I’ve been thinking about an insight that came up in two different books I read recently on the Inklings, the circle of academics at Oxford that featured C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and others. The insight that both Lewis and Tolkien had was into the destructive power that technology could have when detached from human values.
One of the things they also recognized, with the Ring as an outstanding example, is how beings may pour their power into objects, which they may use to dominate others or control their world, and yet in the end come to dominate us and gain a stranglehold on our hearts. One thinks of Gollum’s relentless pursuit to regain the ring he had lost, his “precious.” Indeed, it was not only precious to him, but even more to Sauron, who had poured so much of his power into the Ring to dominate others. Both Lewis and Tolkien, having seen the machines of war, recognized how destructive technology could be, with consequences unintended but deadly.
There has always been a double edge to just about any technological advance. Antibiotics enable the body to fight off infection, and breed superbugs impervious to their effects. Automobiles have given us the opportunity to quickly travel across a city or state, and changed our urban landscapes in the process.
I’ve been thinking about how we’ve poured so much of our power into our smartphones. Until a few years ago, I had a “dumb” phone. Even it could be a phone, I could text, take pictures, and play some games–a big advance, it seemed over a landline, which was just a phone. Now, I can phone, text, tweet, blog, email, post, find my way around an unfamiliar town, deposit checks to my bank account, access credit accounts, store a credit card to pay for things, plan an exercise routine, track my step counts, see what books my friends are reading, load books I want to read, music I want to hear, take incredible photos and share them with other people taking incredible photos, keep an appointment calendar, share documents, catalogue my record collection, check in for flights and load boarding passes, check the weather, get ratings for just about any business, quick order something from Amazon, access my health insurance provider, reserve a rental car, access choral music my choir is rehearsing–I think you get the idea.
Today, I was just about to sit down in a restaurant and realized I’d left the phone plugged into my car charger. I had to go retrieve my “precious.” A little over a year ago, I either wasn’t doing the things above, or I was handling them differently. Now the power to do all this stuff is concentrated on this phone. And, as convenient as this is, I wonder if this is a good thing.
Neil Postman has proposed that we can reach a stage in our use of technology where technology controls us and shapes our lives, and this may not always be good. This summer, we were sitting out, and noticed a number of people walking while staring at their phones. Now people often do this to some degree, but this seemed especially intent–and then we realized that we were watching Pokemon-Go in action. There is an episode of Star Trek, where a game takes over the lives of the Enterprise crew. Is this happening with us?
I struggle with this. I look at my phone too much, and sometimes when I should be listening to a real person. The alerts, little numbers telling me I have emails and messages lure me in, the endless surfing from post to tweet. I keep checking it to see if anything else has happened in the 5 or 15 or 30 minutes since I last looked at it. I’m learning that “smartphone hygiene” isn’t about spraying my phone with Lysol. It is about not accessing it when I should be present elsewhere, not sleeping with it nearby, and not using it as an entertainment substitute most of the time.
I also struggle with what we surrender for this convenience. All the data we yield up about ourselves–how will that be used? One thing I know is that a huge amount of brainpower is going into reaping more and more from that data. It makes me wonder, am I seen as a human being, or simply as a data source?
I suspect this is far from the only “precious” in my life. But it is a vivid illustration. I carry an incredible “power” in my pocket. I wrestle with the reality of its power over me as a person who ultimately acknowledges only one Power worthy of my ultimate loyalties. I sometimes am tempted to just find the equivalent to Mt. Doom and toss it in. Far harder it is to live with the double-edged character of technology without surrendering to it.
Then again, maybe that is why so many of these things are catching on fire…