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Is the increase of technology a net good or bad thing?

Thursday, March 1, 2007
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HH: As you know, for the last eight weeks, an hour a week, I’ve been talking with Thomas P.M. Barnett about his book, The Pentagon’s New Map, about the thrush, this rush of global connectivity, technology exploding and being given out in the third world, the second world, the fourth world, wherever. And yesterday, I passed along a presentation by some technophiles who point out that China and India and all these great parts of the world are connecting up, and knowledge is explosively expanding, 3,000 books a day are being published, the amount of information that is traveling, the potential is skyrocketing. What’s it all mean? Shift Happens is what it means. Everything is shifting. But is it good? To discuss that question, I brought in our two renaissance men. From the United States Naval Academy, Professor David Allen White, scholar of Shakespeare and much else, and from Biola University, where he leads the Torrey Honors program, Professor John Mark Reynolds. Gentlemen, welcome. I think I’ll start with John Mark Reynolds, since he’s the technophile. What do you think, Professor Reynolds? Is all this connectivity a good thing for the world?

JMR: It is a wonderful thing. And though as a conservative, I don’t believe Utopia will ever come until as a Christian, God comes and rules and reins on the Earth, I think that this is going to be an overwhelmingly positive thing for Western civilization, and in the history of humankind.

HH: And why is that?

JMR: For two reasons. First of all, the kind of people who’ve had a monopoly on ideas, and a monopoly on the ability to talk, have not been people friendly to a traditionalist, traditional Christian point of view. And as a traditionalist, and also as a Christian, any breaking open of the barrier to communication has to be positive. But secondly, I believe that though all men and women are fallen, and so the ability to talk will allow bad people to talk more. I also believe in aggregate, that our bentness, our brokenness, is actually washed out more, so that if more people are able to talk, if we have more conversations, in aggregate, the stupidity and sinfulness will check and balance itself in the same way that the founding fathers thought that the more people we put in government, the more branches we had, in aggregate, the fact that men are not angels, would be checked and balanced a little bit more.

HH: Professor David Allen White, your reaction to the first question to John Mark Reynolds’ explication of his point of view?

DAW: Well, I watched the presentation, Hugh, and was quite overwhelmed by it. I mean, the numbers are staggering. But I think what troubled me is it was all numbers. The entire presentation was dealing in quantitatives, this incredible outburst of…you know, I can’t recount them all, fiber optics, the number of computers, the bits of knowledge. But what is left out, it seems to me, is any sense of the qualitative. And my concern is precisely that, that there is less and less chance, I think, for real reflection or meditation, given the speeding up of everything in our world, from the amount of information on the information highway, to what I see what’s happening in the Beltway around Washington, D.C. Everything is indeed going faster and faster and faster, from fast food to fast romances and fast marriages, and fast college degrees, but I have a very real question about the quality of what’s being done, the necessary calm that has to be there for reflection, in order to develop an inner life. And that’s what I find most disturbing about what I see happening around me.

HH: John Mark Reynolds, your response to that?

JMR: Yeah, I’m not disturbed by it at all, because the fact that I can do a thing doesn’t mean that I have to. And it is certainly true that when we invented the electric light, families were able to scatter to every different room of the house, and not be in the great common room, which we had to be in, because of the expense of heating and lighting the entire house. But what calm and reflective people can do, people will be leaders anyway. If you’re not calm and reflective, if you make big, important decisions on the fly, at the speed of the internet, you’re going to make a fool out of yourself. Leader types, the kind of people who will be calm and reflective anyway, will go on being calm and reflective, will just waste much less of our time that could be spent being calm and reflective, getting information. It took me, Hugh, seven years during grad school in the late 80’s and early 90’s to get access to one particular book which I could now purchase almost immediately online today. And that gives me more time to read the book and think about it. The second thing that’s true, and this is excellent news for a classicist like myself, and like my colleague, is that brands with built in identity, like Plato and Shakespeare, and yes, Elvis, are going to do better in this new world, because in the swamp of mediocrity, preexistent brands like Plato and Shakespeare, that people know are smart, and that smart people know they should read, are going to be dominant. People are going to look for quality. My only concern is that it’ll be harder to find a new Shakespeare. But you know what? The new Shakespeare will be known in aggregate, and will eventually rise to the surface. I think we’ll find more Shakespeares, because more people will have a shot at becoming one.

