Water the Roots: Technology numbs minds to arts and humanity

Jan 28 • NEWS & VIEWS, ViewsNo Comments on Water the Roots: Technology numbs minds to arts and humanity

Last weekend I completed “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’ creepy, brilliant story exploring our TAD (Technology Addiction Disorder), and agreed to see 2013’s “Sexiest Woman Alive,” Scarlett Johansson on the big screen with my wife. But rather than getting to see the talented Ms. Johansson, the film extended Dave Eggers questions about the wisdom of asking our technology to solve all our problems. “Her” is about a sad dude in a sad culture that falls in love with its technology, particularly an intimate evolving operating system.

Before I go any further, let me clearly state, “I’m NOT a luddite!”

Anyone questioning technology has to write that disclaimer, otherwise people panic and think you advocate waging peace, gathering nuts and berries, and reading poetry.

I don’t have a beef with technology. I do question what we expect of our tools. “The Circle” and “Her” both expose our expectations for what they are; flaws in our operating systems.


Politicians and corporations fear a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) crisis. Anthony Carnevale, a director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which has published papers that point to a shortage of STEM grads even went so far as to say, “We believe in the future, and in science and technology. We all believe in the deus ex machina that will save us.”

“Holy Frankenstein, Batman!”

I fear an excessive focus on STEM skills may shrivel our roots. The corporate economy may suffer because of a lack of critical thinking and binary logic, but a shortage of radical compassion, creative thinking, and literary logic will kill us.

Luckily, Robin Clayton, Ashley High theater teacher, helped remind me there’s still a chance that poetical thinking will help save our souls from machines and markets. She asked me to judge New Hanover County’s 2013 “Poetry Out Loud” competition at the Minnie Evans Performing Arts Center. I’m a lousy choice for that. Any student with the courage to stop tweeting or texting long enough to memorize Anne Sexton has already won. They are on the path of fully developing their humanity. From her résumé, the contest winner, Ashley High School senior Lizzie Rhoades, is as fascinating as she is articulate—with wide-ranging interests befitting any a human artist (as opposed to human asset, resource, or operating system).

Another hopeful sign for me was the number of people at Kenan auditorium to hear author Tim O’Brien speak at UNCW. Mr. O’Brien reminded us all that although STEM skills may be economically advantageous, they don’t tell the whole story, can’t distinguish accuracy from truth, and don’t understand our wars with the lesser angels of our nature. But as Tim O’Brien shared how he wove his Vietnam combat experiences into stories, all I could think of was that he shouldn’t have any combat experiences to write about.

In 1914 Silicon Valley STEM types predicted that our industrial strength killing capacity would actually save us from ourselves. After 37 million WWI deaths they said the same thing. They called WWI, “The War to End all War.” Of course, 100 years ago a lot of these same people predicted STEM advances would provide personal rocket packs and bubbled cities with climate control by now. Our technology would eliminate disease and poverty and war. We would work only 4 hours a day to survive comfortably, leaving most of our brief flicker of existence to fully develop our creative potential. The story is always the same; technology will save us from ourselves.

Technology does improve efficiency and accuracy. Processed food is cheap. Assault weapons are more efficient than muskets. The NSA is better at surveillance than J. Edgar Hoover. Satellite guided drones are more precise than carpet bombing. But, alas, alack, each STEM problem efficiently solved creates 10 more moral dilemmas! These human problems seem better suited for a Shakespeare or a Sexton—or perhaps, a Lizzie Rhoade sthan Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

OK, Shakespeare alone can’t save us, but neither can all the STEM recruits in all the Silicon Valleys of all the world. In the stories that ring most true it is our humanity that saves us from our technology. Resistance is not futile! Become human. Forget the STEM for a second. Water the roots! Tell a story. Recite a poem. Or better yet, write one yourself.

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