Out of the Age of Enlightenment came a burst of creativity that spawned a major leap in Science, Technology and the Arts. Man became the measure of all things.
It is my belief that the scientific method is the best strategy that mankind has developed so far for explaining things. So if we want explanations we have science and when we need machines that make life easier, we use technology. If we want spiritual fulfillment, we have the arts and religion. If we want peace of mind we have meditation, and if we want love and happiness, we have each other.
Since this column is focused on technology, before we go further let me just say that in addition to making our lives easier there is, of course, a downside. Actually, several downsides. First off, technology in the form of the internet has fostered a hyper-awareness --- we want to know everything about everything. Every minute we click and follow a link is time that could be spent in face-to-face conversation with someone who is not a machine. Sure, there are tons of social sites where you can converse with others from all over the world but the internet also makes it more likely that we will be talking past one another. Discussions can turn into arguments with virtually no chance of changing the other person’s mind as each accuses the other of using “Fake News” to back up their claims. Separating the wheat from the chaff on the Internet is like trying to drink from a fire hose.
The futility of this situation is cleverly shown by a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine where a man is typing away at his computer and telling his wife, “I’ll be right to bed as soon as I correct something someone wrote on the Internet.” The original Internet was all about making connections but lately it seems to be fracturing our society by fostering tribes or clans of people we trust and are loyal to one other. We have a place we can call home but at the expense of excluding the opinions of those who belong to other clans.
At the recent Iowa State Fair, a Trump supporter was asked why he voted for him and his response was essentially, "I voted for Trump because he isn't a politician ---- he seems to be a regular guy like me so I trust him."
The same day I heard an interview of a recent book by Adam Gopnik, "A Thousand Small Sanities" where he was asked to give the gist of his book and he replied that he believes the current caustic political divide we are experiencing is because most everyone acts according to one of two competing desires --- for the good of himself or the good of society. Obviously one already knows what one wants for the good of one’s self (money, fame, peace and quiet , etc etc etc) but, according to actual studies, what one perceives as good for society usually wins over self interest, for example, going off to fight for your country. For most of us it’s more important to belong to our clan than to chase fame or fortune...
Gopnik is claiming that the crux of the problem is that our society has fractured into these two clans --- we are no longer a melting pot nor even a mosaic; we have retreated back to trusting only those who belong to our clan and that overrides any altruistic goals we might have.
Thanks to technology and the omnipresence of the internet, it’s easy to feel that we are leaving the Age of Enlightenment and entering the age of distraction, disconnection and dehumanization. But there is hope.
Years ago I was bragging to a physicist friend about a student who used the web to create a game for his developmentally different brother --- what a fine humane gesture it was. The physicist responded that it would have been even better for him to put his arm around his brother and give him a hug. Listening to Anne Murray singing,”Put a little Love in your Heart” suggests that perhaps he was right.
Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an emeritus professor of computer science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years there. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.