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High-Tech Nothing

Electronic Gotchas

Thanks to the Internet, in about a minute I can find a past quote from Obama about recess appointments, filibusters, campaign financing, super-PACs, taxes, debt ceilings, deficits, Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventative detention, or Iraq, and then juxtapose it to another diametrically opposite quote -- and thereby demonstrate that Obama is duplicitous, hypocritical, and demagogic in a way unusual even for politicians. These electronic trails surely make politicians more careful of what they say, since John Q. Citizen has access to it in a way unthinkable in our recent past.

But so what? I’ve written such columns frequently, and posted such a contrast today on the corner at National Review. Proof upon proof only makes Obama supporters sigh about these unfair and perhaps racist “gotchas,” and his opponents only more exasperated at the sheer hypocrisy of it all.

Instant access, exact quotations, even a video of the remark certainly bring high drama to the argument, but like the fifth footnote about the articular infinitive in Thucydides at the page bottom, they become redundant. To the degree such juxtapositions are determinative depends not on their number or clarity, much less on mastery of Google, but rather to the degree that they are used effectively to illustrate an argument, a skill that is not so predicated on technology. Humans are just as likely to say “So what?” when presented with ten vivid discrepancies, as they are with a vaguely remembered single anecdote, if there is no higher purpose to such data retrieval.

Nothing, Everything -- or Something?

Cell-phoning simply has accelerated what was -- or was not already -- there. I like finding the GPS directions to a Starbucks in a strange city, and appreciate those engineers who gave us such options. But coffee is coffee, existence is existence, and if I don’t use my saved time wisely, it is not necessarily any better invested than in stopping and asking directions.

The point is not to denigrate high-tech, but to remind us that it a tool that is as good or bad -- to paraphrase Shane -- as the person using it. But with one great caveat, today’s glitzy technology is so impressive, so captivating to the human brain that it has the ability to confuse us about master and slave, cause and effect, the pump and water in a way the abacus or the telegraph did not. Sometimes consumer high-tech is the Catholic pessimist Tolkien’s master ring, a thing seemingly of great potential, but one that might corrupt those who think they can use its power for goodness.

Use it -- but beware that at best the speed, ease of use, and greater awareness at our fingertips simply accelerate, emphasize, and accentuate whether we are dunces and boors or pretty informed and decent folk. And at worst, it is more likely to make us the former rather than the latter.