Friday, September 30, 2011

Back to Earth

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

Now that I have become the all-knowing master of time and space, I can click my way around the world in an instant, calling up information, pictures and associated details from one epoch to the next. All of history is at my fingertips, and yet I secretly long for a simpler time, one of card catalogues and dusty books and even dustier teachers with bushy eyebrows and tweed coats. I long for a guide, a teacher, but I fear they may have gone extinct.

There was a time not long ago when it seemed that whatever book was in my back pocket was leading me to certain places and people, usually older people, who were on the same path, but further along. They had followed the same curiosities and fascinations I had to a table in a café somewhere.

In the old world, conversation was the only means of finding like-minded people, and fruitful conversation required a certain amount of social hazard and discrimination. Seekers found their ways to the same hermetic circle by mysterious means, not by tracking themselves every inch of the way on Google Earth.

The phenomenon of instant information retrieval has usurped the dignity of the "cultured man" (or woman), a now mythic creature who could provide timely and apropos responses to even the most harrowing of circumstances. Their equanimity came from being rooted in "the literature," that is, in the gathering and discussion of long and well-considered opinions. In another time, this would have been called wisdom.

The cultured man would have been amused by the byword of my generation—"random"—rather than be led by it into the factoid storm of streaming digital data. The cherished narrative of soul building has given way to the facile cluelessness of post-post-modernism.


I met one of these cultured people a while back. Walter Chappell was a student of Gurdjieff. The music he played in his house at the end of the road followed the course of the rise and fall of civilizations. His sensibility was well-rounded and open to nature in all respects. He made fun of the world, yet knew how serious was the matter of being human. How precious. How immediate.

And here's the thing: I didn't find Walter until I was utterly, and I mean spiritually, lost.

The problem with our computers is that they are too good at what they do, and not good enough at settling us down into what matters. For that we need more than a flat electronic screen. We need examples. In the real world, context is everything—the space between two people—a dialectic, rather than the worship of lonely ideas afloat in cyberspace. We don't become who we are based on policy manuals, but by following living examples, by following our emotions. As social critic, David Brooks says in his most recent book, "Social Animal," "we learn from who we love."

True intelligence cannot be artificial, yet we pretend to abdicate our intelligence, and our moral responsibilities, to the quickness of computers. You can see it in our language: I have socks made of "smart wool," carry a "smart phone" and can drink "smart water." The military is dropping "smart bombs" somewhere, perhaps because they are smarter than our leaders are.

To whom do we turn when smart becomes the new stupid?

Tony Evans:

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