The Decivilizing Process

Gradually the elements add up, and the most trivial devices may someday become the most important things. Voice recognition, if it ever does all its proponents promise, will make the work we do at our computers continuous with everything else we do, the talk on phones, the talk in meetings, the commands we give to car dashboards to turn down the air conditioning, the instructions we give to our children. As the specific addressee of any set of remarks becomes less important, in the midst of more and more babble, it will become more and more difficult to remember the special status of listening human beings, in the confusion of shouted orders. This is where one starts to enter the realm of science fiction. But just such science fictions of endless, constant communication and control by voice are now being advertised to those who can afford them.

Maybe it’s time to reintroduce an old distinction between savagery and barbarism. In their loincloths and bowing to rain gods, savages were people without advanced technology. Barbarians, in contrast, were people with technology. Plenty of it. But they gained it without maintaining the values that created it. They sacked the cities, pillaged the countryside, moved onto the estates, and used the mosaic baths and the wine cellars as long as they could. We can try to remember: the world has eliminated most of its savages, but it smiles on barbarians and says they have the most advanced civilization in the world. We in America created the technologies ourselves. And we ourselves misuse them.

The separation of technology from science was one fateful step, and science from philosophy a second step, and philosophy from the search for a moral life a third. And the steps lead down, while the buildings rise and the missiles fly. Thus it became possible for a nation that doesn’t believe in Darwin to elect an ape as its President, and equally possible for that ape, who doesn’t believe scientists about the warming of the earth, to call for engineers to build a missile shield in outer space. Our new technologies always open the possibilities to the best, and somehow open the floodgates to the worst. The benevolent uses of the phone, the internet, the weblog, email, and so forth, ride like bits of cork on a great tide of waste.

What’s odd about so many modern technological improvements is that they are achievements of human liberation in their emergency uses, and they decivilize in their daily use. The cell phone came into people’s lives as a kind of walkie-talkie or emergency radio of infinite range and convenience. If you were stuck on the highway, needed to report a mugging in progress, or had to tell a friend you’d be late, you were saved. Fifty minutes a month was too much for such purposes, and the early calling plans didn’t go much past that. And yet the plans that now offer 700 minutes of talk, plus free nights and weekends, or unlimited calling altogether, are still not enough. The internet was going to keep emergency communications up if the rest of the civilian grid went down. Even the blog, the log on the web rather than the log of the web, arose for people who had to speak their minds, in diaries—we do miss those early blog diaries—until, with the proliferation of links, the true online diaries seemed to disappear. Gradually, the decivilizing process, by this array of devices and images that we employ upon ourselves, will undo our thoughts, our speech, our fantasies. That’s an emergency, too. Only who do you call about it?

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