government.
And it’s not just public issues. The loss of an essential knowledge base has swept into our personal lives as well in the age of apps that do it all. We’ve abrogated responsibility for such basics as monitoring our personal expenditures and budgets to the point that lots of college graduates can’t even balance a checkbook. Worried about something so basic no longer being taught … hell, how about basic arithmetic? Or that basic social interaction on a face-to face basis has been replaced by Instagram? Look, we’re all guilty to some extent; you’ve probably stared at your phone instead of your dinner companion at least once in the last few weeks.
What happened to thinking? Caring? Mattering? It’s all being swept away in a continually cresting tidal wave of information and misinformation. There’s a play I have acted in a couple of times called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, where the protagonist goes on a 15-minute rant about the loss of shared experience. The essential message is the one that’s common to those who look behind them for meaning: We’ve lost the ties that bind. It’s not the things we do or the tools we use but the importance of a common body of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.
Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.