Is the Digital World Too Ephemeral?

Give me hardcopy!

Give me hardcopy!

W.J. Astore

A concern I have about the new borderless digital world is its ephemeral nature.  Even though I keep a blog and write a lot online, I still prefer books and hardcopy.  I clip newspaper articles.  I file them away and then occasionally resuscitate them and use them in class when I teach.

Hardcopy has a sense of permanence to it.  A certain heft.  Whereas our new digital world, as powerful as it is for instant access and personal customization, seems much more ephemeral to me.

I know similar complaints have been made throughout history.  The proliferation of books was deplored as leading to the decline of visual memory skills.  Television was equated with the end of civilization, with the medium becoming the message.

Perhaps what I’m truly lamenting is the slow decline of context, together with the erosion of deep memory.  The digital world we increasingly inhabit seems to encourage an ephemeral outlook in which history just becomes one damn thing after another.

To switch metaphorical images, the dynamism and flash of the digital world is much like a landscape with lots of beautiful shiny leaves and glistening flowers to attract our attention.

Yet, at least in our minds, the landscape is rootless.  Our gaze is enraptured, our minds are intrigued, but the moment is fleeting, and we fail to act.  We fail to act because we are entertained without being nurtured.

Let’s take smartphones, for example.  With their instant access to data, they seem to make us very smart indeed.  But access to knowledge (data recall) isn’t intelligence.  There’s simply no substitute for deep-seated intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn.

Smart phones are useful tools — a gateway to a dynamic digital world. But they’re not making us any smarter.  Perhaps they’re helping us to connect certain dots a little faster.  But are we connecting them in the right way?  And are they the right dots to connect?

Those are questions that smartphones can’t answer.  Those are questions that require deep, contextual, thinking.  And group discussion. Think Socrates and his followers, debating and discoursing. And acting.

Sometimes it’s best to disconnect from the matrix, find a quiet place for reflection, sink down some roots, and hit the books.  Then find other informed people and bounce your ideas off them.  Collisions of minds in informed discourse. Competing ideas feed the completing of actions for the common good.

As the Moody Blues might say, it’s a question of balance. The astral planes of the digital world can open new vistas, but let’s not forget the need to return to earth and get things done.

5 thoughts on “Is the Digital World Too Ephemeral?

  1. Since my own school days, I guess about three generations have come to adulthood or what passes for it these days. These people can’t do simple arithmetic in their heads, like making change at a cash register. If not for that device being computerized, all would be lost. Having facts (assuming they’re accurate!!) instantaneously at one’s fingertips via a “smart phone” is useful, as long as the network and the electric grid are up and running. If they went down for a prolonged period of time? Good luck. As for thinking? That went out of style some time ago!! Don’t forget how Socrates ended up (go to Wikipedia with your “smart phone” and search for “Death” section, I guess!). If I was feeling cynical today, I might say bemoaning all this is irrelevant, as the human race has set the planet on a course of self-destruct that can’t be aborted. Nuclear weapons not required. Just keep pumping those carbon emissions into the atmosphere and watching the polar ice caps melt. What matters it if a self-doomed species is still capable of thinking, reading, writing or doing arithmetic in its head?

    • Yes, Greg. Understanding global warming is enhanced by a long-term, ecological view of nature and humanity’s interaction with it. But our technology tends to favor the short-term over the long- and the analytical over the holistic. I’m not blaming technology; rather, technology rewards certain modes of thought while causing others to atrophy. I think ecological thinking may be a victim of technology, which doesn’t bode well for our future, as you say.

  2. “Perhaps what I’m truly lamenting is the slow decline of context, together with the erosion of deep memory. The digital world we increasingly inhabit seems to encourage an ephemeral outlook in which history just becomes one damn thing after another”

    I would like to know if there have been studies with results which echo this. It would certainly be interesting to see whether the way in which people accumulate knowledge is being harmed by the digital revolution.

    • Check out “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr, and “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” also by Carr, for some studies on this question. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Pingback: The ephemeral nature of digital learning | Tourist on Earth

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