And lead them not into temptation
But deliver them from evil
- Lord’s Prayer, paraphrased
It was the day after Christmas, Boxing Day in Anglican circles. I was en route to the Party Store to get plastic table clothes to cover the dining room and card tables which would soon be covered with snacks and potluck offerings.
We could not have asked for a more beautiful day. Temperatures were in the upper 70s, mostly sunny, nice cool breeze. The party would be able to spill outside onto the deck and into the yard. These are the days we cherish here in Central Florida, our repayment for enduing far too many weeks of ungodly subtropical heat that have only increased in number and intensity in these days of climate change.
“And a Little Child Shall Lead Them…”
Ahead of me on the street I saw a family walking, two parents and a little boy no more than 3 years old, likely headed for the park around Lake Underhill at the bottom of our street. He was the typical curious child, darting here and there to examine the many amazing things he discovered along the road that fascinate three-year-olds.
It was a joy to watch him.
Sadly, his parents did not share that joy. Indeed, they were almost completely unaware of him. Both of them stumbled in and out of the street, texting zombies oblivious to the world around them – including their little boy.
I slowed down instinctively, as I often do on this street leading to a main north/south artery. There are a number of children living in this neighborhood which once housed WWII veterans who had retired from nearby Orlando Air Force Base, now Executive Airport, when we first moved here in the mid-1990s. Over the years we watched those vets age and die and their families move away. In their place have arrived new families with children and dogs.
For a brief second, the mother looked up from her cellular device and barked a command at the little boy to stay out of the street. Just as quickly she was right back to the device, unaware of whether he actually heeded her command or not. The father never looked up at all.
The child waved at me, huge grin on his face. Down to about 5 mph at this point, I smiled and waved as I drove past. Coming to the cross street a few feet away, I turned toward my destination in the shopping center.
In the rear view mirror I could see that the parade of the oblivious led by a child proceeded unabated.
Grieving Lost Opportunities
As I turned the corner, a wave of sadness swept over me. Sadness for this child, orphaned by the clever ploys of consumerist advertising which had successfully convinced this couple that the most important things in life could only be found on the tiny screens of their cellular devices. But more importantly, sadness for his parents and their squandered opportunities.
They had taken the time to actually get out of their house and take a walk on a beautiful day. But they were essentially unaware of that beauty. As intently as they stared at their screens, the day could just as easily have been marked by an approaching firestorm.
Worse yet, they were missing the joyful, excited discoveries of their little three-year-old boy, discoveries that will all-too-soon cease to amaze and delight him in the wake of a waning childhood, no doubt soon to be replaced by the mediocre life of an obedient consumer.
Indeed, this child probably has little chance to become anything other. Children learn expected adult behaviors by watching and then imitating the adult authorities in their lives.
The behaviors these parents were modeling will no doubt be perfected soon in this child’s life, ready to be passed on to yet another generation of well trained consumers. In the end, they will rear a child at risk for deficient interpersonal social skills and prone to public behaviors that can at best be described as excessively self-focused if not simply rude.
But perhaps the saddest part of that entire encounter was the implicit message their behaviors clearly and powerfully communicated to this child: You are unimportant. At the very least, you are less important than the tweet or the Instagram or the snapchat I’m consuming.
The excitement of this three-year-old and his joyful discovery of the world around him had proven to be the loser. The winner? Never ending waves of hypnotic intellectual pabulum reduced to the reading and intellectual level this child will hopefully attain and surpass very soon in his educational process, all conveyed on a medium from which complex thought is effectively banned.
Imagine a lifetime of trying desperately to convince yourself that you are at least as worthy of attention as the latest viral cat video.
Technology Always Outpaces Ethics
Our behavioral scientists are increasingly telling us that our awareness of and voluntary encounters with the natural world are decreasing. There is no small amount of irony in recognizing that these declines are almost in perfect inverse relationship to the steady decline of that natural world in terms of extinctions and displacement of natural populations due to climate change.
There is almost a sense of repressed anxiety if not actual guilt observable on the part of a human animal population whose behaviors have become essentially parasitic on its own biosphere. Our cellular devices are not simply means of keeping us electronically sedated, they have become very effective means of avoidance and denial of the actual harm we are doing to “this fragile earth, our island home.” (BCP 1979)
As with virtually every other form of innovation, the arrival of any technology comes well before the ethical considerations of its usage occur. Indeed, most technology related ethics are responsive in nature and often are considered only in the wake of unpredicted and often destructive results of its initial employment.
Neil Postman detailed this pattern in his book Technopoly. Postman observed that in technologically driven cultures, any innovation in technology is inevitably seen as progress regardless of its nature. Thus, the presumption that attaches to such innovations is that they must be engaged without restrictions and without consideration for possible consequences.
Now, consider the innovation called the atomic bomb. Consider the rush to use the bomb, to see its effects demonstrated on a human population, even as the strategic need for such a weapon of mass destruction at that point in the conflict with Japan was at best questionable. Consider the presumed need to impress upon our then ally, the Soviet Union, the power of the post-war United States using the lives of a half million Japanese civilians as the means to that geo-political end.
It was a decision that would kick off an incredibly expensive “cold war” – both in terms of natural resources and human lives – that would consume the attention of the world for four decades. And, finally, consider the terrifying, nail-biting moments of October 1962 when frightened school children like me were being taught to duck and cover in our classrooms as the world came within a whisper of self-annihilation using its horrific new technologies.
Unforeseen consequences can prove deadly.
It Doesn’t Matter Whose Fault This Is
There are those who argue that the declining social interaction skills and boorish behaviors that begin online and spill over into real life and the detachment from nature that we readily observe in our daily lives is nothing more than a generational shift. That might be more convincing if we did not see grandmothers weaving all over the highway in the middle of the day when intoxication is an unlikely explanation for that behavior and middle aged semi-truck drivers texting at green lights, oblivious to the sea of honking cars behind them.
The truth is, many – perhaps most - of us have a problem with our personal use of our technologies. But undoubtedly, we all have a problem when those individual behaviors are extrapolated to a societal level as everything from accident rates to poisoned electoral processes attest.
In becoming well-trained consumers we have clearly lost some of our humanity.
While I tend to hold my own Boomer generation accountable for allowing their children and now grandchildren to become texting zombies, I recognize that many of us are engaging in the same behaviors. In the end, we are all well trained consumers.
But at a very basic level, it does not matter who is to blame. Where the problem arose is at this point immaterial. Once it is clear that there is a problem, the only questions that remain are whether, when and how the problem will be dealt with.
Like the college freshman who wakes up hungover and wonders “How did I get home last night?” s/he no longer has the luxury of naiveté. Clearly, there is a problem. That problem exists regardless of how it came to be a problem. The only question now is how to respond to it.
It is the duty of mature human beings to learn from their mistakes and evolve to a higher level of functioning as a result. Similarly, it is the mark of a responsible human society to learn from its mistakes in the uses of its new technology and to rectify the unforeseen problems that technology has spawned.
That time has come.
On the way home from the party store, I came to a stop behind a black BMW SUV at a red light. The light turned green. The SUV remained in place. A few seconds expired. The SUV did not move. Behind me someone blew a horn. No response from the SUV. Another horn sounded and then a symphony of horns. Finally, I blew my horn.
Suddenly the SUV lurched into motion, speeding down the highway, probably to avoid any contact with the angry motorists he had left behind. Some of them fail to make the light before it once again changed to red. One wonders how long it will take for the first such frustrated motorist to speed up to catch the offending driver, reach across their seat, pick up the gun many now legally carry and register their discontent with the source of their frustration.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2017++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++