HH: David Allen White?

DAW: Well, the past only gave us one, and I think that was pretty spectacular to begin with.

JMR: Agreed.

DAW: My fear, I guess it’s sort of Gresham’s Law, of the new communication media, and the information highway, that I would disagree. It seems to me what’s going to happen is that the bad currency is going to drive out the good currency, just as it does in economics. You know, it’s interesting. I watched the presentation, and it seemed to me that what was going on, in the comments about the job market, that within the first…a man of 35 years of age is going to have at least five different jobs.

HH: Yup.

DAW: I find that stunning, and it’s the reason why I go into the wine store, I never see the same people twice. When I go into the restaurant, I never see the same people twice. I would very much disagree with the notion that we’re going to become more connected by becoming more isolated. I think that common room of the family being together was essential, and I also think commonality in the social order, knowing people in the neighborhood, having somebody at a job who can master the job, and really become a craftsman over time, I know for a fact in anything I’m good at, I learn by watching others who are good at it, and it took a lot of time. It just seems to me it’s going to bring instability, and on top of that, the isolation, I think, is creating this incredible hunger for celebrity. I checked out Google to see what people were actually searching for. The numbers were incredible, you know, millions of searches on Google every minute or something. So I checked out last week. The top ten searches were: Britney Spears, Antonella Barba, Bridget Moynihan, American Idol, Tom Brady, Dancing With The Stars, Black Snake Moan, I don’t know what that is, I can’t imagine. There was lunar New Year, Ash Wednesday and Lent in there as well. But it just seems to me in the same way that we now have My Space, I was stunned. 106 million My Space users? And each one of those My Space sites is hit 30 times a day? That’s suggesting incredible loneliness, isolation, and I fear we’re turning into an atomistic society of little tiny atoms spinning around on our own.

HH: Well, I’ll go to John Mark Reynolds in a moment, but I do want to ask you, yesterday, for lecture purposes, I had to assemble, and was able to do it in about ten minutes, examples of Monet’s Haystacks, Bierstadt’s Rockies, a picture of David, Moses and St. Peter in the Chains, you know, a half dozen pieces of art that I needed to talk to law students about. And then, someone pointed out yesterday that all the works of Shakespeare are in the public domain, and are available to anyone with a mouse and a connection, Professor White.

DAW: Absolutely.

HH: Isn’t that a good thing?

DAW: No, because easy accessibility seems to result in less interest. And there is the sense that that which is most valued, and most prized, demands a bit of work. If it is that easily accessible, it seems to me there is going to be less interest in it, rather than more, and you’re going to have more people downloading info on American Idol, especially the young. I mean, I guess I see it, and it frightens me with my students, who are more and more interested in pop culture, and the battle to try to get them interested in anything of substance is very difficult, as well as their own ability to concentrate, and really discover what it is that these great works have to offer.

HH: 45 seconds to the break, John Mark Reynolds.

JMR: I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t think people in the Victorian Era were thinking about things we hoped they would think about. I think now, we know what students are thinking about, and we don’t like what we see, but I doubt that would have been any different if Mr. Chips could have read his students’ minds. The second thing is I don’t think accessibility will cause lack of interest. My students become more interested in the authentic. If accessibility caused lack of interest, Britney Spears would have no career, because she’s the most accessible in every way of anyone I know. Her whole career seems to be based on total public exposure. You know, the fact that she could be popular isn’t shocking to me, because in a fallen world, most people make bad choices.

– – – –

HH: When we were going to break, we were talking about whether or not the technology explosion, and this volcano of information and the ability to get it and access it, is it a good thing or a bad thing, John Mark Reynolds, I think Professor White made a good point before we left that this is all indicative of narcissism…

JMR: Yeah.

