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Lawrence Martin (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

Culture clash: Are the machines winning? Add to ...

Technology historian George Dyson once summed up things this way – “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature and machines.”

Anyone venturing to guess which one is winning might start with some of the basics. Stuff like what is happening to our reading culture, the art of conversation, the practice of writing.

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Machines, you might say, are faring rather well on these fronts. They’ve turned us all into screenheads. All those conversation avoidance devices, the texting and twittering gizmos, means we can escape the bother of talking. It was a nice pastime.

Too bad for reading culture, too. It’s being overtaken by the watching culture – the videoization of everything. Reading books demands willed attention, whereas screenheads are conditioned to have the attention spans of grasshoppers. Heads bowed, they trundle along with their handheld devices scrolling for infotainment delights, looking up just in time to dodge telephone poles.

Writing is still around but it, too, is taking a hit from modern machinery’s advances. We now learn that they don’t even teach cursive in schools any more. Little Johnny will have fewer things to get in trouble over. In fact, the sophistication of software is reaching the point where we won’t have to write in any form. We can just talk or shout at our screens and our words will appear.

Not to be facetious, but with reading, speaking and writing on the decline, we may have a bit of an issue on our hands. It’s not the economy, dumbo. It’s the culture that’s the story, our submissiveness to cyber-world dictates and wherever they choose to lead us.

Some parents try to limit handheld device time for themselves and their kids to half a day or so. But there are no new Luddites out there and few slow-down advocates either. Most of our politicians are mum on the subject. They take a laissez-techno-faire attitude.

To suggest, as some have, that we are doubling down on dumbing down with our digital fixations is excessive. Internet technologies bring a myriad of advantages, putting all the world’s libraries at our fingertips. It can’t be that we are witnessing the shallowing of the modern mind.

But the digital revolution can hardly be said to be inducing a climate of erudition either. On Saturday, Ian Brown reported in this paper on how our history is now being taught and distorted – gamed, you might say – by video games.

Despite all the viewpoints that have become readily accessible, new technologies are being found to reinforce prejudice. Our website warriors can find a ton of material to confirm their beliefs. They find comfort in their echo chambers.

And, strangely enough, the opinion-saturated Internet world leaves little room for nuance. Everyone has access to a soapbox, and in the cacophonous din, only the loudest shouters are heard. There used to be filters to separate the wheat from the chaff. Now that many of the filters have been removed – for example, allowing online posters to peddle their vitriol anonymously – the way is left clear for cyberbullies. You get what John Manley has called “a culture of name, blame and shame.”

Exhibit A is the world’s cultural trailblazer, the United States. The debate there has become more polarized and poisonous than ever before. Viewers have moved away from the more moderate-minded CNN to Fox News ranters on the right and MSNBC ranters on the left.

Here in Canada, there’s a debate over whether the CRTC should give the staunchly conservative Sun News Network more prominent placement on the TV dial to increase its audience. Do that, some say, and provide for a Canadian equivalent of MSNBC on the left. But unless we want a media environment like the United States, we don’t need that. What we need is more debate on the reckoning – where the digital revolution is taking us and what, if anything, can be done to harness it.

In the game of humans, nature and machines, let not machines be the winner.

 

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