Why, Complicator? (Okay, Computer.) – On Technology | An Excerpt

I am writing a long essay about technology. Its thesis is fairly simple:

  • We live in an increasingly ugly world.
  • To escape its ugliness, we seek diversion. Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, Farmville, or any number of games we can play on our mobile devices, many are integrating an ethic of escapism into their daily lives to avoid, most often, the content of daily life.
  • Because we can escape the world’s tedium, sadness, decay, and horrors, we lose the impetus to make things better, to set things right.
  • Why strive to live a better life when we can escape into our own digital heavens? Distraction, more so than efforts to improve the situation, might prove more effective now and in the future at helping us avoid tiny personal and larger global hells, so to speak.
  • I believe technology will save us from suffering, this at the expense of sensitivity and empathy and cognizance of our collective humanity. We will become insular individualists, and suffer from “autism”, in the early 20th-century definition of that medical term.

Using a computer was once a social, integrative activity

The introductory paragraphs, and bits and pieces from a few others.

As I was driving into Chicago earlier this week, on the Stevenson expressway, I saw a very large billboard which proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that Judgment Day will come sometime this May. I believe said the 21st. It was an advertisement for a Christian radio station, located at 91.9 FM, and, finding myself bored of NPR and in the mood to exercise the critical thinking muscles putatively strengthened in college, I decided to take a listen.

And what I heard was not surprising. Before God we are sinners; we must prostrate ourselves and plead for His mercy; we must know that His secrets are His, and are sealed away in a special Bible; the coming Jesus Christ is the only one able to unseal it. Unbelievers will descend into eternal hellfire, will be consumed by the Beast, be deafened by the thundering hooves and blaring horns of the approaching Apocalypse. And that’s all well and good. The radio host quoted from biblical texts with facility, but his message seemed a little out of date. Dante’s Purgatory might be updated. Its setting: I-55, crawling around in morning rush hour. Christian talk radio is the Inferno of the mind.

But his message rang loud and clear: believe in, adopt, and practice this doctrine; take it into your being such that the line between you and it is obliterated. Do this, he said, and you will be saved from an eternity of horrors.


Escapism is a fundamentally solitary pursuit. Whether sitting in a movie theater, reading a novel, listening to the radio or music, or even just daydreaming, the vast majority of escapist activities are mental. There is nothing more supremely, singularly solitary than the internal dialogue between that kernel-level personage you call you and the oft-silent counterparty: either the creative work, or that etherial conversation partner–simultaneously one’s self and another, a stranger–to whom you make your arguments, and whose counterarguments strike you viscerally.


Defined by the OED, “Autism” is a condition which has its onset in childhood and is marked by severely limited responsiveness to other persons, restricted behavior patterns, difficulty with abstract concepts, and usually abnormal speech development. Some of the earliest uses of the word were in scientific journals in the nineteen-teens. In the improbably named American Journal of Insanity, in 1912, Hoch asserted that “the chief traits which had existed before the mental breakdown were those which I had at the time called shut-in tendencies–tendencies to which Professor Bleuler has recently applied the term autism.” Carl Jung, translated in 1916 by C. E. Long noted in his Papers in Analytic Psychology that Bleuler’s “autism” was much like Freud’s “auto-eroticism”, though “[Jung] employed the concept of introversion for this condition.” A then widely-circulated clinical definition of autism described “a mental condition in which fantasy dominates over reality, as a symptom of schizophrenia and other disorders.”


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