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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Loss of significance

Steve Talbott on alienation from the world

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Loss of significance

“We marvel at the incomprehensibly remote galaxies brought near to us by the modern telescope, and know that our existence on earth would be sadly impoverished without their austere majesty. And yet, by expanding the universe without limit, isolating our vision from our other senses, and encouraging us to view ourselves as chance objects among billions and billions of objects, far from the center of things, this same telescope has whispered to many: ‘You are an accident, lost in a vast, wind-blown desert where the grains of sand are stars.’

“Things, apparently, can be brought closer while at the same time becoming more remote, more disconnected from us. ‘We had to travel to the moon in 1969,’ surmises psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in Technology As Symptom and Dream, not because it had come so near to us, but ‘because it had gone so far away.’ . . .

“If the telescope not only brings things nearer, but also transforms and objectifies space in a way that can easily make us feel like chance intruders, it is not at all clear . . . that the rockets within which we fling our bodies through this alien space are vehicles of reconciliation and homecoming.

“Home, of course, is where every child belongs. But a world that feels like home is increasingly what we deny our children — this despite the televisions and Internet connections that bring the world into the intimacy of their bedrooms. Such devices, I would argue, only accentuate the central educational challenge: how do we help the child find his own connections to the world?

“I don’t think modern technology necessarily alienates us from the world it mediates. But a lot depends on our recognizing how it can do so. And the first thing to say here is that the problem is not and never was one of scale. It is badly mistaken to think: ‘The telescope reveals the earth as a mere fly speck in the cosmic infinitudes, so of course we can no longer consider ourselves significant in the old religious sense.’ That’s as confused a bit of thinking as any nonsense for which we ridicule the ancients. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, ‘Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space.’ Nor, Lewis adds, do we really believe that a six-foot man is more important than a five-foot man, or that a tree is more important than a human, or a leg more important than a brain. 

“Spatial dimension has never been a measure of significance. When we argue today that big is significant and small is insignificant, we merely testify to our loss of any sense for what is significant.

“So if telescopes and other instruments of modern science express our alienation from the world, it is not because of the dimensional scales they introduce, but because we have tended, with their encouragement, to substitute dimension for the things that count. Employing such tools, we are invited to ignore our own significant connections to the world, which are never merely quantitative. . . .

"There are many other symptoms of our estrangement from the world. I once spoke to an extremely intelligent high school graduate who was not sure in which direction the sun rose. Bill McKibben tells of a camping trip during which he learned that adolescents who had lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks did not know there was such a thing as the Milky Way. I’ve heard an astronomy teacher lamented that, after Star Wars, students lost interest in the ‘boring’ view through a telescope, and a naturalist complain about the television generation’s disinterest in the not-sufficiently-exotic local flora and fauna.

“None of this reflects a shortage of information. The problem is that today something is substituting for the child’s intimacy with the world. And if you want to know the nature of the substitution, consider the lenses, video screens, instrument panels, windows, phones, loudspeakers, books, faxes, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and various protected environments through which we gauge our relations to the world. How can the child possibly feel that the natural world counts for much of anything at all?”

— from Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O'Reilly Media, 2007)