War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality by Mark Slouka
“On the Internet, we can all live Life Lite. And when that
happens, it becomes impossible to access the complexities of relationships that really make them worthwhile.” —Nicholas Thompson in the Washington Monthly
Mark Slouka favors essentialism, “on this earth, in this time, among the lives we’ve each come to know—and not on some virtual plane—is where we find both our greatest pleasure and our deepest responsibility.”
Slouka finds us too comfortable with the digital and analog worlds. Lured by their short-term attractions, we lost human goods worth much more. Cathode ray tube representations of events now seem more important than the events themselves (and the events in our lives). Real life produces anxiety and boredom, embarrassment and dread. The electronic world beckons with a pleasant ride. Simulations may become so well designed we will evade the risks of the real world even more, that is, until the real world bites us. Slouka excoriates infotainment that goes in one eye and out the other. Individuals in isolated little worlds have no idea what they miss.
Technologies are not moral agents, but like a hurricanes or sunny days, their influences are not morally neutral. We create technologies and technologies create us. Yet our goal is making sure almost everyone plugs in, ignoring whether we become tools of our tools.
The search for value, for some, begins and ends with machines. Physical world interactions, Slouka asserts, help develop judgment and fellow feeling. In the electronic world we say all aboard, and so what if your moral powers decline or remain dormant. Future anthropologists might not call it the age of information but the age of banal consumerism.
Computers are more than information processors. They are turning into super copying machines capable of producing attractions more intense and enjoyable than the world out there. The physical world is too grimy and crime ridden. “Post offices, apparently, are death itself.” Slouka vibes with Max Frische's aphorism: “Technology is often the knack of arranging the world so we don’t experience it.”
Slouka’s tour suggests escapism passes for involvement, shock-value passes for significance and trivial knowledge passes for wisdom. Images replace physical contact. Attention grabbing information passes for good information. Homogeneous indoor spaces replace heterogeneous environments (and isolation gets equated with connection). Visual literacy is not literacy.
Describing a Simpsons episode having televisions turned off, forcing the kids to go outside and play, Slouka wonders how rarely we see kids “flushed, tired and happy” at the end of the day. For other kids, basic sanitation would be more valuable than knowing which pop star loves Baby Ruth bars. We should live so that we can not wait to get up the next morning. If we do not, we should make changes until we do.
Slouka's arguments for "essentialism" are better than his one-sided blasting of the Internet. Slouka thinks cyberspace is almost always a high-speed ignorance connection. Slouka does not mention whether good uses for the Internet might exist. Clear distinctions between trivial information and important information are uncommon within the information overload branch of criticism. Slouka bristles when supporters of computer technologies throw around analogies with fascism, yet Slouka does not resist comparing technology supporters to the same.
This book matters, though. Philosophies of action can make the attractions of diversions look pointless. Nobody ever said on their deathbed, “I wish I knew how many yards rushing Dan Reeves had in 1963.” Recommended. 185p (H) 1995
—book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 23, 2009