Progress, Technology and the Abolition of Humanity

C. S. Lewis’s now-classic Abolition of Man explores how modernist trends in education could lead to the destruction of humanity. The book is shocking in several respects, not least in its evocation of this year, today, right now. I caught myself checking the copyright page more than once, because I couldn’t really believe that Lewis’s lectures on education are now more than 60 years old. (Abolition was published in 1947.) He shares two qualities with Neil Postman. His words are so poignant on their own, given Lewis’s prowess as a writer and thinker. But the content also applies so perfectly, so completely, to our day that the book could have been written this year. A number of recent events have heightened that sense and made my reading of Lewis all the more powerful.

While I am not ready to dismiss technology out of hand, I find myself wondering more and more often if technology is in fact making us worse human beings. A couple of quotes from Lewis’s Abolition of Man will perhaps soften the ground a bit for the plow of current events.

In perhaps the most prescient paragraph in the opening essay, “Men without Chests,” Lewis explains the “pressing educational need of the moment”:

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”

Later, when criticizing the authors of a textbook for schoolchildren (he calls it The Green Book, he notes:

It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And one more quote–probably the best-known from Abolition to drive Lewis’s point home.

And all the time–such is the tragi-comedy of our situation–we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

The first event that made me wonder was the public and national humiliation of Miss Teen South Carolina. (Full disclosure: I watched and shared the YouTube video of her meltdown.) I was mortified at her answer to a relatively simple question, and what it might say about the state of American education. More disturbing to me should have been my own response, which mirrored our culture’s.

While even ten years ago her fumble would only have made excellent fodder for late-night television hosts, our right-this-minute culture–and YouTube, one of its several midwives–has made it easy to turn once-obscure fumblings into national “entertainments” with no real shelf-life. In retrospect, I thought of nothing so much as the Roman Collosseum and the “entertainments” devised by certifiable nutjobs like Nero. Sure, no blood’s being spilled, but should that ever excuse unjustified violence–even if it’s only emotional? My lack of humanity toward a young woman who is someone’s daughter surely demonstrates my own atrophied chest.

The second event that caught my eye is recounted in next week’s issue of Newsweek. The print magazine titles the article “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” The online title is more chilling–and more telling: Art, Technology and Death: A Love Story. The July suicides of two of our postmodern society’s poster children escaped my notice at the time. But theirs is no love story. It’s a tale of madness, and it suggests that the technology we expect to save us will probably speed our demise. The excerpt below sums it up, but the entire article is worth reading, if only as cautionary tale.

Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan seemed like the perfect couple: beautiful, talented, successful and deeply in love. But beneath the idyllic surface is a darkly modern tale of obsession and paranoia fueled by instruments of a digital age. Duncan and Blake built their lives around computers and the Internet, using them to create innovative art, prize-winning video­games and visionary stories. But as time progressed, the very technologies that had infused their work and elevated their lives became tools to reinforce destructive delusions and weapons to lash out at a world they thought was closing in on them. By the end of their lives, this formerly outgoing and affable couple had turned cold toward outsiders. They addressed friends and colleagues from behind electronic walls of accusatory e-mails and confrontational blog posts, and their storybook devotion to each other slowly warped into a shared madness—what is known as a folie à deux.

Lest we think that such a tragedy would be unthinkable for anyone we know, ask yourself is anyone you know who is neck-deep in technology. (Chances are, they are under the age of 25.) By neck-deep, I think of people who exist in the real world as shadows of themselves, only expressing themselves completely through a filter of pixels and ether. As a college minister, I saw a number of young men disappear into video games, letting flesh-and-blood relationships and other activities languish while they built experience in an online world, or fragged gamers down the hall without ever seeing their faces.

Now, anticipating the but-buts I’ll probably hear from some of my friends, I know that such situations are not the norm. I know that there are plenty of well-adjusted gamers out there. But I think Neil Postman was right in Amusing Ourselves to Death, and that our modern world has seen the realization of a prophet’s vision. Though elements of Orwell’s 1984 seem to have found expression in our society (surveillance, the dissolution of rights in the name of security), the Western world, and America in particular, has far more in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As Postman writes in his Foreword:

[In] Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think….In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The intervening paragraph describes the differences between these two dystopic visions: Orwell feared book-banning, while Huxley feared widespread dismissal of books; Orwell feared information deprivation, while Huxley feared information inundation; Orwell feared truth concealed, while Huxley feared truth overshadowed by trivia; Orwell feared “a captive culture,” while Huxley feared a “trivial culture.”

Was Postman right? Watch a newscast some night, or surf YouTube, before you answer.

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2 thoughts on “Progress, Technology and the Abolition of Humanity”

  1. Postman is right to invoke Huxley, in my opinion. The parallels between our society and the one in “Brave New World” are remarkable and unsettling (in spite of the book still being hyperbolic. But then again, maybe the only things standing in the way of us realizing Huxley’s vision are deficiencies in our current techno-prowess. If that’s the case, shouldn’t be long. )

    I’m not certain, but my hunch is that the average American has a certain view–a skepticism, perhaps, or dislike–of people who don’t share his techno-worship. What might we call people without care for or possession of cell phones, the Internet, television and film, or any other kind of the latest of the latest? Antiquated? Primitive? Backward? In “Brave New World,” Huxley calls them savages. And I can’t help but wonder if knowledge and experience of technology, and the media it delivers, is becoming the metric by which we judge sophistication.

  2. I agree that both Lewis’ and Postman’s writing seem prophetic. I must have flipped to the copyright date 3-4 times when reading Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    I was listening today to a podcast from the Worldview Academy guys entitled “Kill Your Cell Phone.” The host does not have a cell phone primarily to help him in his desire to live a contemplative life. He also spoke about a perceived drop in self reliance due to technology. There is no reason to learn or remember things if you can call someone in any situation to help you out.

    Does Google now provide answers for life the same way calculators provide answers for long division?

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