HH: …that all these My Space pages being visited 30 times a day, 29 of those are probably the person who put it up there, and that narcissism works a true evil on people’s souls. Your reaction?

JMR: Well, I think people were narcissists before My Space was invented. Now, they just get to publicly expose their narcissism, which might have the benefit of causing other people to point it out to them. I think the second thing that’s true is I just don’t think it’s right that you can’t form real community to a certain point online. I have my current job, and one of the deepest friendships I’ve ever formed with Philip Johnson at U.C. Berkeley, because as an isolated grad student, I got this weird thing called e-mail. And when I heard Phil Johnson debating on National Public Radio with Eugene E. Scott, I contacted him by this weird thing called e-mail. We have been engaged in a conversation that’s now multiple notebooks long, hundreds, thousands of pages of dialogue between the two of us. Eventually, because we’re human beings, we met. Humans have bodies, and so you need for deep friendships and deep teaching, to meet people. But I would never, Hugh, had been able to do what I’m doing now if it weren’t for the miracle of the internet, which put an isolated Republican philosopher in a department where people were fair to him, but not agreeing with him, in front of a mentor across the country who could spend time with him, helping him grow and start something like Torrey.

HH: David Allen White?

DAW: Well, there used to be things called letters, Hugh, and I guess one of the things that troubles me about e-mail is that it will all vanish. In 99% of the cases, that’s very good. And I won’t get into the question as an English professor of what’s happening to spelling, grammar, punctuation, in e-mail messages. That’s a nightmare of huge proportions. But I will say this. The sad thing is, given that kind of friendship, relationship communication that Professor Reynolds was just speaking of, which is obviously a very good thing, it is extremely unlikely that that sort of thing will be preserved the way it used to be. Letters were precious, because they were rare. And it wasn’t that long ago when a volume of the letters of Evelyn Waugh was brought out, and I remember one reviewer saying it’s sad to recognize this may be among the last books of letters that we will find, that the letter is vanishing, and the notion of following a human personality develop over time, through correspondence, or even a book of correspondence just between two people, the wonderful volume of the letters of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote is something I fear that soon may be lost to us, and I believe that’s a real loss.

HH: Now John Mark Reynolds, I did hear Doris Kearns Goodwin give a lecture on Lincoln a couple of weeks ago…

JMR: Yes.

HH: …where she remarked upon the 300 odd letters that Seward had exchanged with his daughters.

JMR: Yeah.

HH: And there is not going to be that record anymore.

JMR: No, there’s going to be something better, and far from losing history, we’re going to have so much, that the only danger I see is that we’ll overinterpret. I don’t know about anyone else, but I wrote a really unfortunate letter at one point defending the Green Bay Packers’ head coaching staff against charges of incompetence, that appeared on Packer Plus, and my students occasionally dig it out to snort at my belief that Brett Favre didn’t have the goods mentally to be a first rate quarterback in the NFL. The closest thing to immortality, in fact, almost scarily so, are what I write on a blog, because the internet just goes on preserving things. So my students who blog, and many, or it not most of them do, are going to have a record and a transcript of discussions that they were involved in, infinitely more detailed, varied, and I think, often interesting. I have first rate students who say first rate things to each other online. We’re almost going to know too much about their intellectual development. If Tom Ward, one of my students who just did an Oxford first in philosophy, and is now at UCLA, ever becomes famous enough so that somebody writes a biography about him, the problem is going to be you’re going to know too much about his online life, and it’s going to be hard to separate out what you want to write about.

HH: Now let me throw a statistic at you from today’s Wall Street Journal, both professors. Microsoft is aiming to sell 12 million Xbox 360 video consoles this year, Sony expects to ship 6 million PS3 units by the end of March, and Nintendo’s sales target is 6 million Wii consoles by the end of March. Obviously, the number of hours that each of those consoles represent is hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of time spent playing games, Professor White. Your reaction?

DAW: And they will go to the kids.

HH: Yes.

