Friday, May 13, 2011

GK Chesterton Against the Machine

Inventions have destroyed invention. The big modern machines are like big guns dominating and terrorizing a whole stretch of country, within the range of which nothing can raise its head. There is far more inventiveness to the square yard of mankind than can ever appear under the monopolist terror. The minds of men are not so much alike as the motor-cars of men, or the morning papers of men, or the mechanical manufacture of the coats and hats of men. And it is doubtful whether we ever shall, until we shut off this deafening din of megaphones that drowns their voices, this deathly glare of limelight which kills the colours of their complexions, this plangent yell of platitudes which stuns and stops their minds. All this sort of thing is killing thoughts as they grow, as a great white death ray might kill plants as they grow. When, therefore, people tell me that making a great part of England rustic and self-supporting would mean making it rude and senseless, I do not agree with them...I say the towns themselves are the foes of intelligence, in these times; I say the rustics themselves would have more variety and vivacity than is really encouraged by the towns. I say it is only by shutting off this unnatural noise and light that men can begin again to move and to grow.

GK Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

I am (to various degrees) a technophile, a technosceptik, and a technophobe; and right now the technophobe element is winning out. My attitude towards technology has varied greatly through the years—one might even say schizophrenically. I didn’t get a mobile phone until 2004 (and I was rather proud of the fact); but when I did finally give in and buy one, I became the most enthusiastic of texters, for a while. I was a latecomer to Facebook; but I’m always being struck by random thoughts and aphorisms, so until recently I was posting on Facebook several times a day. From my childhood I’ve taken a dim view of television, and yet I’ve become wildly enthusiastic about certain TV shows, such as the US version of the Office , or Star Trek: The Next Generation. I can’t even find words to express, or begin to express, my long love affair with the cinema. Recently I posted on Facebook the epigram: “You should live life to the full. It gives you a better appreciation of movies.” I wasn’t entirely joking.

And yet—I’ve always been shadowed by a deep and lingering suspicion of electronic entertainments, and of “mod cons” of every description. I remember, when I was a boy, feeling rather heartlessly cheered by news of eathquakes and hurricanes, since it proved that we had not entirely tamed nature. I knew that part of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings was that nobody watched television in Middle-Earth. Come to think of it, nobody watched television on the Starship Enterprise, either. Instead, they had amateur dramatics and musical recitals and painting classes.

I was so out of step as to be appalled when I heard that a football game, or a TV drama finale, or a televised concert reached an audience of eighty million, or whatever astronomical figure it might be. I didn’t find this inspiring; I found it horrifying. I hated think of all those people sitting in their front rooms and watching the same programme at the same time. I worried the precedent might become the norm. I thought it was a sinister trend; from the days when our grandparents (as they constantly reminded us) made their own entertainment, to the state of affairs where various cliques were entertaining various masses, to an ultimate scenario where everybody in the world was being entertained by the same handful of people.

But, you say (or maybe you don’t say, but some people say), the internet has reversed this trend. Now the millions make their own entertainment in cyberspace, and fogies like you complain about that. Now the mass audience had been fragmented into the readership of a million different blogs and websites, and you still pour forth your jeremiads. There’s no pleasing you.

I see the force of this argument. But it doesn’t dispel my techno-unease. I see no reason why one shouldn’t have reservations about different technologies on entirely different grounds. When it comes to the internet, I worry about its tendency to eliminate time and space. As CS Lewis said in Surprised by Joy:

“The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space”. It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his father got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.”

In just the same way, when we are plugged in to the internet, we are only a click away from anything we desire; a complete list of Venezualan Presidents, the e-text of Huckleberry Finn, a discussion forum on antique paperweights. We don’t have to walk to the library anymore. We don’t even have to walk to the bookshelf. Nobody has to have a pub argument about the best-selling single in chart history; someone is sure to have an i-phone, or a Blackberry. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that nobody is ever alone anymore. Nobody has to wait anymore. Nobody has to wonder anymore, when everything you need to know is at your fingertips. I worry about this. I worry about it a lot.

Isn’t it ironic to write a blog post criticising the internet? Yes, it is. I have been wondering whether the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland should have an internet presence; whether it is, in fact, unChestertonian. But Chesterton (as the book from which my first paragraph is taken makes clear) was never opposed to technology in itself; he simply reserved the right (and society’s right) to limit its use. Also, it is true that the Holy Father himself has encouraged Catholics to make their presence felt in cyberspace. For those reasons,a nd since people have been kind enough to read and follow it, the blog will continue—for better or worse!

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