The Subtle Influence of Cyber Worship

For some time now, I’ve watched the world around me succumb to the allure of today’s computer technology and all the gadgetry that goes with it. It’s occurred to me more recently, though, that this fascination with the exchange, acquisition, and manipulation of information has altered our sensibilities in ways that would have seemed contrary to common sense just a short time ago. When I came across the term “cyber worship,” then, I immediately had an apt label for the phenomenon I was witnessing — an explanation of sorts for this blind devotion to all things digital.

First, we’ve unwittingly let our adoration for technology change some of our most firmly held views. Consider that we once expressed outrage over receiving two or three pieces of junk mail every day, but now willfully plow through tens of e-mails every evening. And that we used to fight telemarketers more fiercely than Braveheart battled oppression, but now fork over hefty sums for cell phones and messaging services that interrupt us repeatedly throughout the day (and night).

Were we wrong for wanting simpler lives and more of our time for ourselves? Or has cyber worship knocked us one hundred eighty degrees off course?

Second, we’ve placed high-technology on a pedestal, paying it reverence it doesn’t deserve. A friend of mine, a design engineer who has spent his adult working life surrounded by the latest CAD equipment and software, was truly astonished when he learned that the military’s Stealth technology dated back to the 1950s. He’s also confessed that he can’t believe we ever made cars without computers.

More recently, I heard a caller on a radio talk show gush about the compact disc and digital technology. Isn’t it amazing, he said, that we can pop a small disc full of 1’s and 0’s into a machine and out comes Abbey Road? Well, yes, it is. But it’s really no more impressive than pulling a stylus through the grooves of a vinyl record and turning mechanical vibrations into Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Or passing magnetic tape over a playback head and translating electromagnetic signals into Rubber Soul.

This notion that the world emerged from darkness only in the last ten years or so puzzles me. Then again, cyber worship is an intoxicating elixir.

And third, we’ve adopted the idea that our computer technology — with its seemingly infinite software tools, communication capabilities, and boundless access to information — can somehow shortcut the learning process, even replace education altogether. I remember my cousin saying to me, just after I graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver, “Hate to tell you, but I have a computer program that can do what you went to school for,” suggesting in her inarticulate way that my English education was utterly worthless, having been replaced by grammar- and spell-checking software.

Her remark was more fascinating than offensive, though, because it revealed that she, like many others, naively sees the computer as a sort of surrogate brain, one that’s able to miraculously tackle all the intellectual tasks that once required our knowledge, insight, reason, experience, and imagination.

The appeal of having someone or something do our work for us is nothing new. Cyber-worshippers, however, have taken the loathing of labor to a new level, fostering the notion that even education can be subrogated with the click of a mouse.

This idea of education without effort is one upon which Internet access providers advertise their products and services. While a radio commercial from last summer proclaimed, “Minutes after handling our high-speed Internet, Jane Doe graduated from college, earned her master’s degree, and is now working for NASA,” a piece of direct mail bragged, “With our high-speed Internet, your kids can do research for all of their school assignments faster than ever before.”

Study faster? Get through school more quickly? These are weighty claims, promises that can’t be made good on.

Perhaps there’s a connection between these assurances of faster, easier learning and the nation’s rising high-school dropout rate. Are kids buying into the notion that a laptop and the Internet can provide them with all the education they’ll ever need, that school isn’t important? Or are they broken by empty promises, leaving school disillusioned after discovering that there are no cyber-shortcuts to learning, that education is indeed demanding, difficult, and time-consuming?

Jonathan Swift’s “Frame” (or Writing Machine)

I’m reminded of the scene in Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, where Gulliver meets with one of the Grand Academy’s instructors and is then shown his device for improving “speculative knowledge” (Jonathan Swift’s celebrated “frame”). “Every one knows how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences,” says Gulliver, “whereas by [the professor’s] contrivance, the most ignorant person [can] write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, law, mathematics and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.”

Swift’s scholarship-without-study satire is almost prophetic.

Why we worship so fervently at the feet of today’s technology is a mystery to me. Man, since the day he set foot on earth, has conceived and brought forth one astounding advancement after another. We should have been impressed long before now.

But we should never hold technology in such high regard that we allow it to thwart our attempts to make life less complicated and more meaningful. We should never let it lure us into underestimating our intellectual powers or discounting our past accomplishments. And we should never allow it to seduce us into believing that there are shortcuts to the things that only time and hard work can give us.

Technology will continue to take us places we can’t predict or imagine. But let’s not let it keep us from where we’re going.

After years of teaching and tutoring student writers in university environments, Ron now works with writers in a pseudo-scholarly setting.