Like almost everyone I know, I was brought up with television. I was lucky not to be brought up by television. Of course, over in England we got it later than the Americans. I remember the first TV program I saw: it was Popeye, in black and white. Some years later we had color TV at last. During the day the BBC ran endless “trade test color films” – documentaries about flowers, for example – to make sure the system was working, and we sat around all day watching the bright colors on the screen glowing like magic. Or that’s how I remember it. In math class we used slide rules, not calculators. If we went away from home it felt like away. No cellphone, no skype – coins in a slot, if you could find a public phone.
My children’s world is permeated with electronics. There’s no need to describe it. Reading these words on a screen, you are part of that world too. Yet they lived their formative early years without full exposure to it. We kept the TV at bay as long as we could, and though we never isolated them completely from the revolution going on around them, we made sure to read to them every night. We believed, and still do, that the love of books is a saving grace. Whatever else is going on, at least that provides a lifeline back to civilization. Not only that, but a book stimulates the imagination and the intelligence in a way that a film or a TV show can never do.
Technology is not neutral. That is one of the frequent and alarming lessons of this issue of Humanum. It affects us in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways whether we like it or not. Technology itself uses us, quite apart from the fact that we are also being used by the purveyors of technology, who need to turn us into consumers and customers. Spied upon, manipulated, corrupted – all in the name of easier communication – and we don’t even know where it is leading. The conjecture known as Moore’s Law suggests that computer performance doubles every couple of years or less, so that in a few more decades “our computers will be wearing us.” It is all a vast experiment we are performing on our children. Certainly (unless this is what destroyed Atlantis) there has never been such a technologically advanced civilization on earth, and we have no precedents to guide us.
There is no escape. We are committed. The “transhumanists” will say that is a good thing. We are on the road to something wonderful – a new stage of evolution – and our fears of the unknown cannot prevent it. But in this moment of reflection, let us step back and consider the evidence, and the effects that today’s (soon to be regarded as) primitive technology is having on our way of life, our minds, and our homes. Perhaps we should even read a few books – those under review here, or the classics on technology by Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul.
Our lead article by Fr Jonah Lynch argues that, while technology is not “neutral,” neither is it invented by the devil, and we remain responsible for making the best possible use of the new media, within the home and elsewhere – not naively, but with as much wisdom and discernment as we can muster. But in our other lead article, Dr Allan C. Carlson, adopts a more negative tone. Dr Carlson is a well-known lecturer, author, and broadcaster especially on issues concerning the family, Professor of History at Hillsdale College, and President of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society. In his article, he traces the history of the advance of new technologies into the home and the takeover of the home economy, warning that “only a radical ‘separation from the world,’ with eyes firmly fixed heavenward, gives sufficient power to individuals in homes and intentional communities to overcome the lures, appetites, and pressures of technological change and the full industrialization of human life.”
This is the fear that underlies much Catholic writing on the subject since the Second World War. Romano Guardini, in his The End of the Modern World, had already written in the 1950s about the evolution of “mass man” and the decline of human personality – a development that, one fears, may be accelerated by the advent of social media. One recalls the anecdote about Canadian philosopher George Grant, who, when asked why he was being so pessimistic about scientific progress, replied: “I’m not being pessimistic at all. I think God will eventually destroy this technological civilization. I’m very optimistic about that.”
Not everyone is of the same mind. Our Witness piece is by a father struggling to bring up his children in the modern world, refining his (and their) discernment as best he can, and subordinating the technology he allows into the home to the development of personality. The reviews featured in this issue cover a range of attitudes and ideas, from the pessimistic to the optimistic. It is a question that we all have to wrestle with, whether or not we have children, since the future of our civilization is at stake. The present issue of Humanum is intended to help us all in this process of reflection.