Our Blessing, Our Curse

Computers in a too-useful world

It used to be that things had a primary function and perhaps a secondary function or two. This order of things in turn yielded to the insight that parts could be made replaceable, and that the best way to think about things might be as these component entities, rather than their composite sums. Differentiation happened in other areas, as well; mouths and feet, despite their occasional encounter, are now encouragingly seen as two distinct specialties. We now have many varieties of salad dressing, a myriad of cheeses, frozen yogurt flavors without end. And this is a good thing. But it is only half of the story.

One of the great innovations of the modern world is not only how many different types of things we have, but also how useful those things have become. Our phones are computers, and our computers are movie cinemas. Websites are television stations, and television stations are personalized websites. Our (e)mail is collected where we look up recipes for dinner, and our “desktop” is perilously close to the “trash.” Now, of course these things aren’t in any kind of geographic propinquity; even more importantly, they clutter our mental armature. But the most troubling juxtaposition of all is that we use the same device to word process as we do to inhabit the internet. We take this for granted, and we are most conscious of it when the universe of distraction beckons us temptingly from writing or computing. But the use of computers as writing implements is, I suggest, nothing less than a catastrophe of modern intellectual life.

To understand why this is the case it is necessary to think a little bit about distraction and its comrade in arms, procrastination. Think of it this way: Academic tasks are local and discrete, and they require us to think in a sustained way about seemingly intractable problems. Friedrich Nietzsche famously demanded that we read slowly, a perhaps more important injunction than reading closely because it is a much more difficult one. In the Middle Ages, monks were wont to come down with what was called “acedia,” a melancholic distraction that rendered them unfit for the mind-numbingly boring clerical work they were often asked to perform. But for most of history, the “task at hand” and “the world out there” were resolutely distinct.

The pull of the latter was powerful, but the object of study might exert a correspondent force and perhaps fight the distractions of the world to a standstill. A typewriter was meant for writing and nothing else, and a quill and parchment would idle if not used to write. Most importantly, the limits of the possibilities for distraction were delineated by the imagination on the one hand and one’s circle of acquaintances on the other. Thus, the attractions of distant lands were hopelessly ethereal, and the contingencies of family or social life stubbornly local.

But the convergence of functions in and within the computer with which I type this piece makes life much more difficult for those of us who value this peculiar mix of imaginative globetrotting and intimate focus. On the same machine, we attempt the most painstaking of intellectual labors, and we are understandably enticed by the ability to be anywhere in the world. What purchase does even the most inspiring of tasks have in the face of the possibilities of communication, of understanding, and of empathy engendered by a world entirely connected? The ways in which the humanities—literature in particular—instruct on how to live are being attenuated by the icon that sits next to Microsoft Word but has designs on how and in what manner we process words.

And, of course, “process” is very much the heart of the matter; the internet is so enthralling not so much for what we read on it, but rather because of how we read: the jumping, skipping, frenetic movement from one page to another. The blank page that is the homepage of every paper seems both lonely and empty in comparison. But that is because it is a terrible mistake that we have come to write on these miraculous devices in the first place. Like Kubla Khan’s magical dome in Samuel Coleridge’s great poem, they can make time melt like ice on a sunny day. “Beware, Beware!”

Ari R. Hoffman ’10 is a Ph.D. candidate in English. His column appears on alternate Fridays.