Being Human in the Digital Age: The Relationship Between Technology and Society

(Note: the following post is based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Specifically, it interacts with “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. These are relevant issues in our current society and I hope that you will find this post to be interesting and informative.)

The invention of the wheel changed the way cultures operated. Rather than manually moving every single item that needed to be transported, individuals were able to save time and energy by moving things via carts and other wheeled vehicles. This demonstrates the effect that technology has on the way societies function. As new technologies come to life, societies adjust and adapt to the benefits of those technologies.

To disregard the effect of technology on society is inexcusable. Postman argues that “technology comes equipped with a program for social change” and as various media become further integrated into our culture, the effect grows stronger (Postman 157). Technology has the power to, not only, change the way we act but also adjust how we think. And it has become apparent that “technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation” (Postman 157). The printing press had a massive effect on society by introducing a new form of communication, as well as a new way to think about logic and argumentation. As books became more popular, thinking often became more logical and structured. Throughout its existence, the television has redefined entertainment to the point that we often find little fulfillment in the entertainment modes of the past. Where plays used to be a primary source of entertainment, now people tend to find them boring or lacking in appeal. The Internet is redefining information and what it means to be informed in a way that we would wither in a society that communicated slowly via telegram. We must be aware that technologies “are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implications to enforce their special definitions of reality” (Postman 10). A major part of this awareness revolves around trying not to “make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture” (Postman 157).

To be human in the digital age, means to question technology and change. Humans have been given an amazing ability to think and communicate about these issues that other creatures lack. Therefore, we should be willing to thoughtfully deliberate on these ideas. We need to throw away our belief in “the inevitability of progress” and discard the idea that “history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement” (Postman 158). To just accept technology and assume forward progress is to abandon our responsibility. Postman encourages us that “no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are” (Postman 161). If we are willing and proactive in thinking about and understanding our technology, then we can be prepared to control it, rather than let it control us. In our culture it can be tempting to put technology and its benefits on such a high pedestal that we ignore the other blessings in life. We, as humans, are responsible to consider technology and also to position in the proper place in our priorities. Technology is a formidable and exciting tool and has the power to destroy society when used poorly and improve society when used well. It is our job to discern the difference between these two alternatives.

 

For further reading, check out Postman’s book.

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I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment or shoot me an email with your reactions to the post. Again, thanks for reading!

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Breaking Bad and Human Nature

[Note: the following post is intended for those who have seen “Breaking Bad.” It references characters and elements of the plot without necessarily explaining background information. It contains MAJOR SPOILERS. If you have not seen “Breaking Bad” but you plan to watch it, I would advise reading no further. Otherwise, enjoy!]

“Breaking Bad” is easily my favorite TV show and is the most well written show I’ve ever seen. Besides the stunning cinematography, complicated characters, and intriguing plot line, I appreciate “Breaking Bad” because it gives an accurate depiction of human nature. This picture is not always pretty – it actually is quite jarring, disturbing, and sobering. But it is realistic and offers many lessons for viewers to take away:

