Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age
reviewed by Jeremy Lott
Quentin Schultze’s new book is blurbed by Mark Noll, Richard Mouw, Lewis Smedes, and Eugene Peterson, among several others. The foreword is penned by essayist and philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. Judging by the quotes, these writers all see this book as a trustworthy guide to help readers better understand our hyper-connected future. And they’re all wrong.
Which isn’t to say that Schultze is wrong about everything. This “polemic” (Elshtain’s word) gets many details correct, and its restraint in not calling for a new anti-technological Dark Age—as several former geek titans of Silicon Valley have done—is admirable. And let me state right here and now that I’m in favor of living virtuously, in this or any other age. But Schultze’s deep suspicion of all things technological gets in the way of a clear picture of how the information revolution is playing itself out and thereby renders Habits of the High-Tech Heart (Habits hereafter) useless as a guide for the digitally devout.
In the foreword, Elshtain writes of an appearance she put in on the Lehrer News Hour, along with an unnamed dot-com multimillionaire. When she raised the question of the so-called digital divide (i.e., the gap in access to technology between the young and rich and the old and poor—the haves and the have-nots), his physical reaction was “one of bemusement and disdain.” And so the exchange went: She was a “fuddy duddy”; he was “utopian.” And so it goes: Schultze’s favorite targets flopping around in a barrel are overheated tech visionaries, who think (or thought) that processing information faster will cure hunger and illiteracy and make the jpg lion lie down with the audio-streamed lamb.
Neither Elshtain nor Schultze considers whether the smirk was justified, in this instance or in dozens of others. A massive survey released last year by the US Department of Commerce found that, between 1997 and 2001, the gap was quickly narrowed, with over 2 million surfers going online per month by 2001. Looking at data from this and other surveys, Washington Post business and economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson decided that the idea of a brick-wall-like digital divide was “largely fiction.” My own conclusion, stated in a brief article for Reason magazine last summer, was that, “as with televisions and refrigerators, the online gap between rich and poor appears to be closing quickly as the technology becomes commonplace.”
I guess that could be considered a minor detail, but to my mind it’s emblematic of much of what appears in the rest of Habits. Schultze complains, “Most of the cyber elite . . . too quickly dismiss . . . legitimate concerns about our high-tech future.” Much of what is now occurring in cyberspace includes “dishonesty, incivility, immorality, and foolishness of all kinds.” In fact, our technological innovations are said to be developing faster than our moral sentiments can manage. Schultze uses a son’s angry words at the sentencing hearing of his father, who had been convicted of murdering his wife—“Delete. Delete. Consider yourself deleted from our lives”—to argue that “technological-mindedness” is shaping the language and blurring moral distinctions.
Yes, all kinds of tomfoolery goes on in cyberspace. People swear and waste time and lie and swindle and download bad music and look at porn. This is bad, but is it new? Is it unique? Does the medium inherently encourage such things, or should we blame good old-fashioned fallen human nature? As for the Internet warping our moral language, I had rather a different impression of the example he cited. Here is a man who has been proven guilty of taking the life of his own bride, and her son is grasping for words to explain the revulsion he feels toward his old man. An image comes to mind of a curser backing up over what has just been written, making it as though it hadn’t been. One can disagree with the metaphor and the sentiment behind it, but if it isn’t a well-formed and well-stated moral statement, then neither are many of the imprecatory or lament psalms or, for that matter, the book of Job (“Would that I had never been born”).
Schultze emphasizes several times that technological developments are not “morally neutral,” and before reading this book, I had accepted this idea with little protest. As I watched him weave one development after another into a sinister web, however—well, things got interesting. Where he saw an unwarranted orgy of information without wisdom (“promiscuous knowing”), I saw, yes, a lot of junk—but also genuine learning, prayer lists, people arguing passionately about things that matter to them. Since religion is important to people, we may be seeing the emergence of a much less naked digital public square. For example, quite a few Catholics—some orthodox, some less so—have created an unofficial cyberspace community that Kathy Shaidle of RelapsedCatholic.com dubbed “St. Blogs.”
Or take instant messaging, e-mail, and telecommuting. Habits sees these things as a sign of growing rootlessness. The bonds of space that once bound us to our work and town and church are being frayed by technology. E-mail is fussing up the language and people are substituting the online variety for real friendship. I don’t deny that any of this happens, but neither is it anywhere close to the whole picture. Telecommuting often allows parents to stay closer to their children and gives a few workers some freedom from otherwise tyrannical employers. E-mail encourages communication between people who couldn’t bring themselves to send letters. Friendships—real ones—are struck up online and continued in the non-digital world.
Habits was a frustrating read because Schultze only occasionally gives a nod to the upside of the information explosion of the last few years. He acknowledges that this technology can be a good thing if used with some moral scruples, but he too often assumes that this is an original insight or minority opinion. It’s not. People using the Internet are still people, with the usual mixed bag of motives and enthusiasms. They use this new medium for good as well as evil, which makes the Internet not “morally neutral” but paradoxical.
Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture: A Christian Review. He writes the weekly “Latte Sipping” column for the American Spectator Online.
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