Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A New Conundrum

This is something I'd like to flesh out a lot more at some point in the future, but it's getting pretty close to my bedtime and I wanted to at least jot the basic idea down.

One consequence of the rise of the Internet, and especially of blogs, is that our access to information is vastly, vastly increased. I'm not talking about being doubled or even tripled, but orders of magnitude. In the 1970s, when my parents went to college and grad school, they had to go to the library and use a card catalog to find books they wanted and perhaps a microfiche reader if they were looking for magazine and journal articles. To gain an understanding of philosophy, geometry, chemistry, or pretty much anything academic, you had to either slog through volumes upon volumes of essays, treatises, and compendiums or go through an abridgement by someone who had, as in a class or a digest. Once you'd spent hours and days at the library, your next step would be to type up your paper on a typewriter, using correction fluid as necessary. If you lost the physical product you then found yourself in a very, very deep hole. Even this was a huge improvement over the prior past, when you might well have to travel great distances to use someone else's library and then write your thoughts out by hand. By way of comparison, think about the Bible: first oral, then written by hand once personal contact with someone who had memorized the Scriptures wasn't always feasible, followed a dozen centuries later by the printing press and now culminating with searchable Bibles with multiples commentaries, glossaries, and concordances available to our laptops, PDAs, and perhaps soon our cell phones.

By contrast, the computer allows me to do nearly all of my searching from home, or even on the go. Just about anything that can be read today can be found online and usually searched for key words and ideas. If I don't know something then, between Google, Wikipedia, and online dictionaries, I can find the answer about 99% of the time. When I go to write a paper my word processing software allows for easy corrections (and even sometimes does so for me on the fly). Instead of carefully typing each word so that a slipped finger doesn't ruin my whole paper I can type at speeds up to 70 words per minute, knowing that my time is better spent finishing the writing of the paper and then giving it a proofreading afterwards. It helps that I'm very good at spelling and typing, but even those with more average skills greatly benefit.

My readings also aren't merely confined to reading a digital copy of Plato's writings or reading a law journal published last week in Seattle. "Ordinary" people such as Mark Byron and TS O'Rama (yes, I know that's not his real name and may not even strictly be his nom de cyber) allow me to glimpse the everyday lives and thoughts of, respectively, a faithful Protestant and a faithful Roman Catholic and let me see how they live the Christian life. Virtually every type of person, including homeless people and soldiers serving in Iraq, can be found writing about their daily lives on the World Wide Web.

I was born in 1982 and those born in my age group are at the very turning point of this recent information revolution. Computers were still a novelty when I was in elementary school and it wasn't until I took a "Tools for Learning" class as an elective in 7th grade that I learned to touchtype (on an Apple IIe, no less). My family was considered to have a computer with 20MB of hard disk space when I was in third grade and even we didn't have internet access until my sophomore year of high school. Beepers were a novelty in high school, and it was only in my Junior year of college that I finally got a cell phone. I learned how to use a physical card catalog and microfiche but had to figure out a rotary telephone myself. I don't know how to drive a manual transmission but I can create a ten-page paper comparing Marxism, Utilitarianism, and Christianity from scratch in as many hours, including research (I can send it to your cell phone in Ulan Bator, too).

There's a trade-off here, and it's one that has been present for centuries: discipline vs. power. Someone like Glenn Reynolds, who would otherwise be an obscure law professor at a state university receives millions of visitors each day to his website InstaPundit, and those who receive links from his site in turn receive thousands of visitors (it happened to me twice at my old blog. The increased power and speed of modern communication has been credited with the recent downfall of the Liberal Party government in Canada and the failure of the very recent immigration and amnesty bill to pass in Congress. That's a lot of power for a bunch of ordinary people to have in a representative democracy. We're at the point where it's extremely reasonable to think that you can carry around a handheld device that will allow you to call any place in the world while also accessing the internet and pretty much a library of the completeness of human thought in recorded history (written, visual, and aural). At the same time, I don't have nearly the same conception of time as those a generation older than me do. I get impatient if I have to wait in a line more than two deep at a store and the idea of going to the library to get a book is almost like me being told that I'll have to take my Toyota Tacoma to Japan if it needs to be serviced.

So what does this all mean? I guess it means we've got three main options. The first is to go the Amish route and forswear technology. We may find ourselves more relaxed and at peace, but with much higher mortality (especially among infants and the elderly) and vulnerability to enemies unless we have a strong group of friendly people surrounding us. We may ultimately end up like the American Indians, with 99% of our population succumbing to diseases which gradually worked their way through Europe over several centuries. The second route is to embrace everything which comes our way and try to stay a step ahead. This causes the opposite situation: we'll be more nervous and less-rested, but perhaps better able to act as "sheepdogs" against the wolves for our neighbors. Lastly, there's the judicious and prayerful selective use of technology. This may mean rejecting the use of embryonic stem cells and gene therapy, thus consigning ourselves to an average lifespan of 75 years and having to deal with a variety of health problems which afflict us. It may mean rejecting certain forms of warfare as inhumane while utilizing others which seem distasteful but may be more merciful in the long run (as I believe the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grant's use of "total war" against the Confederacy, and the use of Predator drones against unsuspecting terrorists were).

This balance is hard to find, and we need to not only realize that we may mess up and need to seek forgiveness, but also that absent a total reliance on God there's no way that we can do the right thing (although if we get the oscillations between extremes small enough it can look to the untrained eye that it's possible).

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