The war of the words
Technology was supposed to do many things for us. We were promised flying cars, time machines, and hoverboards. The Internet was presumed to free our time so we could go to the park, to exercise, to spend more time with friends.
In some aspects, technology has, indeed, delivered on its promise. It has enabled us to be more efficient; it’s freed us from repetitive and tedious tasks. The question is, what have we done with those extra minutes, hours, days?
We reinvest. That’s what capitalism dictates. We put those hours back into the system. Down we go through the rabbit hole. We spend more hours with technology; hang around our social networks; read the latest news.
Our world, paradoxically, gets smaller, narrower. We interact with the same people sharing the same news we read in interchangeable media. We have Ashurbanipal’s treasure at our fingertips, but we surrender to the black magic of recommendation machines.
This has had an impact. Our understanding of the world, of human suffering, of humanity’s problems, is reduced to what’s #trending. If it’s not shared on a grand scale, it’s not worth reading. Our views shrink, as do our capacity to empathize with others beyond our influencers.
“The majority of people in this world have never read for pleasure and never will. Some can’t; some won’t.”
Guin, Ursula K. Le. Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016
I would argue that one problem is that people don’t read enough. But I would be wrong. We read more than ever, consuming our daily dose of tech news, cat memes and scientifically-disproven-link-bait-factoids. The dilemma is that “reading” titles shared on social media isn’t reading.
Read /riːd/, verb: “look at and comprehend the meaning of (written or printed matter) by interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed.”
I’m sure we look at the titles, I wonder, though, if we comprehend them. Maybe, what we’re missing is the substance. There are some tales about this mysterious substance.
Once upon a time, there was a magical object considered by some, a repository of knowledge, wisdom, and power. Its name, now long forgotten, used to be revered by certain echelons of society. Its influence so grand that not even the elites could keep it for themselves. Reactionaries like Gutenberg, an avant-garde Prometheus, stole the magic and disseminated it to the masses.
It’s been known by many names, but you might have heard of its most common form, The Book. You know, that piece of work that strings more than a few words together; that has a beginning, a middle and an end; that creates a coherent message, informed by knowledge, philosophy, education, science, history, and imagination. I know, it sounds vaguely familiar. You’ve probably seen it somewhere, maybe supporting your laptop monitor. Authors should be proud; their creations are preventing an epidemic of back pain. Screen altitude enablers have become part of the tech intelligentsia arsenal.
But let’s not be cynical. People do know books and read them. One look at my Goodreads feed though is enough to put me to tears: “A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.” I ask myself what would my fellow Spaniard Marcus Aurelius think of this book.
The drama is that, despite reading, we forgo those books that can and will enrich us. It seems more important to read the last poorly researched biography of our tech gods than to read the atemporal wisdom of laureated writers.
Wisdom isn’t acquired through meme reading. Knowledge, empathy or morals won’t come from reading Elon or Jeff or Steve. They’ll grow in us through philosophy, history, fiction or poetry.
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”
Guin, Ursula K. Le. Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books.
Technology isn’t the problem, our isolationism is. Ethics won’t come in video format. We deserve better books. We deserve better reading. Go on now. Walk away from the computer. Switch your phone off. Choose a great book. One that will make you proud and read.