In a recent TV interview on a Public Television Educational Update program, New York State’s Education Commissioner stated that one of his major goals was to make “Digital Literacy” a primary factor in the lives of rural, poverty-riddled and largely minority populated areas of the state’s cities. While this commentator totally understands the importance of bringing these areas to equal status with use and availability of the latest ‘on-line’ computer equipment, the term “Digital Literacy” struck a chilling chord in one’s consciousness. Especially, given the spate of recent studies which have revealed and warned against the danger of allowing children to spend too much time, in concentration on computer screens… which these studies state is now a dire and present danger.
Perhaps the greatest danger this represents is the detriment to thought and analytical processes, not to mention the eradication in language that is the ultimate social victim of computer-dominated programming. The use of technological inventions to enhance our scientific and economic capacity is of course a vital national necessity but it’s important we keep in mind, that machines are our mechanical aids not our masters. As E.E. Morison so aptly reminded us, in 1966: “The computer is no better than its program.” (and as this commentator is moved to add: “…… or its programmer.”)
As political leaders of both major persuasions now constantly remind and spur us: that technology is the key to our economic salvation, it’s more important than ever in our cultural history and development, as Anthony Trollope put it in 1864: “…..such wisdom as many of us have in our mature years did not come from the dying out of temptation… but as the result of thought and resolution.”
Henry James, back in 1871, understood the vital importance to our nation of retaining a thoughtful and intelligent citizenry. “…to write well and worthily of American things,” he noted, “one need even more than elsewhere to be a master.” Somehow, as we respond to the economic necessity our political leaders impose upon us, we need to oppose becoming mindless slaves to their blandishments, with all the intellectual strength we can muster. Otherwise we’ll allow them to become our masters, not our selected public servants.
In his “Defense of Poetry,” written in 1821, Shelley wrote: “A single word even may be a spark of inextinguishable thought.” But Samuel Becket said it best, in a conversation with a friend, in 1978. “I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence…” he said. A potent reminder for Education Commissioners, technology pushers and single minded politicians… but mostly for us, under the growing pressures of a culture that fosters less thought and intellectual communication, in pursuit of votes, dollars and thoughtless responses from a robot citizenry. Don’t let them force us to go through the mess of this life and its relentless demands, without leaving the stain of a thinking humanity on the silence.
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