Whether we like it or not, many existentially thinkable thoughts are socially unthinkable since everybody in a given society has roughly the same semantic imprint that is regularly reinforced by assumptions that are taken for granted.
Since this semantic circuit allows us to subdivide things and re-connect them more or less on a whim, we apparently end up with what noted Polish symanticist Alfred Korzybski described as the time-binding function. This, in theory, is what allows each generation to add new categories to our mental library, connecting, separating and reclassifying things in a seemingly infinite manner. But even if we keep in mind the fact that most of the world was illiterate until the 1970s, none of this goes far enough to explain why millions of Britons think that their relationship with their computer is becoming more important than time spent with the family, partners or friends.
Somewhere out in what currently passes for our reality tunnel, a Mori poll has mapped this conclusion along with the additional commentary that two in five of us actually feel lost without our computer while one in seven of us “often talk to it”. OK… I admit that there have been occasions when I’ve shouted obscenities at my Mac. Particularly, when trying to figure out things like where my OS 9 scrapbook disappeared to, or why that nice feature showing what fonts actually look like in AppleWorks doesn’t work in Mac OS X 10.3. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked to my Mac in anyway that could be described as social or interactive. Sure, I know people that you can never reach by phone in the evening because they’re glued to the Internet. And I know others that spend hours upon hours exchanging dubious or disturbing drivel in chat-rooms. But if this is what now passes for ‘relationships’ or even conversation, then things have got a lot worse than even I imagined.
In our Western world of reality TV, talent-free music and an increasing desire for fame without function, half-shamed cynicism appears to be the only remaining ethical stance. Granted, in much of the past what we know as traditional society didn’t need, couldn’t use and for the most part discouraged the development of high verbal-skills for most. But even today, in what we like to refer to as the Information Age, most people still aren’t encouraged to be very smart – and in general, are actually rather heavily programmed to be comparatively stupid.
I can see how such programming is needed to allow the masses to fit into most jobs. And these days, it would seem that verbal skills are surplus to requirement when it comes to, say, composing text messages. Sure, this contributes to our inability to override our primitive bio-survival fears and territorial or patriotic pugnacity and allows political charlatans to erode our imprint of practical democracy with fraudulent threats of terrorism, marauding migrants and WMDs. But is all this enough to make us feel lost without our computers or to compel us to talk to them often?
It’s easy to see why traditional systems work for traditional societies. If the majority of any population had, say, an intense curiosity about what the latest quantum theories mean in relation to determinism and free-will or really cared whether or not Immanuel Kant really refuted David Hume satisfactorily, you wouldn’t have a society that would easily be led into dull, dehumanizing pasttimes or mind-numbing, dead-end jobs. You also wouldn’t have a population that would elect the likes of George Bush, think that their relationship with their computer is more important than time spent with family, partners or friends, or feel lost without them if they need someone to talk to.
I like the fact that despite the grammar, Apple likes to think it thinks different. I like the fact that Apple’s British-born vice president of Industrial Design, Jonathan Ive, has topped a BBC-commissioned poll to find Britain’s top 50 “Cultural Movers and Shakers”, beating off competition from author JK Rowling, fashion designer John Galliano and architect Norman Foster. I would also like to think that Mac users, by their non-traditional status, wouldn’t be among those referred to in the Mori poll. Nor would they ever lose their curiosity and humorous unpredictability, or cease to be ‘time-binders’ capable of handling and creating artifacts like words, paintings, music, concepts, theories, and so on, which can be passed on through reality-tunnels to like-minded others – even across generations.
British-born anthropologist Gregory Bateson defined information as ‘differences that make a difference’. This implies that the higher the level of unpredictability, the higher the level of information. Most of what we are fed by our so-called Information Age is so predictable that it doesn’t even qualify as information. And most has nothing to do with us using our brains. If millions of Britons ‘think’ that their relationship with their computer is becoming more important than time spent with family or friends, and they really do feel lost without their computer, then they obviously haven’t been assimilating differences that make a difference. And the fact that most of the people in the Mori poll must, by virtue of the numbers game, be using PCs with Windows, makes the whole survey all the more disturbing.
All ideas are not equally good. And regardless of whether or not they are existentially thinkable or socially unthinkable, you don’t need to talk to your computer to find that out.