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Phil-osophically Speaking - October 16, 2009

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cinematic masterpiece of mythic power and lyricism, there is a dramatic scene depicting a life and death struggle between the supercomputer, Hal, and the astronaut, Dave Bowman. During the space mission to Jupiter, the computer had been the astronaut’s greatest tool, but something had gone wrong; and Hal, the machine, was now bent on the destruction of both his human collaborators and creators.

Man versus machine: It’s a theme that has both absorbed and haunted science fiction writers from the dawn of the 20th century. The chess match that pitted world champion, Garry Kasparov, against the world’s greatest super-computer, Big Blue, captivated the imagination on who would have bragging rights, the human Kasparov, or the machine made by humans. The encounter, fraught with combustible tension, was more like an explosive prizefight than a cerebral clash of wits.

Yet, there is no denying powerful machines liberated the human race from backbreaking labor, while the electronic revolution has taken us on a journey from the subatomic world to the intergalactic reaches of outer space. Wherever you look, technology has changed, auspiciously for the most part, the world we live in.

My own experience with electronic gadgets, as my friends will glumly tell you, has been less than satisfying. Rather than being on the cutting edge, I tend to be on the smooth, unruffled, dull margins. I recall, in 1980, listening, with disbelief, as my cousin Joe tried to explain the workings of his new Betamax video recorder. I was flabbergasted, to say the least, by its audacious capabilities.

“You mean, Joe, that you could actually tape a television program from this Beta thing off the television.” “That’s right,” said Joe. “In fact,” I continued, somewhat apprehensively, “if I understand you correctly, you can actually shut off the television, go to bed, and still tape the program?” “Without question” was the reassuring reply. “And — and, (my heart was now racing with anticipation) while you’re watching a program on CBS you can, at the same time, on the same television set, be taping a program on, say, NBC or ABC—- right?” “Absolutely.” “Well, then, how is it,” I inquired almost pleadingly, “that I have never heard of this miracle machine before?” “Beats me,” said Joe, looking amused, if not a trifle triumphant.

Fast forward to 1996. I’m a trustee in the Village of Floral Park and the mayor, Steve Corbett, regularly rhapsodizes about something called the Internet. His terminology consists of going online, surfing the web, the information highway and emailing. It was déjà vu with the mayor in the place of my cousin and me being, once again, dumbfounded.

It is clear today, however, that the boundlessness of the Internet makes it one of the most extraordinary technological inventions ever. It has connected the world; it stands alone as an endless fount of information and is as powerful a friend of liberty as freedom of the press. Since then, the digital revolution has produced a blizzard of innovations: Broadband makes dial up look like something out of the horse and buggy era, not to mention iPhones, web cams, Blackberrys, twitting or tweeting and who knows what’s next.

While the symbiosis of man and machine has been a triumph of man’s ingenuity, it also requires us to ask if we have not stretched things a wee bit too far with all these new toys. Is the wizardry of technology, at least in some cases, a little like the special effects in today’s movies; we are so busy oohing and aahing over the fireworks on the big screen that the storyline, if there is a storyline, gets lost?

As our own lives grow more dependent on technology, are we, in fact, being usurped by it? Is some of this new-fangled gadgetry diminishing the quality of thought, and hindering the facility to articulate it? I’ve witnessed, at holidays and dinners, the younger members of our family, all too willing to eschew conversation for the privilege of typing feverishly with their thumbs. A rather curious phenomenon of digital dexterity, but it’s all the rage as others have told me of similar experiences at their get-togethers.

It’s possible, I imagine, to congratulate our maturing brood on their willingness to employ the written language except, that a quick perusal of what is being texted or emailed, depressingly discloses a rather recreational, if not, sophomoric oeuvre, replete with a sea of slang, misspellings and abbreviations. It is hard to see how all this chattiness, fraught with hasty impressions, leads to solidity of thought or fluidness of expression. Perhaps it’s not meant to be anything more than informational scribble, and if it is, it has succeeded wonderfully.

Writing, however, is a mental exercise that disciplines the mind, organizing precise, carefully expressed thoughts, since the very function of writing presupposes, indeed requires, a certain degree of cogency and deliberation. In this light, it is a transporting revelation to read the sometimes superlative and penetrating writing style of common, everyday folk, with little or no public education, who lived on the American frontier in the 18th and 19th century. I was once struck, many years ago, by one such memorable passage penned by a pioneer woman named Fannie Kelly.

In the last months of 1864, at the age of 19, she left Kansas for Idaho with her husband Josiah, their small daughter, and several other settlers. Along the way the Sioux ambushed them. Their little party was overwhelmed and she was taken captive before being rescued, a short time later, by the U.S. Calvalry.

During the attack she had somehow been able to hide her daughter, telling the toddler to lie still, that Fort Laramie was close by and that the soldiers would find her. They did, with three arrows in her body, and scalped. After being told the horrific details, Fannie Kelly, little more than a girl herself, reflected on her daughter’s tragic fate in sentiments that were as much rooted in the realities of the harsh midwestern plains as it was in the rhythms of the King James Bible.

“Surely,” she wrote, “He who numbers the sparrows and feeds the ravens was not unmindful of her in that awful hour, but allowed the heavenly kingdom, to which her trembling soul was about to take its flight, to sweeten, with a glimpse of its beatific glory, the bitterness of death, even as the Martyr Stephen, seeing the bliss above, could not be conscious of the torture below.”

Not too many teenagers, I dare say, are texting with such throbbing and searing literacy.

The protocols of the technological era, it seems to me, raise questions whether criticisms, such as mine, are merely the whining of those in a dying age that the world has passed by? Or, has this collective, hypnotic gazing into flickering screens as well as the continual intrusions and interruptions that we’ve come to expect, and accept, in an age of instant communication resulted in a discrete, but nonetheless tawdry degradation of a profound and vital aspect of our humanity?

Have we become afraid, or more to the point, have we forgotten how to be alone with our thoughts without our machines acting as intermediaries? In a subtle, subdued fashion, has Kubrick’s frightening vision of a machine culture been realized, whereby those who believe they are the masters are, in reality, the slaves?

One can overplay this train of thought, I suppose, but as technology becomes ever more complex and invasive, it will serve us well to remember our place in the universe, what makes us human, what beliefs we choose to live by, and, what we are willing to die for. These answers cannot come from any machine; its truth comes only from deep within.