DAW: These are the children who will be spending their formative years, those precious years, playing pointless games. And what’s beginning to alarm me is that the one result of this is a detachment from anything like reality. We bandy the phrase virtual reality around, but that is becoming the world in which more and more of these kids live, and you see them when they’re out in what I think of as the real world, they’re not quite sure how to function, or they are still carrying with them that phony virtual reality world that they have grown up in, and spend much of their day in. Another real worry of mine is not just alienation from family, neighbors, friends, the restaurant down the block, but also the fact that we are becoming more and more alienated from the rhythms of nature, and once you get away from those rhythms, you’re getting away from that which was designed by the Highest Creator of all, to shape the way we live our lives from day to day, to month to month, year by year, and these children are growing up without that knowledge, and I find it very disturbing.

HH: John Mark Reynolds?

JMR: Yes, maybe it was because I grew up near rural West Virginia, or spent a lot of time there, and had a grandmother who was so happy to leave the country, and the rhythms of nature, that her goal, successful, was to die under a streetlight, because she viewed the profligate energy pouring from it as one of the great signs of Western civilization, that I say thank God for the Nintendo Wii. My in-laws just visited. We had more in common as we sat around playing Nintendo Wii Bowling, which my sixty-some year old father-in-law, who has a very different profession than my own, and I, and my children, my smallest children, were able to play together. If I could send Nintendo more money for the Wii, I think I would, just as a thank you. The second thing is, of course technology can be abused. Of course I have students struggling with internet pornography. Of course if you let your son or daughter play hundreds of hours of unsupervised video games by themselves, that’s bad.

HH: Break, break, break.

– – – –

HH: I just received an e-mail from my tech guru, gentlemen, named Hal, not for the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “As someone who has labored, however insignificantly in the trenches of the computer revolution since the 1960’s, the phrases that both of your guests is looking for is self-organizing social networks, and they are already very much prevalent among the under 20’s, and yes they are Second Life, World of Warcraft, the Walled City, a radical shift in the way we humans will relate with each other. But whether the wheel or fire or moveable type printing presses, they say with a legion, march or die.” John Mark Reynolds, it is possible now for everyone to find the people they like the most, to isolate with them, to conspire or aspire with them, and to cut everyone else out. Doesn’t that fray our ability to live with each other?

JMR: Yes, I think what we need to realize is that anytime we give people tools, it’s scary. I’m for people being able to own guns. I also admit that if people are no good, giving them guns is scary. But I believe in the right to bear arms. In the same way, we’re giving people the right to information. We’re giving people the ability to isolate themselves only with people they like. And bad people are going to go to hell in a hand basket faster than they used to. But the fact that I can sit with my kids, and watch a Shakespeare video that in a previous generation, only the wealthy would have been able to afford to see, means that for those who will step back and use these tools appropriately, we’re not entering a golden age, but we’re entering the potential of a golden age. And the other thing that’s true is exactly what Hal is pointing, which is this. This revolution is here to stay, and though it may have unintended negative consequences, the best way to fight them is to embrace the revolution, preserve like a good conservative, the best of the old, and move forward. It’s Disraeli, along with Trollope, who said if it has to be buried, let it be my hands that bury it, because I’ll save what can be saved.

HH: David Allen White?

DAW: Hugh, I will grant…look, let me grant a couple of things. Absolutely, it’s great to have access to information. A colleague of mine gets sick, they need someone to cover her Victorian literature class, she’s teaching Tennyson’s Tithonus. I can’t find the poem on my shelf, I don’t know where the book is. I can call it up on the internet, have it in a minute, walk into class to teach it, taught it many times before. That is a great convenience. But again, your point of little isolated communities is absolutely true. And what is happening is that when we then get out in public and have to deal with each other in public, you can see the rage increasing. From road rage to rudeness in the supermarket to people in…it’s turning up everywhere. And part of it is we’re used to talking at a distance with others like us, and we are not used to being with other people, even in our own families, which is one reason I’m convinced that the family itself is coming apart now. I cannot see, I cannot see how sitting at a keyboard and a screen, going clickety-clickety-click has the same kind of effect as a group of people sitting together in a room talking or walking. When I grew up, before the TV invaded, every night after dinner, the neighbors walked up and down the street, there used to be this thing called front porches, and people would stop, go up to the front porch, and talk. I can still go through, I can name all the neighbors, all the way around all four sides of the block. Now, I can’t name more than two neighbors that live within five miles of me.

