I have an idea for a science fiction story featuring a race of brilliant creatures that invade Earth.
Wait a minute, you’re saying. This story has been told a thousand times, and better than you can tell it!
Not so fast, say I. This time, the invaders are militarily inept: no destructive weapons, electromagnetic rays, biological agents. These beings “benignly”, and clandestinely, help us to invent calculating machines; then computers; then PCs; then the host of communication, information, and entertainment devices we have today.
You probably suspect that the invaders plan to make these devices so intelligent and so powerful that they take control of mankind, or maybe the aliens intend to introduce brain-controlling waves into these devices to hypnotize the human race.
Nope. These creatures merely wait patiently for humans to become dependent on, and addicted to, these devices. When the vast majority of the human race is incapable of thinking and deciding for themselves, the invaders arrive and take control, to the delight of humans who can’t be bothered with anything, except the entertainment and stimulation these devices provide.
Maybe my aliens are similar to Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, or The Twilight Zone’s Monsters on Maple Street, or the world controllers of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but none of these anticipated the extent to which personal devices have transformed human perception and behavior.
Many of us are close to this disassociated, even somnambulistic, state today, and almost all of us—if we are honest with ourselves—fall into this rut occasionally. At a time when we have access to far more information than ever before, we are increasingly incapable of reasoning for ourselves, of separating reliable information from speculation or advocacy propaganda or sloganeering.
As a result, the momentarily prevalent view on subjects and issues takes over our thinking, as a tidal wave carries everything along with it. If this is the position we should take on an issue, we take it. If this is a person we should listen to, we do. If this is behavior we are supposed to emulate, we follow suit. If this is what we should be wearing, or listening to, or reading…well, you get the idea. Thus, we aren’t liberated by the content and connectivity of these devices. Instead, we are mentally and emotionally corralled.
In a recent Phillip Delves Broughton Wall Street Journal review of the book, Curious, by Ian Leslie, Broughton states: “The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance…Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”” Going deeper, Brougham says, “Mr. Leslie writes that there are two major categories of curiosity. Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel, is superficial and easily satisfied…Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study, and even profound discovery.”
We are occasionally warned of the intrusion of these devices on our time—a problem, but not nearly as dangerous as their effect on how we think and decide. For most, it seems obvious that these devices, to use Mr. Leslie’s terms, prompt diversive curiosity, but scarce epistemic curiosity.
These devices aren’t bad in themselves. In fact, they’re useful and edifying in many respects, but in the hands of those lacking formation in reasoning and self-discipline, they are lures that are nearly impossible to withstand. Unfortunately, the advent of the Device Age corresponds to a decline in the ability to reason, and in self-discipline. Watching many gaze into these devices while driving, walking down a street, eating meals, conversing with friends and colleagues, shopping; you name it—and catching myself—one gets the image of Pippin or Denethor gazing into a palantir. Likewise, the strong urge to use these devices to relieve boredom, anxiety, or the need for stimulation, is reminiscent of Bilbo and Frodo’s compulsion to put on the One Ring.
In the beginning, Egypt was an attractive destination for the Israelites, promising plenty in a time of famine. It was only later, and by degrees, that they found themselves enslaved, and even when they were offered liberation, not a few preferred Egypt’s meager room and board to a demanding freedom.
A casualty of the Device Age is silence, exterior and interior. Rather than providing an opportunity for reflection and relaxation, silence—especially mindful silence—makes modern man anxious, and is an occasion for seeking a device to rectify this uneasiness. In the meantime, those crafty aliens are biding their time.