  1. Even the most normal, seemingly-moral individuals have the propensity for evil, given certain situations. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who begins making drugs in order to provide for his family. The writers go to extensive lengths to show just how law-abiding, and averse to violence Walter really is initially. When Walter’s DEA brother-in-law offers to let Walter hold his gun, Walter can barely handle it and looks obviously out of place. When Walter coerces high school dropout/druggy Jesse Pinkman to make meth with him, Jesse cannot believe that someone like Walter would ever do something like create and sell drugs. This example stands as a lesson for viewers that no individual, no matter how seemingly-moral, is beyond acting in terribly evil ways. All it took was a difficult life situation (being diagnosed with cancer) for Walter to justify this awful behavior. This leads right into the next lesson.
  2. The decline into habits of evil is often gradual and can involve a series of moral justifications. Walter decides to begin cooking meth by telling himself that when he dies, his family will need money to survive. While many people would have qualms with this decision, it could potentially be seen as at least somewhat moral. After all, taking care of one’s family is a good thing, and some might see that as the ultimate good in Walter’s situation. However, as the show progresses, Walter’s actions turn from “justifiable, but wrong” to “glaringly wrong.” Walter enters the drug industry with the idea that he can use his chemistry background to cook meth but not really get involved with the gritty, violent details of the drug industry. However, this fairytale is quickly crushed by the harsh realities of the inherent violence of professions in the drug industry. Once Jesse’s former partners attack Walter and try to get him to cook for them, Walter is forced to stand up for himself. He uses poisonous gas to kill one of the drug dealers but only incapacitates the other one. Walter takes this individual captive and wrestles with how to deal with him. Over a significant period of time, Walter goes back and forth between letting him free and killing him. At this point he has at least some sense of right and wrong and is bothered by having to take human life with his own hands. Ultimately, Walter discovers that this prisoner is planning to kill him and in a moment of self-preservation strangles his captive. This action is really the turning point, where, from then on, Walter freely kills, manipulates, and hurts people without much resignation. From making drugs to help his family to killing another to save himself, Walter demonstrates the ability justify almost any wrong action with his shifting, unsubstantial sense of morality.
  3. Justifications for evil often hide the true selfish motives. Walter begins his drug-creating life by telling himself that he is doing it for his family. And throughout almost the entirety of the show, he continues to tell himself (and others) this same thing, even when his actions clearly do not line up with this message. There are numerous points where Walter has accumulated unfathomable amounts of money and could easily stop cooking meth. But he continues which hints that he must be motivated by something other than provision of his family. The final episode makes it clear that Walter was motivated by pride and at some point began to cook meth because of the sense of purpose and power it gave him. During the final episode, tired of hearing his justifications for cooking meth and creating so much devastation, Walter’s wife says, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Walter interrupts and bluntly states the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.” Somewhere along the way Walter began to cook meth because of the pride and sense of purpose this craft gave him, rather than merely provision for his family.
  4. Acceptance is not the proper response to realization of the depth of human depravity. Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, has an awful life throughout the course of this show. He makes numerous bad decisions, but he is also heavily manipulated by Walter. In one instance Walter convinces Jesse to kill another man (Gale, for those who have seen the show) in order to save Walter and Jesse from being killed. Jesse follows Walter’s orders but becomes terribly bothered and haunted by his actions. After a significant period of isolation and depression, Jesse begins attending a twelve-step group, where the leader of the group preaches a message of self-acceptance, regardless of one’s behavior. After some time, Jesse gets fed up and blurts out, “So I should stop ‘judging’ and accept? So no matter what I do… hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just, what, do an inventory and accept? I mean you back your truck over your own kid and you like accept? What a load of crap.” Jesse understands that we can’t deal with evil by just accepting it. These wrong decisions have significant consequences that must be dealt with, which leads to the next lesson.
  5. There are consequences for evil, which culminate in punishment. Throughout the show Walter works crazily to accumulate money, however, he can never seem to get enough. At every turn, something comes up to thwart his plans, mess up his operation, and take his money. And as he desperately strives to provide for his family, his relationship with his wife falls apart when she learns of his evil actions. Thus, the very thing he supposedly works for is gradually destroyed because of his actions. And despite Walter’s carefully laid plans, in the end everything falls apart. His wife and son hate him, his brother-in-law gets killed because of him, and ultimately he dies. There is more than just a “crime doesn’t pay” moral to this story. Walt’s decline into a lifestyle of evil culminates in complete and utter ruin.

“Breaking Bad” is a sobering show and is difficult to watch at times. However, it is a good reminder of the extent of the brokenness and depravity of human nature and the terrible consequences of sin. These realities can be easy to forget or gloss over and this show does an exemplary job of acting as a reminder to its viewers. For further reading about the theological/philosophical messages of “Breaking Bad,” I would HIGHLY recommend this article. (Note: for those who will watch this show based on my recommendation, please be warned that there are a handful of inappropriate scenes throughout the series which you would be wise to avoid.)

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Especially if you’ve seen “Breaking Bad,” I’d love to here what you have to say about. Even if you haven’t, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Art and Value

(Note the following post is a based on a paper that I wrote for my Digital Culture class in Summer 2015. Hopefully you will find it interesting.)

On what basis do we ascribe value to art? What makes a Rembrandt inherently more valuable than a seven year-old’s crayon sketch? In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin argues that, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value” (Benjamin 224). Since art’s original function was ritual, its primary value must be based on this concept of pointing to something greater, outside of us. To have ritual value, the piece of art’s context and authenticity must be considered. Benjamin uses the examples of the cults of magic, religion, and beauty to expound upon this idea of art for the purpose of ritual.