HH: John Mark Reynolds?

JMR: I agree with that totally, and authentic community, if you want to call it this, incarnate education, teaching people how to recapture those values, is going to be, I hate to call it a market for the future, but a market. It’s going to be something people desperately need and want. So as we get new tools that enable us to abuse those tools, one big thing educators are going to have to do is reintroduce students to some of these joys. And I want to tell you something, Hugh, I have students who when they become introduced to sitting in a room and discussing things with people and telling stories, they don’t bring their I-pods to class. They turn everything off. Tonight, I’m going to have scores of students sitting in a room voluntarily, for no college credit, simply hanging with each other, doing theater, doing authentic dialogue about things like Shakespeare, because they’ve learned to love it in a sea of inauthenticity. So really, this is the Church’s moment to shine if we’ll grab it, or traditionalists.

– – – –

HH: Gentlemen, you’re both classicists, so I’ll raise this with a little bit of introduction. From Plato’s Republic, at the very end, there comes the Myth of Er. And in the Myth of Er, souls that have lost their lives are choosing their next life from among a variety of lives spread out before them. And the last to choose is Ulysses, and the valiant one hunts around and rummages around and finally picks the life of a quiet, remote, anonymous farmer. John Mark Reynolds, it would seem to me that Plato, at least, would be with David Allen White here.

JMR: I don’t think so, because Plato also embraced the new preserved media. He moved from the Homeric oral culture to the more written culture of philosophy, while embracing also a knowledge of its falsities and its defects. He wrote in a dialectic style that would engage the middle class Athenian, and pull them into a discussion. Now it’s certainly true that if someone’s going to become frantic and busy, and be consumed by their tools, be dominated by them, that they’re in bad shape. But I believe that I’m empowered as a lover of Plato to not be controlled by people who used to control me through the control of access of information. But instead, I can stand in front of them and say no, I will choose this quiet life, and I won’t be cut off from information, or from great theater, or from anything else, because you no longer have that power over me.

HH: David Allen White?

DAW: Well, Hugh, my sincere hope is that one day, we all have to make that choice that Ulysses makes. Let me give you White’s crackpot theory. I’ve been putting out this crackpot theory for a long while, everybody thinks I’m nuts, but with each passing day, I believe it more and more. And it’s simply this. We, as a society, as a world, have become totally dependent on these machines. From the refrigerators to the computers to the televisions to the microwaves, you name it, and it all depends on one thing, and that is electricity. And I am absolutely convinced the day is coming soon, how I couldn’t tell you, when I couldn’t tell you, the power’s going out. And when the power goes out, we’ll then find out what is in people, and how they are able to deal as human beings in a simple world, when all the toys and gadgets are taken away. I’m uneasy, but I think in terms of basic survival, it’ll be a grand time, and farming will be essential if people are going to eat, and we’ll get back to the basics.

HH: Well, Frank Gaffney calls it the Electro-Magnetic Pulse. It’s the EMP weapon, so you should consult with him. He’s worried about it, too, David. Now…but put that aside. I want to get to the other one, which is given that the seven deadly sins…my friend once told me that the Devil arranged for the collapse of the Berlin Wall, because he was doing better on our side. And given that all of the seven deadly sins are certainly accelerated on the internet, and I mean them all, doesn’t that necessarily mean, John Mark Reynolds, that more souls are in more peril than ever before?

