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“Look Up” and the Social Media Machine

WEB Eyes 009

Nicki Varkevisser

Matthew Becklo - published on 05/16/14

Are we losing our humanity to technology?

In one of EM Forster’s lesser-known stories, a dystopian sci-fi novella called “The Machine Stops,” we’re offered a glimpse at a futuristic humanity which has retreated from the surface of the earth into a vast web of isolated underground cells connected by “the Machine.” Each person has a cell of their own and can communicate with other people in other cells, but human contact and contact with the natural world on a whole are ancient history.

“Beware of first- hand ideas!” exclaims one occupant of the Machine. “Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element: direct observation.”

Sound familiar?

Though a bit heavy-handed, Forster’s novella was – along with a whole host of literature and philosophy from the same period – prescient about man’s growing obsession with technology in the modern world. Now, in the Apple era, we can scarcely avoid “the question concerning technology.” What is our relationship to our technology? And where is it all going?

The complex relationship between technology and social life is something that has fascinated me since I was young. My senior thesis was a digital age perspective on Kierkegaard’s Two Ages (the inspiration, incidentally, for Arcade Fire’s Reflektor), and I continued to contemplate the subject whenever possible, e.g., when comedian Louis CK’s existential rants about cell phones and human finitude on Conan went viral.

And now, enter Gary Turk.

Turk describes “Look Up,” his online short which has reeled in 30 million views in just two weeks, as “a lesson taught to us through a love story, in a world where we continue to find ways to make it easier for us to connect with one another, but always results in us spending more time alone.”

The video has drawn some pretty interesting reactions. Tim Cavanaugh at National Reviewlaments:

I find a lot to hate in this video. I hate the guy’s tone-deaf spoken-word verse. I hate his simpering, purse-lipped look and his modest brown sweater. I hate his stupid accent. I hate his sanctimonious argument. I hate his moral superiority. I hate his presumption that he’s understanding life on some deeper level than the rest of us. I hate the meet-cute-for-a-lifetime storyline that’s already been used in a million commercials for toothpaste and pregnancy tests but here is supposed to be a profound statement on How We Live Today.

Cavanaugh may have a few points, and his reaction strikes me as the type of reaction I have when I look back at my own Emersonian attitudes toward technology as a teenager. Some of my greatest friendships and successes today would be non-existent without the opportunities afforded by technology; and Turk, of course, thanked all his fans over his Twitter account for a video that would’ve never gotten the leverage it did without a miracle like YouTube. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft writes: “It’s stupid to fear technology. (A bird’s nest is a form of technology.) It’s even stupid to fear computers – our brains are computers, after all.”

But chaps like Turk are often unfairly dismissed as saccharine romantics, even reactionary Luddites. Can a passion for immersion in reality be reactionary? Don’t the 30 millions views at the very least suggest that (despite his accent and sweater) he just might have tapped into something profoundly present in people’s hearts and minds?

What Turk’s video really seems to endorse is not a revolt against all things technological, but a revolt against the other extreme – a kind of Steve-Jobsian-optimism about all things technological. His is the same intuition lurking behind some of Louis CK’s dark bits on technology, behind Kuno’s words in Forster’s novella:

We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lies. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.

As a tool to aid us, computer technology is invariably a good thing – when used wisely. And on those three words, Turk reminds us, hangs all the difference.

Turk, like Forster, sees that man’s essence can be lost in the essence of “the Machine,” and that – worse than just fostering triviality, anonymity, and a plethora of less attractive human tendencies – social media can ultimately become an ersatz distraction from the real deal, a “false creation, an imitation of life.”

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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