Curiouser and CuriouserROGER SCRUTON
Gadgets have taken over our lives – particularly among the young, who have no defenses against them.
Of course, the print media still exist. There are old-fashioned people like myself who make a living by writing things, and old-fashioned people like you, who support us by reading, or at any rate buying, what we write. But maybe it's only people like us (if I can presume to include you) who are able really to regret the changes that are sweeping away so much that we depended upon. The rest of the world is caught up in the torrent of gadgets, each new model designed to relieve its owner of one more source of mental exercise or one more obstacle to fun. Memory now exists behind a screen. Very little is stored in our heads, and our recollections drift in cyberspace like asteroids, unconnected to the orbit in which we move.
A university teacher can no longer assume that a student has any use for books or even knows how to open one. Written letters are a thing of the past, and essays are downloaded from the sites devoted to them. Research means surfing the web, and as for social life – this is a matter of tweeting and twittering as one drifts through cyberspace. Facebook friendships bubble up in a moment, and consist in a mutual agreement between strangers to put themselves on display. More and more does it seem that putting yourself on display is what it is all about, that there is nothing more to love and friendship than being mutually visible. Intimacy and privacy are dreams of the oldies, who live down there with their feet in the mud, and don't know how to launch themselves into the ether.
One result of this is that the old laws of libel and defamation are falling into disuse. People can no longer protect themselves by suing the source of malicious gossip, and in any case the distinction between the true and the false is less and less relevant to the messages posted on the web. Anybody who has the slightest ability to attract the attention of the twittering classes will find lies, fabrications, fantasies, and lunatic accusations attached to his name in the cyber-sphere as well as true revelations that he would rather have kept to himself. In such circumstances to protest at all is to protest too much. For abuse is less and less perceived as such: the twitterers dismiss everything with a flap of the wings and blow another tweet.
Of course it is, officially, a crime to hack into other people's correspondence, and those journalists who explored the messages of celebrities on behalf of Rupert Murdoch's newspapers have had to pay a severe price, with several of them now in jail. But they acted in the same spirit as the intrusive journalists of former times who kept vigil from the house across the road, or who followed celebrities on motorbikes. Only the technology had changed. The left-wing Guardian newspaper mounted its high horse in condemnation of Rupert Murdoch's empire, implying that journalists of leftist convictions would never stoop so low. As someone whose e-mails have been stolen and published by the Guardian, I found this less than convincing. But it reminded me that journalists have always breached the bounds of privacy when they thought they could get away with it. What has changed is the technology of communication, which has implied that there are no longer any bounds to breach. People carry round their lives in a gadget, which they might leave behind on a train for anyone to pick up or throw away.
Communication is not like other human actions, something that we might feel free not to engage in. It is the essence of human life. We are social creatures, whose personalities emerge from our interactions; all that we value and all that we fear has its source in communication. Hence these gadgets, which change the form and the scope of our communications, are less our servants than our masters. The adventures to which they tempt us are easy to embark on and seem to be entirely without danger. We travel round the world with the click of a mouse; we visit friends and strangers on the screen, twitter into the void and post on our Facebook walls all the things we want the world to know. We sit at our desks and enjoy every kind of thrill at no cost in danger. So we think. In fact we are caught in the worldwide web like flies, wriggling in the suffocating bonds of communication. And we don't know the way back; we are sitting at our desks, but far, far indeed from home.
As we now know, it is not only messages but also images that can get stolen and shown to the world. What an adventure, to take a picture of yourself all naked, and send it to your boyfriend of the moment. The cell phone is there, asking you to do it. And what's the problem, when nobody sees? Unfortunately what one person sees everyone can see. Women discover their nude image in the cell phones of friends and enemies, in the fantasies of strangers, in the lustful plans of predatory men and displayed all over cyberspace. How to get back home from this one? We should not be surprised that one girl, unable to live with her prostituted image, has committed suicide, and that celebrities like Scarlett Johansson are now vainly trying to rub their naked bottoms off a million computer screens.
The problem is not the use to which the gadget has been put, but the gadget itself. These gadgets full of messages stand at the door of your life, asking to take over. And young people, who have no defenses against them, very quickly invite them in. Parents like to think that, by providing their child with such a gadget, they are providing him or her with a mere instrument, something that can be used for legitimate purposes that already exist – like letting your parents know where you are and when to collect you. In fact they are providing their child with a new master, one designed to take over the person who holds it.
Roger Scruton. "Curiouser and Curiouser." The American Spectator (November 2011).
This article reprinted with permission from The American Spectator.
Roger Scruton is a research professor in the department of philosophy at St. Andrews University, a visiting scholar of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, and a senior research fellow in philosophy at Blackfriars Hall in Oxford. He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator who has specialised in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates as a powerful conservative thinker and polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues. He has held visiting posts at Princeton, Stanford, Louvain, Guelph (Ontario), Witwatersrand (S. Africa), Waterloo (Ontario), Oslo, Bordeaux, and Cambridge, England. Mr. Scruton has published more than 30 books including, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and most recently Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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