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July 27, 2013

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When everything is a click away, our faculties atrophy

ON Monday, while I was living with the full consequences of my breakfast at a well-known American junk food franchise - painful spasms and diarrhoea - millions of my young compatriots were experiencing misery of another kind.

On that "Black Monday," a seven-hour breakdown of WeChat - China's popular social networking app - led to widespread anxiety and unease.

According to a Wenhui Daily report ("Have you been hijacked by WeChat?" July 23), a woman surnamed Ding said she felt "deserted without WeChat."

During the seven-hour imposed abstinence, many other people similarly experienced loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

Most felt lost, and did not know what to do with their time.

In their despair, many repeatedly checked their mobiles, reinstalled apps, or switched to other networking tools.

In an interview with Wenhui Daily, an educator explained that this incident suggests that many people have been hijacked by the flickering screens in their palms, hence the need for them to reconsider the essence of communication.

It can be clearly seen that the condition of being hyper-connected is not only a point of pride for progressive youths, many of them have been pathologically addicted to this tool of communication.

In their infatuation with the virtual world, many addicts are often oblivious to the real people and things around them.

So when dishes are served in a restaurant, the first thing many people do is to take pictures of the dishes and post them online. The rave reviews from their virtual friends can be more palatable than the dishes themselves.

Technological solutions

One of my relatives posts an excruciatingly detailed record of her five-year-old son, his meals, his words, and teachers' comments.

In a recent case, a young woman was still posting while conscious of being stalked. She was killed by her stalker.

In his "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism" (Public Affairs, 2013) author Evgeny Morozov focuses on the concept of "solutionism," which holds that high tech can solve the world's problems.

This new book builds on the author's earlier book "The Net Delusion" and features his astute take on history and human complexity.

Morozov shows how those who worship technology and the "Internet" oversimplify the problems they believe to be solving and, in the process, fail to honor the richness of an embodied, contextualized world.

Solutionism reframes complex social behaviors into simple problems with clear solutions, and its facile model of people, society and motivation ignores cultural context.

"Technological amnesia and complete indifference to history (especially the history of technological amnesia) remain the defining features of contemporary Internet debate," Morozov writes.

This amnesia is more than figurative, for human beings, now being cripplingly dependent on Googling for knowledge and advice, are suffering atrophy of vital human faculties. This represents the acme of tech-business control.

But technological solutions tend to present a very flattering picture of the status quo, for although the best poems were written in the Tang Dynasty (618 AD-907), the best ci were created in the Song Dynasty (960 AD-1279), and the best qu composed in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), we cannot but have pity on those people who make so much fuss about the perennial process of budding, leafing and flowering in the nearby woods.

To say the least, they did not have cars, air-conditioning, television, and, of course, the Internet, and a reasonably progressive people today cannot but view these deprivations as inconceivable and crippling.

When technology becomes the point of departure in any sphere of life, we become estranged from our natural habitat, the sky, the stars, the breeze, and the birds.

As we are out of step and out of touch with the natural world, we cease to be reflective.

We do not realize that the dominance of technology has been a fairly new development.

An emperor in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), dismissing the many novel Western inventions as corrupting, once rebuked a courtier adorned with a pocket watch: "Cannot you tell time without that gadget?" he asked sarcastically.

Solutionism misreads human reality, proposes ways to solve problems based on that misinterpretation, and then proclaims the problems "solved."

This attitude enables human beings to be focused on neatly defined short-term objectives that appear to be eminently attainable.

Never at any time have so many products been so efficiently churned out as today, thanks to powerful machines.

Push to quantify

But we still find the world less than ideal, as policymakers East and West all agree that the No. 1 evil today is the lack of internal demand, or lack of consumption.

In other words, we human beings, being less dedicated, fail to keep up with the machines.

In this glorification of human greatness in the age of technology, human beings have been eviscerated of all their inner richness, as they decline into something in perpetual servitude to the greater machines.

As a result, our total worth, aspiration and well-being can be neatly summed up in ever-higher GDP figures.

As the book claims, the push to quantify everything distorts many of the things it seeks to count.

As the most important things in life - values, ethics, aesthetics, poetry - do not lend themselves to precise measurement, this obsession with quantity prevents us from paying attention to important facts of life.

As Morozov claims, "celebrating quantification in the abstract, away from the context of its use, is a pointless exercise." Quantification hide ideologies and imposes blinders.

The term "The Internet" itself represents a collective myth about the online world, its meaning and how it works.

Technological visionaries might solve some problems they set out to fix, but as Morozov states, they also might create more problems along the way.

For instance, helping remote "backward" rural area gain Internet access is widely perceived as the correct thing to do, for information access is believed to be uplifting and emancipating.

But few people talk about the urgency of saving rural - or urban - children and young people from online games, or from the vulgarity, trivia and falsehood of cyber information.

Even the freedom of dissemination of information is somewhat illusory.

As revealed by Edward Snowden, the whistle-blowing American CIA contractor now trapped in a Russian airport, Internet communication and correspondence lends itself to furtive, unwanted surveillance.

Furthermore, the explosive growth of cyber information puts great stress on our already limited attention.

"Internet-centric explanations, at least in their current form, greatly impoverish and infantilize our public debate," Morozov writes.

With the tightening of technological controls, we poor human beings will be further enslaved by the machines, and feel more emancipated and glorified than ever.


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