The Glasgow-based Anglican obstetrician Ian Donald, who in the 1950s helped bring ultrasound technology from shipyard to doctor’s office, had devoted himself to the task out of a belief that the images would increase empathy for the unborn, and make women less likely to choose abortions. The technology has also been used, though, to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy – because of deformity, because the parent wants a child of a certain sex. Whatever the intended and actual effects, it is clear that the now iconic black and white images of our bodies before we are born mediate life and death. But what prepares us to make life-and-death decisions?
My wife and I debated learning the sex of our first child before birth. I raised the issue with my uncle, a gynaecologist who had delivered more than 5,000 babies. He was prone neither to giving advice nor anything whiffing of spirituality, but he urged me, strongly, not to find out. He said, “If a doctor looks at a screen and tells you, you will have information. If you find out in the moment of birth, you will have a miracle.”
I don’t believe in miracles, but I followed his advice, and he was right. One needn’t believe in miracles to experience them. But one must be present for them.
Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that, unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend “the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation”. Simply put, the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth – redefining “text” from what fills the hundreds of pages of a novel, to a line of words and emoticons on a phone’s screen – the less likely and able we are to care. That’s not even a statement about the relative worth of the contents of a novel and a text, only about the time we spend with each.
We know that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. You won’t risk killing anyone if you use your phone while eating a meal, or having a conversation, or waiting on a bench, which means you will allow yourself to be distracted. Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention – even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
Novels demand many things of readers, but the most obvious is attention. I can do any number of other activities while watching a TV show or listening to music, and I can carry on a conversation with a friend while at an art gallery, but reading a novel demands putting everything else aside. To read a book is to devote oneself to the book. Novels always traffic in empathy, always bring “the other” closer, always ask us to transcend our perspectives, but isn’t that attention, itself, a generous act? Generous toward ourselves?
My father was not present for his children’s births – it was customary, then, for men to be in the waiting room. I witnessed my sons being born. My experience was richer, deeper, more memorable and fulfilling than my father’s. Being physically present allowed me to be emotionally present.
We think of technologies as wielders of information and manipulators of matter. Google, we all know, is in the business – as they put it – of organising and making accessible “the world’s information”. Other technologies are more earthy – the car propels us over land at speeds our legs cannot attain, and the bomb allows us to kill many enemies in ways our bare hands cannot.
But technologies are not only effective at achieving or thwarting the aims of those who encounter them, but are affective. Technology is not strictly technical. “I love you” – the same “I love you” issuing from the same person with the same sincerity and depth – will resonate differently over the phone than in a handwritten letter, than in a text message. The tone and rhythm of voice craft the words, as does the texture and colour of stationery, as does the glowing font of the text chosen by our mobile phone manufacturer. We love our Macs more than our PCs because Apple was more interested in harnessing and inflecting the affective resonances of its technology and in restricting a smaller coterie of elites to guard and guide these affects so as to create a distinctive ecosystem. We find ourselves “playing” with smartphones in a way we never did with the functional handle of a traditional landline phone because, whereas the first phone was designed by engineers thinking in functional terms, the phones in our pockets nowadays are always built in dialogue with marketers who have carefully noted how colour and curve, brightness and texture, heft and size make us feel.
We consumers forget that technology always plugs into and produces certain affects, the building blocks of emotions, as well as full-blown emotional experiences. We forget this, but successful companies do not. They remember and profit enormously. We forget at the expense of who we are.
Most of our communication technologies began as substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a message possible without the person being near their phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster and more mobile messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements on face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to make the effort to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation – you can say what you need to say without a response; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Shooting off an email is easier still, because one can further hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. With texting, the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier – just a little – to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.
The novel has never stood in such stark opposition to the culture that surrounds it. A book is the opposite of Facebook: it requires us to be less connected. It is the opposite of Google: not only inefficient, but at its best, useless. Screens offer a seemingly endless supply of information, but the true value of the page is not what it allows us to know, but how it allows us to be known.
Like so many people I know, I’ve been concerned that phones and the internet have, in subtle ways, made life less rich, provided bright pleasures at the expense of deep ones, have distracted me, made concentration more difficult, led me to be elsewhere far too often. I’ve found myself checking email while giving my kids a bath, jumping over to the internet when a sentence or idea doesn’t come effortlessly in my writing, searching for shade on a beautiful spring day so I can see the screen of my phone. Have you?
Have you found yourself putting loved ones on hold so you could click over to a call from an unidentified number? Have you found yourself conflating aloneness with loneliness? Have you found your relationship to distraction reversing: what was once a frustration is now sought?
Do you want to click over to the other call, want to have an email to have to respond to, want – even crave –the ping of an incoming, inconsequential message?
Isn’t it possible that technology, in the forms in which it has entered our everyday lives, has diminished us? And isn’t it possible that it’s getting worse? Almost all new technology causes alarm in its early days, and humans generally adapt to it. So perhaps no resistance is necessary. But if it were, where would it come from, and what would it look like?
With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present. My grandparents hoped I would have a better life than they did: free of war and hunger, comfortably situated in a place that felt like home. But what futures would I dismiss out of hand for my grandchildren? That their clothes will be fabricated every morning on 3D printers? That they will communicate without speaking or moving? Only someone with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. It’s possible that many reading these words will never die.
Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or situation – being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology” – but a question of balance that our lives hang upon.
One day, nanomachines will detect weaknesses in our hearts long before any symptoms would bring us to a doctor. And other nanomachines will repair our hearts without our feeling any pain, losing any time or spending any money. But it will only feel like a miracle if we are still capable of feeling miracles – which is to say, if our hearts are worth saving.
========= COMMENT FROM FACEBOOK READER:=========
''Main thing I wld say is re last para -- our emotions DO NOT EMANATE from the organ called THE HEART. Tired old cliche.''