Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley

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pregnantPregnancy brings unaccustomed insight. For instance, I used to look around me and realize that everyone, including the dirty drunk on a park bench, required someone to go through hours of agonizing labor to bring him into the sunlight. Some woman, whether she consciously helped or hindered, nurtured the new being for nine months, offering the best of her body’s resources to a  tenant who would never be able to repay the rent – true whether the mom is a doctor or a drug addict. The fragility of the whole human endeavor, and the perishability of the robust daughter I eventually bore, used to bring me almost to the point of tears – also unaccustomed.

I realized that a huge amount of what we call “civilization” goes into maintenance. I estimated about a third of an individual’s lifetime, and about the same percentage of a society’s resources, goes into rearing and educating the next generation – whether, for an individual, it’s teaching kids to refrain from punching a pal in the sandbox, to eat with a fork, and to appreciate the finepoints of Bellini, or, on a societal level, building a school, funding studies on infant mortality, kicking a few bucks to the old alma mater, or supporting neighborhood basketball court.

Now, however, we’ve become a society “where children, metaphorically speaking, believe that adults need their guidance and tutelage,” according to the latest from Robert Pogue Harrison. It’s not so metaphorical, actually. I’ve often considered that our technological world is being driven faster, ever faster, by 15-year-olds with time on their hands to text hundreds of messages a day, to tweet their most trivial and transcient feelings to the world. Those who hold jobs, have children to feed and clean up after, math homework to correct, or a subpoena to respond to, don’t have time to fiddle with their smartphones or figure out Pinterest. And yet we must keep up, keep up, keep up – or lose our jobs and our social connections, lose our “relevance” and fall hopelessly behind.

Robert is on the same wavelength. In “The Children of Silicon Valley,” a strong and scathing essay on the New York Review of Books blog, he begins:

Harrison as DJ

Harrison as radio host. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley, almost every new start-up representative at a high-tech conference ends his presentation with the programmatic words, “and this will make the world a better place.” When Steve Jobs sought to persuade John Sculley, the chief executive of Pepsi, to join Apple in 1983, he succeeded with an irresistible pitch: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the “dark times” of the first half of the twentieth century, “with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,” Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption “The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs—which are the needs of mortals—when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.”

Hannah_Arendt1

She knew.

We purchase connectivity at the price of solitude, and, as I’ve written before, the very essence of the humanities is to teach one to be alone. Many of us have forgotten how to read, as opposed to scanning. Books are mere sources of data, not keys to meaning, clues to understanding another time, another place, another human being.  Quoting Thoreau – “Be it life or death, we crave only reality” – Robert adds, “Alas, Silicon Valley has enriched its coffers thanks largely to a contrary craving in us—the craving to trade in reality for the miniature screen of the cell phone.” He writes:

With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

Silicon Valley, and everything it stands for metonymically in our culture, has indeed affected billions of people around the planet. The innovations have come fast and furious, turning the past four decades into a series of “before and after” divides: before and after personal computers, before and after Google, before and after Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, and so forth. In the silicon age, ‘changing the world’ means at bottom finding new and more ingenious ways to turn my computer or smart phone into my primary—and eventually my only—access to ‘reality.’

Read Robert’s essay here. Okay, okay, it’s a little bit of a rant at points, but Robert is an intelligent and provocative Jeremiah, and his words are worth a large audience. Another one of the skills that has gotten lost in our times is the ability to consider different points of view impartially – to be able to rub elbows with strangers who are not like-minded, not in one’s Twittersphere or Facebook circle. You don’t have to buy his whole argument – but you can, at least, look at it. It’s easier than being pregnant. Trust me on that one.


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5 Responses to “Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley”

  1. Linda Cicero Says:

    Hi Cynthia, the photo of Robert Harrison is from the studio at KZSU where he records his radio program. He does interviews but I don’t think he spins records so not a DJ. Harrison as radio host would be more accurate I think. –Linda

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Linda, for the clarification. You also reminded me that I left off a photo credit, which I’ll add (with humble apologies).

  3. George Says:

    Indeed, vastly easier in the sense of being possible.

    I did read Mr. Harrison’s piece, and thought very badly of it. A good deal of what gets talked about as far as Silicon Valley goes does not interest me. But does he know more about the tech business than what he sees on TV and reads in novels?

    “I have seen young teenagers who just yesterday were ebullient, verbal, interactive, and full of personality turn into aphasic zombies within three months of getting a smart phone or an iPad.”

    I know a number of 25-year-olds, whom I first met why I was the dad driving the unlicensed around. They have had smart phones and iPads since such devices became available. At every point, they have been lively, articulate, and personable. Do they sometimes text while one talks to them? Yes. Has Mr. Harrison ever made an reflexive response to something said to him while he was reading? I have.

    “Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night. These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices.”

    They may not shine at the cocktail parties of the literary set. Many distinguished programmers are excellent writers, and not only on technical matters. Quite a few are decent musicians.

    “The new wine is dying on the vine, and Dionysos, the telluric god of ecstasy, is nowhere in sight.”

    S.J.Perelman called this putting all one’s metaphors in one basket. I’ll go the author one better and say that it is noble rot.

    “It is unlikely that the next big digital innovation will lure him back.”

    Foomf. I wouldn’t walk to the corner, let alone Boeotia, for prose like that. And couldn’t you see the maenads as a flash mob?

  4. Stephen Says:

    Although as a country English teacher with mud on my shoes I can’t comment on the relevance of Harrison’s critique of technological culture, I can say that your observations in the first two paragraphs of this piece are wonderfully insightful. Thank you for them.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re certainly welcome, Stephen!

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