Think About It: Technophobia, or justified reservations?

Facebook certainly offers an alternative direct means of mass communication for anyone who feels he has something to say.

Twitter 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Twitter homepage)
Twitter 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Twitter homepage)
Two weeks ago German author Günther Grass managed to cause an uproar when he referred – in a video interview given to a museum in Denmark – to Facebook, the Internet, cellular phones and other new technologies as “scheisse” (“shit”); the idea of being constantly reachable, and possibly under surveillance (an issue recently raised by revelations of FBI surveillance techniques), is abhorrent to him. He admitted that he feels a little like a dinosaur – he does all the research for his books in libraries, writes first drafts by hand and then types his manuscripts with a typewriter, and he does not own a computer or a cellular phone.
At first sight a comparison to the Luddites (19th-century English textile workers who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery by destroying it) seems valid, except that Grass does not call for the abolition of all the new technologies; he merely wonders why people voluntarily submit to them.
While I believe that Grass and those like him have gone a little too far in their conclusions, I don’t think one should simply accept all these new technologies and fads at face value. For example, Facebook certainly offers an alternative direct means of mass communication for anyone who feels he has something to say. (I prefer the old-fashioned methods, like writing articles for newspapers.) But there is nothing inherently wrong with posting on Facebook, as Finance Minister Yair Lapid does – well, except for the fact such posts are unedited, unfiltered and, in the absence of gate-keepers, can be libelous, offensive, misleading and even ruinous.
However, I agree with Grass’s reply to one of his grandchildren, who boasted of his 500 “friends” on Facebook: If “someone has 500 friends, he has no friends.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with corresponding with 500 virtual friends whom one has never met, and with whom one has never interacted in a tangible form, as long as this does not come at the expense of maintaining physical, face-to-face relationships with real friends, the kind one can sit in a café and chat with over a cup of coffee.
Perhaps virtual friends create the illusion of not being alone, which is certainly preferable to being lonely, but in the final reckoning, this is a way of avoiding the development of social skills by means of real-life social interactions. Furthermore, it is not difficult to guess which type of friendship would prove more valuable on a rainy day.
As for using the Internet as a source of information, the Internet is without doubt invaluable. I use the Internet for information for my weekly Jerusalem Post articles and for my academic writing, to verify and update information related to the database I am helping construct for the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, and regarding products and services I want to purchase, plays and concerts I wish to attend, and travel both in Israel and abroad.
Certainly one can also read books and articles on the Internet (in so far as they are available there), but anyone who believes that this is a good reason to close down libraries, or abolish all printed matter (books, journals and newspapers) – is living in lala land.
In the first place, even without online books, long articles or newspapers, we spend too much time in front of computers, which is hazardous to our eyes and exposes us to excessive radiation.
But there is an additional, practical problem. Today, if you want to read an academic article online, you must either be connected to some institutional database, subscribe to the particular journal at the cost of hundreds of dollars annually or pay $30 for a single article.
Since libraries no longer purchase journals in hard copy, what I do these days, if I need an article which is not available for free on the Internet, is try to get a friend who does have free access to a database to retrieve a copy for me. Or I write to the authors directly, even though they are usually total strangers. The Internet is of no practical use in this case.
The other day I was looking for a Post article from 1997. The only available copy in electronic form would have cost me $30 from some foreign database; the Post itself has not scanned its old newspapers. Fortunately, the Knesset library still keeps bound copies of the Post, as it does of all newspapers that ever appeared in Israel, and I was able to photocopy the article. What would I have done without the library (or alternatively the Post archives)? And what about all the books that have not appeared in electronic form? In his interview, Grass also argued against cell phones. I sympathize with the sentiment, but again, would not take it to the same extremes. I own a cell phone (of 2003 vintage), but it is switched off most of the time. I turn it on only if I need to speak to someone urgently or expect a call while away from home.
All my friends know they can reach me at home and that I do not read messages from my cell phone. The fact that I am not accessible on the phone 24/7 has never been a problem, and I haven’t missed out on anything in life. Furthermore, my phone bills are reasonable. The problem with cell phones and “smart phones” is that people become addicted to them. People feel they need to be constantly connected, though it is not clear why.
Incessant idle chatter is becoming a real nuisance. Even when out hiking, there are always individuals holding business conversations on their cell phones. In the theater and at concerts, there is invariably someone sitting close by, fiddling with something or other after the lights are out, and although there is usually no noise, the light and movement are irritating.
Drivers similarly engaged have also turned into a menace, and they ought to have their phones confiscated the moment they are caught.
I would just add, in connection with Grass finding computers superfluous, that in addition to their being a gateway to the Internet, they make writing much easier (I know – back in 1970 I wrote my 350-page PhD thesis, with over 400 footnotes, on a typewriter.) One can also store information on a computer, and there are ways of keeping it safe from unauthorized external surveillance, if that is a concern.
In short, the real problem is one of setting boundaries, and finding the right balance between taking advantage of the new technologies – which invariably involve exposure – and good, old-fashioned preservation of discretion and privacy. The new devices and technologies should not be rejected just because one objects to change or because they may be abused. They should certainly be embraced and used, but judiciously.
The 64,000-dollar question is how one teaches people – especially young people – to set boundaries, to find the right balance and to act judiciously in an age in which everyone seems intent on rejecting boundaries and adopting extreme positions. I doubt whether Günther Grass has given this question any thought.The writer is a retired Knesset employee.