God and the Machine

Today’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an interview with Alan Lightman, a professor of physics and the humanities at M.I.T. Lightman recently edited a collection of essays, Living With the Genie, in which various authors examine the effects of technology (both good and bad) on our lives. Because it’s only available by subscription, I’ve excerpted a sizeable chunk of the interview.

Q. You remark early in the essay that technology is making life faster and pushing out opportunities for quiet contemplation. What’s the effect of this on our culture?

A. We have our spiritual lives compromised. We have become a nation without values and without a centeredness, without a belief system. If we have a belief system, it’s money and power. I think the lack of that centeredness is one of the consequences. It is part of our poor relationship with other nations in the world. Other countries sense our lack of values. Before you can understand other countries, you need to understand yourself. We don’t have such a foundation. We just have a blind pursuit of money.

Q. And technology pushes that?

A. The blame is on human beings, but technology has pushed that.

Q. Some of the things you talk about in this essay have been felt in the arts for some time — everything from Brave New World to The Matrix. Do you think that your involvement with literature has given you a sensitivity to these things?

A. Yes. It’s good that you mention those other media, because certainly there are other people who are saying the same thing. The more of us who say this, the better chance we have of being heard.

I think a lot of these ideas are old. In my essay, I refer to Henry David Thoreau’s comments in Walden. In those days, the high technology was the railroad, and that was changing American thinking. Thoreau made this witty comment: “We don’t ride on the railroad; the railroad rides upon us.” Of course, I like that, but I would amend that by saying that technology is just a tool, and we created the railroad, after all.

These ideas have been around for a while, but the pace of the world has accelerated. All of the problems that Thoreau saw 150 years ago are much more acute and have much more devastating consequences.

I would love to push Dr. Lightman on some of these comments, particularly the first one. That relationship between technology and our spiritual lives is tricky and under-theorized, I think. Tools like blogging can actually encourage the sort of contemplation that he is lamenting, but they too seldom do. He’s right. The blame is on human beings, who seem to be sacrificing something of their humanity to these machines. Interesting stuff.