Does the internet make us better?

You’ve had the internet for 20 years now. Are you smarter?

It’s a worthwhile question — given the huge increases in time spent online and the shrinking time spent doing literally anything else. Mobile usage has exploded, data is limitless, and technologies have disrupted many of the ‘old ways’ of doing business (i.e. Uber, Bitcoin) in exchange for raw efficiency and control. But do you feel smarter, or better?

Do you feel like all the new tools have brought you more peace or control?

I don’t.

Tools are funny things. Our modern love affair with technology has placed tools center stage in a way like never before. Technological advances have always had their motivational quality for inventors and scientists, but the tech economy we inhabit now demands everyone’s attention.

Tools are no longer for some people and not for others. The internet and smartphones have instituted a whole new benchmark for what it means to be a “citizen of the world.” Try getting a job anywhere without the use of a smartphone or computer. You can’t find a job, you can’t email your application — you can’t even build a resume. And it is not that lacking a phone makes you stupid — it is that everyone else has moved on to a new medium without you. Whether these technologies are — in the end — good or bad, society has already made certain that they are now essential to live.

Should we be concerned about our fixation with instruments?

I often push back against the over-usage of devices, calling for a return to quiet self-reflection over consumption. However, Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraftexplains that our desire to use tools is not the real problem:

“Countercultural people on the Left and Right alike complain about ‘the problem of technology.’ The complaint usually centered on our alleged obsession with control, as though the problem were the objectification of everything by a subject who is intoxicated with power, leading to a triumph of instrumental rationality.”

What Crawford says here is that our desire to control our world through tools is not necessarily our downfall. “What if we are inherently instrumental?” he argues. What if “the use of tools is really fundamental to the way human beings inhabit the world?” Looking back throughout history, we see no shortage of humans using tools to their advantage. Perhaps it is in our blood? He goes on:

“The ancient philosopher Anaxagoras wrote, ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ For the early Heidegger, ‘handiness’ is the mode in which things in the world show up for us most originally: ‘the nearest association is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather, a handling, using, and taking care of things which has its own kind of knowledge.’

Crawford argues that interacting with the physical world around us is what actually brings us into a deeper relationship with it. By handling the physical — that which is outside our control — we have to capitulate to an objectivity outside ourselves. We must surrender our flawed nature to an unrelenting force, whether that be mountain climbers facing gravity to get to the apex or kayakers facing chaotic currents to stay afloat.

We are animals. We crave solutions to our problems and create efficiencies to make our lives better. It has kept us alive for millennia. The real problem now is not our desire to use devices but the bad return we are getting on our investments with these particular devices.

You can’t look at how we are using smartphones and see anything besides an obfuscation of the real: 9% of adults admit to using smartphones during sex; 12% in the shower, 19% in church, and so on. If quiet dinners, institutions, and sexual intimacy are drivers of success, we are fleeing them. Is the return we are getting really worth the presence we are giving up?

Crawford fears, like I do, that “the modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption.” By discarding the physical world for unadulterated consumption, we are abandoning the one tried and true method of learning: doing. His entire book examines the question of doingand how automation and the ‘knowledge’ economy has transformed our perception and reception of the physical world.

Tools are not the problem. The issue is our attitude of blissfully surrendering our agency to tools and hoping they solve our problems for us — all the while losing the ability to solve things for ourselves:

  • We look to tools to make us smarter, even though knowledge would be better found in practice, a book, or teacher.
  • We look to tools to increase our spare time and leisure, even though we only fill with our lives with more consumption.
  • We look to tools to increase our humanity without suffering, all the while discarding true learning that comes from sacrifice and commitment to objectivity.

It is absolutely human to use tools, but tools merely increase or decrease certain aspects and capacities. They don’t augment our reality or our humanity. If we find ourselves rationalizing this point as a society, we will eventually be horrified when it catches up with us. C.S. Lewis’ acrimony is applicable here:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

(This was originally published on Medium: