Opinion: We are slaves to our shiny screens


That thing in your hand, that glittering screen. It’s dangerous, and you know it. You feel what it has done to you and what it will; you feel bound, less human.

That amazing embryonic thing: a phone that has become you in just a matter of years, in an eerie post-human birth.

Gabriel Marcel writing more than 50 years ago: “In our contemporary world it may be said that the more a man becomes dependent on the gadgets whose smooth functioning assures him a tolerable life at the material level, the more estranged he becomes from an awareness of his inner reality.”


It reads like prophecy now, the obscure warnings of a minor philosopher. He was talking about the radio, and now his words better fit your phone or whatever screens you can’t do without.

Materially we’re still in awe, but spiritually we know something’s changed. We all sense it, each of us discomfited, even if we can’t find the words for it.

Martin Heidegger, that odd rustic, said “we remain unfree and chained to technology” whether we know it or not, and we’re simply blind if we don’t see that technology has changed us, changed our world and even being itself. Although ultimately hopeful, he was sober in his warning that technology is both dangerous and challenging. He said we should watch over it and question it, “instead of merely gaping at the technological.”

But which is it, good or evil? Utopia or dystopia? Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, called it the “technium,” the gathering together of living minds into a technological transcendence, a new metaphysics, a new consciousness that will “reroute our sense of a soul,” our inklings of God. We are, he suggests, at the dawn of a new Axial Age in which our sense of absolutely everything will change, brought about by technology we may have invented but will not control, like an unbound Prometheus.

Good or evil is beside the point. Try to disconnect; you can’t. There will be no restoration, no renaissance, no return to whatever way it was. All questions now can only be about the future, about a dialectic paradise promised by the progress we ourselves set in motion, by technology we ironically dreamed would make our lives easier and empower us but has done the opposite.

That addiction, that tick, that nudge to check your phone every few minutes: It’s the beginning of a new sort of servitude, a more perfect incarceration.

For some us this is frightening, the dissolution of the organic, dissolution of the human. Talk of all things technological: the cloud, augmented reality, meatspace, even Pokemon Go — all of it foreboding of a divorce of soul from body, of humanity from the earth. Frightening for some of us. At least for those of us who liked being human.


Which is why the most important thing is to remember that we’re human and to remain so. Fools and presidents will not be the ones to enslave; rather our masters are the screens we hold in our hands, which we’ve allowed to whither us like a billion privileged Gollums.

It’s our predicament as well as our test: whether we’re still human enough to renounce the tyranny of all those glittering screens.


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