“…And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world…The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her arm-chair she spoke, while they in their arm-chairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well….”
“A son says to his mother, on the other side of the earth: ‘I want you to come and see me.’ Vashti watched his face in the blue plate. ‘But I can see you!’ she exclaimed. ‘What more do you want?’
‘I want to see you not through the Machine,’ said Kuno. ‘I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.’
‘Oh, hush!’ said his mother, vaguely shocked. ‘You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.’
His voice rose passionately.
‘Cannot you see, cannot all your lecturers see, that it is we who are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? 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 proceeds—but not to our goal.’”
E.M Forster, from “The Machine Stops,” 1909.
I’m old enough to remember (albeit hazily) the first days of rock and roll and the advent of color television. Yet, I’m a “young” dad in the sense that I have a five-year-old son, still work in an industry that has a significant influence on our culture, one which we will ultimately bequeath to our children. So I fall somewhere between feeling “too old to worry” and “too young not to.”
If the adage for doctors is “do no harm” and politicians is “do some good” then I’d like to suggest one of Rikaroo’s mottos– “don’t just watch”—but add to that, “watch out for what you craft.” We live in a culture with so many social, economic and political problems—some created by movies and TV– that I’d argue we should also “do some good.” Why? We’re not politicians, you’d say. Because the industry collectively has enormous power; “with power comes responsibility” is, like most clichés, rooted in truth. It’s sheer naivete (or purposeful delusion) to claim the content we create doesn’t shape the minds of those who watch. We live with what we create. Mary Shelley was saying much the same when she wrote “Frankenstein.”
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said the world’s biggest social media company is obligated to promote communities and connections among people — and do so in a positive way. “We have a responsibility to build things that are good” and which promote “kindness and empathy,” said Sandberg, speaking at the Cannes Lions advertising and media conference on June 21st.
Our (albeit smaller) mission at Rikaroo is premised on the belief that it does matter what we choose to watch, how we spend our time absorbing content, and what kind of effect it ultimately has on us. We want to curate: “we suggest your time be spent watching this rather than that”—an alternative to mass media which delivers its content based on who’s paying the most money to market that message.
So…I’m going long on this next play. (Try to catch it in the end zone):
- Technology, and the tools we use to access it, encourage (and not coincidentally, monetize) indirect means of communication rather than face-to-face, “first-person” experience (what is also known as “primary source material”) which leads to detachment from others, and detachment from direct experience. This will ultimately weaken our capacity for empathy, potentially detaching us from a common humanity that is necessary to create art.
Nicholas Carr, in his book “The Shallows,” discusses how the internet is changing the way our brains operate, in ways that are both beneficial and potentially damaging. He wonders, “Is Google making us stupid?” Our ability to read, and to think deeply, has deteriorated; college literature professors complain that it is now nearly impossible to coax students to actually read an entire book; the internet will provide the quick review.
And so another element of 20th century life, an activity that many people once considered pleasurable, disappears in the rush to merely absorb information for its raw usefulness. That might sound harsh in its condemnation of technology, but when we turn our eyes to our iPhones as the primary means of communication, are we perhaps taking a similar approach to all social contact?
We are device-plagued and conversation-deprived; if you don’t believe me, read Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation” or “Alone Together” for empirical evidence of our modern dilemma. “We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being ‘alone together,’ she writes. “A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk…he says they’re ‘too busy on their email’….a 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, ‘Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.’”
Obviously, there are good things happening in the media; any given day will supply posts about today’s “golden age of television.” Writers, producers and directors praise the medium’s potential for exploring the complexities of character and situation. And we can revel in our commentaries on these shows through “connections” we make with Skype, Facebook or Snapchat. But what about direct connections? What will happen to direct experience? Where is the primary source of experience in the 21st century? Is it all vicarious? Mediated by TV, or social media?
If kids’ brains morph due to their exposure to digital technology, then what stories will they respond to, and be educated by? Without human connection (and, not coincidentally, conflict), then how do they learn to access the nooks and crannies of the soul—the primary source material–that are the very source of creativity? An ominous example of this comes from a colleague who was struggling to get his nineteen-year-old college acting student to experience a “sad” moment for her character:
Director: Did anyone ever make you sad?
Director: Did you ever have a boyfriend who broke up with you?
Director: Did you eve have anyone close to you die?
Director: No one in your family? Not even a grandparent?
Director: Did you ever have, say, a pet that died?
In this new world order of digital perfection, there’s no bad news. Puppies don’t die, no one can recall anything bad. “Everything is awesome!” quoth President Business (cf. The Lego Movie, tongue firmly planted in cheek).
More to come…stay tuned.
 Carr, Nicholas G., “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” New York: w.W. Norton, 2010.
 Turkle, Sherry, “The Flight From Conversation.” The New York Times, April 21, 2012.