The technology scare is not a recent phenomenon. Way back in the age of antiquity, Socrates warned against the use of letters because written words “can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.” In the 15th century, there was panic over the printing press because it threatened to put the monks out of work and corrupt their souls. Then in 1929 the Middletown studies raised concerns about social isolation resulting from the introduction of the radio. And now the widespread laments over our disconnected reveries in the Digital Age have all but confirmed the timelessness of our technological hypochondria.
It seems every era is a transitional period. The past is done and gone; the future may never come. Nothing lasts; everything changes. Long stretches of stability are only observed in hindsight. The recurrent collision course is set: the grip on the old is never completely let go, and the promise of the new is always suspect. We distrust and resent new technologies because we believe that they are unfaithful to the memories of the unrepeatable “good ol’ days”; that life now is excessively mediated and has lost its lived authenticity; and that they place our already uncertain future on even shakier ground. The source of our misery is the incompatibility of the old beliefs we so desperately cling to, and the new realities we are actually living in.
Each era is fraught with enticements and entrapments, possibilities and anxieties – turmoil abounds. While every period has its own unique circumstance, technology consistently hogs the spotlight in a form of cyclic unease. There has been no other time when this is more true than the age we now live. The culprit behind this agitation might be similar to those of epochs past, but our digitized malaise takes on a form (or lack thereof) that is quite unprecedented: we now live in an age of ephemeral permanence and permanent ephemera. The digital entices us with its imitation of immortality, but conceals the fact that it is out of sync with our transitory reality. The material seduces us with its guarantee of authenticity but is oblivious to the fact that time always wins.
The temptation of the digital lies in its resemblance of eternity. The fear that arises from digital media is that of the empty hands, of having nothing to hold. This is compensated with the unsubstantiated self-assurance that the digital artifact always lives on, perseveres in the hard drive, in the endless transmission of binary codes, in the foreboding Cloud. The digital artifact is duplicable, formless. With its sleight of hand we can almost swear we saw the face of infinity. But this immortality is out of sync with our own mortality. The digital is undateable (pun intended); it is ageless and therefore does not grow old with us. Its perpetuity threatens to push us into irrelevance.
The allure of the tangible object lies in its directly lived reality. It ages with us, and may even outlive us by several lifetimes. But just like our mortal body, their existence will surely come to an end, a full circle. Such is the delight of stumbling upon decades-old letters, the joy of passing around favorite books, the sanctity of bequeathing heirlooms. They are precious precisely because they will not last. But just as we are so adept at numbing ourselves into believing we will not die, we forget our link with the material is fatalistic and will break someday, leaving us with nothing to hold on to, adrift.
The promise of everlasting life is a hoax, and permanence becomes evanescent. If everything is transient, then uncertainty is the only thing that is certain. The horror of the new and unfamiliar is the horror of blurred vision, the horror of not being able to see clearly the path ahead. Hence, novelty is always a threat, and the extinction of our species always a possible outcome of its uncontested acceptance.
We fear annihilation because we privilege our existence over that of all others, never realizing that every human, every animal, every tree, and every stone, harbors a hidden world that no x-ray vision can penetrate, no wavelength can attune to, no rescue ship can salvage. Every death is the end of a world. It lived. It died. Gone. Merciless. The living essence of being is bleached off the face of the living. What is left is incomplete remembrance, glitchy at best.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. When life as we know it comes to an end on this mortal Earth, there is comfort to be taken in knowing there will be other beings on other planets, in other universes. And if the first law of thermodynamics is to be believed, we, too, will come back one day, maybe even eons later, in many different, inconceivable forms, not necessarily sentient, or even animate, but just as glorious. Everything that is now will be gone; everything that ever was will always be; splendidly paradoxical.
Holden Liang Qichao is a PhD student at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all pieces by Holden.]