At the risk of sounding colossally pretentious, I believe that an important part of being human is to live and think in narratives. We love stories, and not just stories. Everything about healthy human life is drenched in multiple layers of meaning. Early modern thinkers thought of the mind as a blank slate that received impressions; now we know that perception is an immensely complex feat of computation. Our minds are constantly receiving a flood of impressions and assembling them into an intricate internal mock-up or copy of the world. As I write this, I am telling myself, “That narrow yellow thing with a broad white thing on top to my left is a lamp. The bumpy clicky thing under my fingers is a keyboard,” and so on for all the hundreds of different objects in the cluttered room I’m typing this in. You might say I have never actually known the world I live in, strictly speaking; I experience it through the gigantic copy of it I am making in my head.
Now, all animals do that on some level, except for the literally brainless ones like sponges. It’s the addition of language, a purely human phenomenon, that really complicates things. With language, we can quickly and effectively swap portions of our perceptual sets, and that’s just the beginning. The abstracted nature of language allows things like metaphors–a strange game of conceptual slop, where multiple meanings coexist in one term. We can discuss things that don’t exist, or couldn’t exist; with sufficient effort, we can construct alternative perceptual sets of potentially unlimited size. But even people who don’t have the time, or the inclination, or the imagination for that are blessed by language with the power to expand their consciousness beyond what their own senses tell them.
That can take many forms. At its best, language enables and assists the higher forms of love. More prosaically, we can work together on jobs, talk with our neighbors, make plans with our families. Even when we’re alone, we can use books or recordings or computers to pour new information into our heads–a delayed and somewhat imperfect form of communication, but still quite potent. All of this is compatible with, and indeed encouraged by, Christian teaching. My parish priest likes to tell us that God exists as Trinity as an example for us; He exists as a loving community even within Himself, and we’re supposed to follow that example. Christ is Logos, the Word, God’s thought given to us. To be properly human is to live in a community, and to live in a community is to constantly immerse yourself in others’ narratives.
Some of what I’ve mentioned is quite modern, such as computers. The invention of modern telecommunications is an incredible gift, and I don’t want to denigrate it. But many applications of modern technology are hostile to both community and narrative, and therefore work (to my way of thinking) to make humans somewhat less human. The most vivid examples I have encountered involve teenagers; I’ve been a substitute teacher for several years now, specializing in middle and high schoolers. For the most part, I love my kids; at that age, they have a delightful sense of the absurd. Unfortunately, they also have iPods. And iPads. And Kindles.
I’m not going to gripe about them texting in class; that’s irritating to teachers, but it still involves genuine interaction with other human beings. I don’t object to e-books, either. It’s the games that drive me nuts. Take the infamous Flappy Bird: Who is this bird? Why is he flying on and on forever through a bunch of spitefully-placed and bafflingly non-functional pipes? Nobody knows, nobody cares. It’s simple, it’s addictive, and I know from experience that a kid can spend literally hours repeatedly whacking the screen to keep the imbecile creature from crashing. Depending on tastes, they may switch over to making a guy run through a maze jumping to collect coins, or slicing flying fruit. Or something equally silly.
Whatever they’re doing, they will not be communicating, or learning, or improving themselves as human beings in any respect other than gaining the reflexes to make the game continue longer and longer. I see a kid doing this, and I cannot help picturing those rats in psychological experiments, hammering on a lever to get pellets. Children, and adults, are spending long hours of their finite lives engaging in a purposeless task which could be mastered quite easily by rats or pigeons. This, as much as anything else, is the disease of modernity at work. Since I noticed it, I’ve been consciously trying to cut back on even the more intelligent video games I like to play. It’s too easy to lose your life being a rat with a lever.
Even when communication is involved, modern media tends to cut back on narrative in favor of noise: pure sensation, stripped as much as possible of higher thought processes. There are very good economic reasons for this, I know, but it’s still repulsive. There are an ever-increasing number of information providers trying to reach an ever-increasing number of people over an ever-increasing number of channels, so they resort to blasts of easily-understood information hurled at the recipient’s head like a rock, because nobody’s going to stick around to give something slow and complex a try. I know advertisers led the way here, but now everybody is using the fast pan, the three-second cut, special effects and fast beats. And with so many channels to choose from, nobody is forced to entangle himself in anyone else’s story. Hence the divorce between different flavors of news channels, which no longer impart new information so much as deliver new means of reinforcing an existing worldview–it’s not the story the subjects of a news report are telling you that matters, but the story you choose to believe about them.
Noise. Noise. Noise. You can’t argue with it, can’t shout it down, can’t even understand it because there’s no message. The only answer is to turn it off.