I’ve had an inner debate for some time between two conclusions regarding the interaction of human nature with technology. The first is that humanity as a whole is approximately about as good and evil as we have ever been—or, in more mathematical terms, the quantity of evil and good within mankind has remained essentially constant throughout history (with perhaps some fluctuations up and down). The second is that humanity is degrading, or perhaps that it degrades and revives more in cycles, and we’re currently on a down cycle.
You will notice that both of these conflict with the Progressive belief that humanity is continually improving, and will continue to do so until the end of History. (The Marxist take would be more like the ups get higher and the downs get higher until both smooth into the same global perfection.)
My second suggests to me the images and themes of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming“:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This poem circulates a good deal nowadays, given that it seems to depict the times we live in with such accuracy. Perhaps our world is spinning out of joint, is like a watch that was wound at the beginning of time and through ages of entropy now ticks more and more slowly and crookedly towards its death. Or perhaps I don’t have ability to look at what I can know of human history and determine this. My moral calculator is not good enough to regulate me, after all; so how can it make sweeping determinations about the moral quality of all ages?
Control Technology Or Be Controlled
Reading a blog post on an apparently less grand topic popped this reoccurring personal debate back up to the surface of my mind today. It was about how a mother limited her kids’ screen time by giving them unlimited screen time—if they proceed, as in a fantasy video game, through a series of “gates” first.
The mother who made these rules for her kids writes that they have actually reduced the amount of time her kids spent vegetating their minds in front of screens:
I know that if I get them up and out the door bright and early, they’ll be out playing all day. But let them sit down in front of a screen, and they’ll stay there all day. Like me, they are all about momentum. The simple direction to ‘do something creative’ would get Herself started drawing, or building. The first week, she figured out how to use a hot glue gun and devoted an insane amount of time to constructing a bizarre three story building, complete with a spiral staircase, out of cardboard and wine corks. Himself picked up a novel and wound up blowing through five in two weeks. Homework was suddenly getting done without me nagging. Brownies were baked. Rooms were tidy. And computer time, while still substantial, was contracting.
This mother deserves praise for putting forth the parental effort necessary to make her kids do what is best for them. A very large percentage of parents do not perform this basic duty. A Barna survey found, for example, that between one-quarter and one-third (depending on the type of item in question) of Christian parents were uncomfortable with DVDs, video games, music CDs, and other media they nevertheless provided their kids. Fifty-eight percent of children ages zero to eight watch TV at least once a day, and their average total screen time is two hours per day. Among babies ages zero to one, screen time (average 44 minutes per day) is more than twice as long as reading time. Even older kids spent twice as much time with the TV as they did reading or being read to:
As I note this, let me remind folks that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children before age 2. Plopping kids in front of the TV is far worse than letting them roam free about the house, because tiny brains are developing crucial networks that require hearing lots of spoken (not digital) language, seeing lots of body language, and what to mothers of active toddlers like me seems like a ridiculous amount of physical exploration. But that pincer grasp for peas and bugs at age one turns into the proper pencil grasp at age six, which is a massively important series of development if one wants to help a child develop into a literate adult. Occupational therapists are cautioning us about other effects, such as that children are more violent on playgrounds accidentally, because they have so little experience using their bodies they hit and hurtle too hard when they do get out.
Sedation through screens means a dearth in literate adults. The median number of books Americans read in a given year is five. Five. For comparison, Americans watch an average of three hours of TV per day, according to government statistics, and five per day according to Nielsen. At that rate, they could read a book a week without any trouble. Books develop and expand minds and the self-discipline of a good attention span far better than TV. Many have even argued that TV constricts minds and societies and makes us demand that everything in life entertain and titillate. Our collective leisure choices are worrisome for a society whose quality depends on its citizens, and especially worrisome in their potential to compound as increasingly less-mindful parents raise up increasingly underdeveloped youngsters.
The Butterfly Effect of ‘Help’ from Technology
So why on earth did I jump from the sum of human morality to screen time limits? I don’t believe there’s a certain perfect moral standard of screen time for all people of all ages in all places, after all. No, that’s not the connection; the connection is that quite often technology gives people powers we have not developed the character to handle. Perhaps the greatest power technology has given mankind is a massive increase in leisure.
Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute illustrates this concept repeatedly on his section of AEI’s blog. Here’s a recent comparison, of dishwasher price and quality: “The average dishwasher today is not only more than twice as energy-efficient as a comparable 1981 model, but the time cost of a 1981 dishwasher (48.5 hours) was about three times more expensive than today’s model (17 hours), measured in hours worked at the average hourly wage.” He doesn’t note here, but of course dishwashers didn’t even exist a hundred years ago.
