In Defense of Reality

There was an article in The Houston Chronicle on Dec. 13, 2014 about a high school principal who challenged her students to put down their smart phones and promise to go five days without tweeting or texting and without using social-networking sites. Many could not do it. Others were in agony, like a junkie without his fix. It really seems to be an addiction.

Web MD and other sites already offer suggestions for treating "electronic addiction." Whether or not it fits the precise medical definition of an addiction, it is hard to know what else to call it when some people check their e-mail hundreds of times a day. Something weird and unhealthy is happening when drivers cannot abstain from texting even in city traffic. I have heard of people who cannot play a round of golf without pausing at each hole to check their e-mail. I no longer like to have lunch with some friends because they are constantly interrupting our conversations to consult their wretched little boxes.

Well, so what? Other than affording me an opportunity for curmudgeonly grousing, why should I care if people want to spend time doing what they enjoy? What harm does it do me? Thomas Jefferson said that it neither picks his pocket nor breaks his leg if his neighbor has another religion or none at all. Can't we say the same about tweeting, texting, etc.? But it might break my leg. Distracted driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Also, it might pick my pocket. Addictions are expensive for society. When distracted drivers cause accidents, we all might have to pay higher insurance premiums.

Mostly, though, you feel sorry for anyone whose world has shrunk to the dimensions of a tiny screen. By contrast, would anyone think that the world was flat, dull, and lifeless for Aristotle, Shakespeare, or Darwin because they could not check their e-mail or use their thumbs to kill hordes of virtual zombies? Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Darwin had access to something far richer, deeper, and more fulfilling than electronic gaming, gossip, and garbage. The object of their fascination was something called "reality."

They had real friends rather than Facebook "friends." They enjoyed real, face-to-face conversations with actual people rather than reacting to little screens. They spoke actual languages rather than "LOL," "BFF," and "OMG." They did not feel a compulsion to notify the world every time they sneezed or took a bath. They discussed ideas too deep to be communicated in 144 characters. They could enjoy real cats rather than Grumpy Cat videos.

We live in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, a universe that contains black holes and neutron stars and stars as massive as a hundred suns that will die in spectacular supernovas that will seed the universe with the elements of future planets. The iron in your blood was generated in the cores of dying stars billions of years before our sun existed. Every object in this incomprehensible vastness is made of atoms so tiny that a hundred million could fit across the period at the end of this sentence.

Your genes encode information that is ancient beyond reckoning, and which your children's children will carry into the indefinite future. You are the product of billions of years of organic evolution and you are, quite literally, kin to every living thing on this planet. In the depths of time there existed beasts longer than two city buses and weighing as much as a whole herd of elephants. The continents on which we live are not static, but move inexorably at the speed of a growing fingernail. Inside your skull is the greatest wonder of all, an organ with the power to save or ruin the earth.

The natural world is an object, perhaps the only object, truly commensurate with our capacity for awe. That world is lost to us when we are obsessed with endless electronic titillation. A few years ago the newspaper comic strip Zits depicted a family vacationing in the west. They tour Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, and other marvels of the American landscape. The parents are overwhelmed, enraptured by the grandeur. Their fifteen-year-old is oblivious, absorbed with his devices. Nature is lost to the one addicted to constant electronic stimulus.

History is lost also. In his dystopian masterpiece Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagines a future society where people are controlled by constant sensory stimulation and vapid entertainments (Sound familiar?). Who has time for the past when we are having so much good, stupid fun in the present? In one brilliant scene Huxley has one of the ruling World Controllers address a group of students on the irrelevance of history:

"He waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible feather whisk, he had brushed away a little dust, and the dust was Harappa, was Ur of the Chaldees, some spider-webs, and they were Thebes and Babylon and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, Whisk -- and where was Odysseus, where was Job, and where were Jupiter, and Gotama, and Jesus? Whisk, and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem and the Middle Kingdom -- all were gone. Whisk -- the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the Thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk, Symphony, whisk..."

A world obsessed with moment-to-moment stimulation is a world adrift, alienated, and rootless; a world without nature or history. It is Brave New World. And we are almost there.

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