Two stories caught my eye recently, both in the New York Times. The first was a piece on show-binging: indulging in our newly-found ability to watch an entire season's of a show in one or two sittings. The other was a piece about gene drive, our newly acquired ability to not only edit species genes to our best guess about what might be helpful to us in the long run, but to--and here I'm going to add italics--included in that editing is the "gene machine" configuration that would institute the continuation of that editing in all of the individuals off-spring. I think this is important enough to quote Wikipedia on this technique, which is called gene drive:
Gene drive is the practice of "stimulating biased inheritance of particular genes" to alter entire populations. [...] Because it is a way to artificially bias inheritance of desired genes, gene drive constitutes a major change in biotechnology. The potentially huge impact of releasing gene drives in the wild raises major bioethics concerns regarding their development and management.
In this way, every new animal of insect would have its own editor--put there by us--that passed this editing onto every off-spring thus changing a species toward one direction or another, in a matter of a generation or two. We could call this "binge-editing" in my book, doing something all at once, leaving no where to go after the binge is through.
But this piece is mainly about the end of a quality we might call uniquely human: the state of reflection. In both instances, all-at-once gene editing and binge- watching Grace and Frankie--which I love--the state of reflection has been ignored, erased, over-looked and seen as of little importance. Depth has disappeared.
Our fascination with the digital world--which makes binge-watching possible--in which things, reduced to numbers, can be created, shared, commented upon, accepted or rejected in a veritable instant, has left the equally important wave of the analog continuity, with its slower, more considered change-element, out in the wilderness alone.
The motive force of consumption, of eating something, is to satisfy hunger. It has an evolutionary imperative. It exists as immediate need and immediate fulfillment. Yet, the history of humanity has been counter-balanced by reflection: let's put some if this food away for seed and for times of bad harvest, for example.
The same force is true of peer-reviewed journals in science and reviews of exhibits in the arts--wrong-headed though they sometimes are. Peer-reviewing slows down the rush toward judgment and allows time for reflection and consideration. Reviews...and re-reviews...allow a discussion to take place over and within time.
In this slowing down as we ride the analog wave, time is our friend and not our enemy. We are not starving. We don't need to overeat. When Herman Melville published Moby Dick, his reviews were frightful. In a short-term digital world, his book would have sunk like the Pequad. But time--our friend, though not Melville's--has helped us reconsider the power of his book. This is a story told too often.
The digital has immense power to capture and interpret data that might otherwise be lost. A recent Microsoft project scours the Internet, parsing inquirers about illness in order to pick up early clues about illnesses we often find out about too late for treatment. The power of the digital view is unsurpassed yet, without its marriage to the analog world of wave and reflection, something vital about the human experience is missing. And this is missing piece might very soon, sooner than we think, allow us trip into an abyss even as we are looking at the heavens.
Are Yelp reviews wrong or right? Are Rotten Tomatoes reviews wrong or right? One thing we can say with increasing certainty is that online reviews select for an unspoken, specified immediate reaction, often based on a single encounter with the object of review and whether the item in question satisfies that hunger immediately. The digital world allows for revolution. The analog--with its ability to reflect and consider--for evolution. Both of course, are needed.
Digitalization--which can also be a sort of electronic Balkanization--can be good. Its gifts are immense. And I like knowing immediately whether Robert and Sol will get back together after Sol's sexual indiscretion. But when it comes to gene editing? When it comes to electoral politics? Well, then fast isn't always good. Despite the fact that I'm intrigued by Elon Musk's hyper loop, which might someday get me across the country in comfort and in an afternoon, I like the scenery too. It gives me a sense of the country. It lets me know how we are doing and doesn't only speak to my need for speed, my insatiable hunger to get from here to there with no moment for reflection in the middle.
Sound bites are not news. The news cycle, which increasingly depends upon the moment-by-moment dance of the electronic electorate and its moderators, more often than not fails to give a good picture of reality and molds the news by its selection factor (its style which is not so much a style as a lens and tempo) as much as report it. When Wolf Blitzer says Stand by. Don't go away. We have new developments, every story is a bulletin, a digital bit designed to erase reflection and enhance immediate and shallow attention--and along with it, fix our viewership in place for another minute or so to sell us the products we will need for the next day of shallow attention.
How fast is time passing now? Is it second by second or idea by idea, insight by insight or appetite by appetite? Let's make a sign and put it somewhere we can see it: Man and woman do not live by bread alone. Sometimes we like to sit down with friends and have a meal.