Our current family read-aloud is “Little House on the Prairie,” and with each chapter I marvel at what the Ingalls family has to do to subsist. Pa builds his own house, right down to the wooden pegs that substitute for nails when he runs out. He lugs water from the river for Ma to wash clothes (which include diapers!) until he and a neighbor can, at the risk of their lives, dig a well next to the house. They eat cornbread and prairie chickens even for breakfast, because that’s what they’ve got. It takes them all day, every day to just generate basic necessities.
Just imagine if Ma had a washing machine and a cookstove she didn’t have to kindle from what fuel Pa gathered. Why, she’d have a lot more time to read magazines, watch soap operas, gossip, and make elaborate birthday cakes just like 1950s housewives, wouldn’t she? She’d have time to play with lifestyles like attachment parenting and post nasty blog comments whenever anyone online doubted the quality of bottle feeding as an alternative to nursing, just like today’s housewives. Spending her newly available free time on herself as most of us do would probably make Caroline Ingalls just as self-absorbed and therefore dissatisfied as the 1950s housewives whose revolt at the meaningless of their lives became the disastrous feminist and sexual revolutions. Rejecting the meaning humans derive from service to others caused these women to search for meaning in “self actualization” and sex. We all still feel compelled to tread their path, even though it clearly has recovered no lasting satisfaction for anyone.
With Great Power Comes Great Laziness
The point is that we’re all as endowed with leisure time comparable with that of the most blue-blooded aristocrats of centuries past, and we mostly use it to lay about and watch cat videos. Charles Murray, Robert Putnam, and Allan Bloom, among other social scientists, have chronicled the decline of civic engagement and overall service to neighbors within American culture pretty convincingly. We have more free time than ever, but instead of using that gift to multiply happiness for those nearby, we use it largely on ourselves, on self-referential activities like Facebook and manicures. “Me time” is a distinctly postmodern concept. So have we really gained anything from all our technological “progress”?
We have the potential good of frequent rests from our labors, yet we squander it in frivolity—giving credence to my hypothesis that human morality remains constant over time. We may have eradicated slavery and reduced the amount of effort necessary to secure air conditioning for the poor, but in our air-conditioned homes we enslave our souls through repeat video game and pornography sessions, or mindless hours on social media, and other types of comfortable social withdrawal. We have more power over our material circumstances, yet have lost the character to know what that power is for, and to follow through.
As David Hicks writes in “Norms and Nobility”:
Yet ironically, at a time when man’s power over the appearances [the material world] is greatest, the possibility of his losing control over himself and his world seems highest. The better our students understand and learn to manipulate the material universe, the less they seem to know and govern themselves… We seem destined to reach the fatal crossroads where the power of our technology outstrips the virtue of our self-knowledge, where our analytical knowledge of the parts sweeps away our normative [moral and cohesive] grasp of the whole, where cosmos returns to chaos.
Aristocrats were brought up conscious of their privilege, and commanded to use it to uplift others. Yes, some notables proved themselves unworthy of their station, but to be a true gentleman or lady meant disposing one’s talents in the service of others and cultivating one’s character and talents. Read any Jane Austen novel. A prime characteristic of a gentleman or lady is a finely tuned ability to put others first, whether it means engaging the lonely lower-class girl for a dance or cheerfully visiting and aiding those who have fallen on hard times. Now we all have aristocratic comforts and opportunities, even an aristocratic 22 years of nearly no obligations before adulthood that could dispose young people towards the nobility of character that makes for a free and happy society. Instead we spend those years telling young people to look out for themselves and that the goal of their existence is to pursue private visions of pleasure.
This brings me to another internal struggle: The morality of capitalism. Observations like this, about how material prosperity seems to encourage moral failure, make me uncomfortable with otherwise-sensible arguments like those from Arthur Brooks about how capitalism is so moral because it’s lifted millions out of poverty. Now, of course I would never support keeping people poor because poverty might help develop their character. That plus the atrocities of coercion keep me fully in favor of free markets and limited government. But if we are to have capitalism and a free society, which mean relatively few external restrictions on people, we must also have a people who regulate themselves, who adhere to a strong network of internal restrictions. As our Founders said when presupposing the necessity of a good education and a vibrantly religious society, self-government doesn’t mean libertinism. It means that people use their freedom so well government doesn’t have to step in. Freedom is impossible without virtue.
I don’t have an all-seeing eye—I “see in a mirror dimly”—and don’t expect to acquire one in this life. So, unless American civilization comes tumbling down about my ears, probably I can never resolve the question of in what kind of times we now live. I don’t know if we’re past the point of no return, if our passions have grown stronger than our self-control. But I can tell often enough when I’m out of control, and resolve that at least this knowledge will lead me to act accordingly.