Benjamin then explains that art is accepted and valued on a scale, with exhibition value at one extreme and cult or ritual value at the other (Benjamin 224). The exhibition value of art becomes apparent when artists create cultural artifacts for the primary purpose of being seen by others. Cult objects, on the other hand, were created with their main function being “their existence, not their being in view” (Benjamin 224). Cultures create art like this without man as the primary audience. Whether it exists mainly for the gods, the spirits, or oneself, cult art is not meant to be displayed and be seen by others.

In the birth of the digital culture we see a shift in the basis of art and cultural artifacts. Benjamin contends that in the photographic image, “the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value” (Benjamin 226). This movement is based primarily in our newfound ability to technically reproduce art, which has inadvertently caused our culture to value exhibition and accessibility over the higher, cult value of art. In the past we devalued art by transporting it out of its original context, but now we are further able to diminish the value of art by completely belittling its authenticity. We begin to create art that not only can be reproduced, but with the intent of its reproduction. However, this shift in value comes at a cost. As we singularly emphasize the exhibition value of art, there begins a “qualitative transformation of its nature,” to the point where it exhibits “entirely new functions,” and the artistic functions becomes primarily incidental (Benjamin 225). The purpose of art becomes reaching the broadest possible audience to the point where we completely lose sight of the ritualistic element and authenticity of art. When we see replications of statues of divinities we quickly admire their aesthetic appeal but forget the original purpose of the original statue.

As we, as a culture, shift from a focus on cult value to exhibition value, one new value has become apparent: self-promotion. In selfies, Instagram, and social networking it is clear that members of our culture attempt to use digital images to sell themselves. Whether it be for the purpose of getting a job or just the desire to be well-liked, we love to use pictures and videos to try to make ourselves look as good as we can. Self-promotion is definitely deeply interwoven into our individualistic, American “fabric of tradition,” where we pride ourselves on working hard and bettering our lives (Benjamin 223). This is the land of opportunity where you can be what ever you want to be if you just put your mind to it. As a result of this belief, art has moved away from its original ritual purpose and become a means of enhancing our appeal in the eyes of others.

 

For further reading check out Benjamin’s book.

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If you found this post to be relevant or think it is way off the mark, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

The Second Amendment and the Right to… Hunt?

I was blessed to be able to travel over to England a few years ago. Among many other unique characteristics of this trip, my Father, Grandmother, and I were able to stay with a few hospitable English families during our travels.

These visits were largely pleasant and good natured but at one point a divisive topic came up. Out of nowhere, our kind, elderly host asked something along the lines of, “Why in the world do you all insist on owning automatic weapons? Couldn’t you hunt just as effectively with far less dangerous weaponry?”

We laughed the question off without really answering it, but in my head I was thinking, “If that’s what you think the Second Amendment is all about, your government has brainwashed you all very effectively.”

I kid to some degree but at the same time this is quite a serious issue. It is no secret that many tyrannical dictators have succeeded in their endeavors by disarming their subjects. Chinese dictator Mao Tze Tung blatantly admitted this fact when he said, “All political power comes from the barrel of a gun. The communist party must command all the guns, that way, no guns can ever be used to command the party.”

Nazi tyrant Adolf Hitler expressed similar ideas, “The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms.  History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let’s not have any native militia or native police.”

This is not to say that all disarming of citizens undoubtedly leads to tyrannical behavior. However, it is far easier for dictators and tyrants to achieve their nefarious goals when they do not have to worry about resistance from their people.

This type of resistance against overreaching government was exactly why the Founding Fathers emphasized the right to bear arms. It amazes me when people say that the Second Amendment is “merely about hunting” or “was written with muskets in mind and doesn’t apply to modern guns.”

President Thomas Jefferson said, about this issue, “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” George Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Adams, James Madison, and many other Founding Fathers echoed this same sentiment repeatedly. The right to bear arms is certainly about self defense, but it also serves to dissuade government from despotic behavior.

Based on that idea and the fact that Colonial revolutionaries had weapons identical to the arms of  the British military of the day, one could make the argument that, rather than having their gun ownership limited, modern Americans should actually be allowed much greater access to military-grade weaponry?

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If you have thoughts or questions on this important issue, please leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!