JMR: More souls are in more peril than ever before, because more souls exist. But no, exactly the opposite is true, because anything is really good, because if it exists, it’s good. It can only be twisted by the Devil. So all this information, all this sea of creativity, is fundamentally, at the deepest level, a reflection of the image of God in people. And the Devil may twist it, he may break it, he may try to use it to corrupt us, but in the end, this fundamental crying out towards God, this fundamental cry of existence, will cause it to be a more positive thing in aggregate than a negative. You know what? People have been predicting the end of the world and the fall of the West based on technology for 150-200 years now. But I would rather be alive today, with the problems we have today, than in 1950, or in 1920. I’d rather be facing the problems we face, and they are great and mighty, than facing the problems that faced the United States in the 20’s and 50’s. Our best days are ahead of us, Hugh.

HH: Professor White?

DAW: Well, sufficient unto the day is evil thereof. I mean, this is the time that we were chosen to live in, so here we are. I do think it is true that one of the horrors of the internet is easy access…I’ve a friend who’s a priest who said that what is going on in terms of internet pornography and souls is positively frightening, and I don’t have to repeat…

JMR: I agree with that, by the way. I think that’s right.

DAW: I don’t have the details, but he’s a very good man, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up. The other thing is, you know, I have the question of truth out there. I mean, I have students who will take anything off the internet. Got a paper on Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 22, a student telling me it was written to Marguerite. It was news to me. I went to the website, Ben Jonson wrote the plays of Shakespeare, all the sonnets were attributed, written to various women. And when I told the student that this was hooey, he looked at me as if, “Who are you,” compared to what’s out on the internet. And the website was spectacular. So it is a perfect place for the father of lies to operate. And again, in virtual reality, it’s a wonderful place for lonely, isolated children to be taken advantage of, and boy, we don’t even know what’s going there as well.

HH: John Mark Reynolds, you get the last minute of this segment.

JMR: I can’t argue that there are horrible things going on in the internet, and I agree that parents need to take caution. It puts a bigger premium on personal relationships and parenting. But I’ll say this, the access to information, just like the access that came with free markets to the ability to produce wealth, will in the end, by God’s help, produce a great burst of freedom, liberty and opportunity on the planet.

HH: You know, I don’t disagree with that. Obviously, productivity, David, you’re not making the economic argument, because it’s just undeniable that the more technology you spread among more people, the more productivity you get.

DAW: Well, it’s very clear right now. It’s one of the things on the presentation, the Shift Happens presentation, China’s now ruling the world. Their stock market sent rumbles throughout the world yesterday, and in terms of the amount of our debt that they control, whoa, yeah, we’re interconnected in that way. Again, I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

JMR: And China is rapidly Christianizing from the bottom up, and so if I had to bet on anything, I’d bet that the people who care most about the great things, the Western things, are going to be found amongst all those Chinese honor students. And what we need is for our secular elites to get their heads out of the sand, and stop following Al Gore down the doom and gloom path, begin to have the confidence to have children again, classicly educate them, embrace technology in the future.

– – – –

HH: I want to thank Dr., Professor John Mark Reynolds, from Biola University, where he heads the Torrey Honors program, and Dr., Professor David Allen White, where he has been teaching Shakespeare at the Naval Academy for 25-plus years, both good friend of mine, a great conversation. Gentlemen, this all got started by this lecture that I started, and then I read the Shift Happens website, which will be linked along with a transcript of your conversation today at Hughhewitt.com later tonight, but it all began by trying to contrast beauty with obscenity, and by getting my law students to answer that question what’s the most beautiful piece of art they’ve ever seen. And so I was fascinated by their responses, so I want to ask both of you. John Mark Reynolds?

JMR: The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen personally is Michelangelo’s David.

HH: That was on my list, yeah. David Allen White?

DAW: Curiously, Hugh, it’s also in Italy, it’s Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, done for the Scrovegni family, and paintings of the life of Christ, absolutely stunning.

HH: So you will take those paintings or the chapel as a whole?

DAW: I’m going to call the whole chapel a work of art, but if I had to choose one of the many, many paintings in there, it would be the Deposition From The Cross, just an incredibly, exquisitely beautiful and heartbreaking moment.

HH: Well, fascinating. Thank you both, gentlemen, always a great pleasure. I appreciate it, look forward to talking to you again on this, and we’ll continue the conversation.

JMR: It was great fun.

End of interview.

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