Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Culture: Is the Real Opiate Digital?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Karl Marx is widely quoted as saying that "religion is the opiate of the masses." A number of people, notably Wes Moore, have tried to make the case that television is the opiate of our times. I'm afraid we've moved well beyond that--the new opiate of the 21st century is the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and other portable digital devices.

The use of digital devices by "Generation Y" can be a sight to behold. They text and instant message their friends frequently. They use Twitter and announce what they are doing or discovering to a potentially wide set of followers (or perhaps just a few friends), or update their Facebook status. When not typing, they're actually speaking to someone on their cell phone, or listening to music on their iPod or other portable music player. In the process, they achieve an average level of multi-tasking unknown to previous generations.

While much has been made of the potential of this technology to spread useful information rapidly (imagine how different 11-September-2001, less than eight years ago, could have been if Twitter had already been widespread), like most technologies with great potential, it is usually used for much more mundane uses that have little societal value. I don't just say that as an older technophobe--ask most people who are constantly texting how important their messages are, even to them, and they'll usually say that most of them aren't--but the sense of connection and the rare texts that are socially valuable make the lifestyle worth it.

People of my generation have accused me over the years of being a freak for always keeping occupied and not getting bored--even dump me on a sandy beach without a book or a radio and I'll derive the law of cosines in the sand. People of generation Y don't make that accusation, since they are always occupied with their digital life themselves (though they think I'm a freak for other reasons, like not having a Facebook account).

The constant activity makes it all the more likely the Generation Y will miss something important going on in the world around them. Even if a hyper-connected person notices, their messages about it may simply become noise in the sea of banal exchanges. Yet, the very sense of connection that leads this generation to engage in this behavior keeps them satisfied anyway--and hence the Marx line about it being an opiate, something that provides a false sense of happiness, seems applicable.

There could be some good news in the proliferation of digital devies among the young. Many young people over the centuries have cited "boredom" as the reason for committing crimes, from vandalism to robberies. If a digital device keeps them from getting bored, maybe that will keep them away from crime. Somehow, I'm not holding my breath to see a judge sentence a young offender to mandatory use of a publicly-provided PDA.

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