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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!
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.
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.
of us are close to this disassociated, even somnambulistic, state
today, and almost all of usif we are honest with ourselvesfall 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 timea
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
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
itand catching myselfone 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.
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
A casualty of the Device Age is
silence, exterior and interior. Rather than providing an opportunity for
reflection and relaxation, silenceespecially mindful silencemakes
modern man anxious, and is an occasion for seeking a device to rectify
this uneasiness. In the meantime, those crafty aliens are biding their