Between the Lines: A Conversation with Matthew Dickerson – Part II

We recently got a chance to talk with Brazos author Matthew Dickerson about his book The Mind and the Machine (2011). Here is Part 2 of that interview:

What do Lewis and Tolkien have to say about the heart of human nature and why are their insights important in an increasingly technological age?

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with timeless issues. Issues that transcended geographical and cultural bounds as well as temporal ones. That is one reason that their works were so powerful. Though they did not live in the age of the internet, or even of household computers, they did see the unfolding of the 20th century and the explosion of technologies that began in that century, from nuclear power to (in Tolkien’s case, at least) space travel.

In our day, I think the biggest technologies that have changed our lives have to do with computers and communications. Certainly it would have been difficult before 1990 to have foreseen the way that the internet would change our lives, or to have predicted the emergence of Google, FaceBook, or YouTube. Still, it is worth pointing out that modern digital computers were already emerging in the 1930s, 40s and 50s (when Lewis and Tolkien were having their most productive years as mythopoets). The principles and ideas behind them were getting attention. And so by the middle of the 20th century, many of the biggest philosophical questions pertaining to computers and humans were already being asked and explored by great thinkers, writers, and philosophers. As for the role of technology in society, that question has been around for as long as humans have lived and used tools.

Tolkien and Lewis certainly explored those issues in their writing. Tolkien commented, more than once, that central to his fantasy novels was an exploration of the use and role of technology—what he called “the machine”—and that “magic” in his writings offered a metaphorical representation of technology. (I explored this in great depth in my book From Homer to Harry Potter, co-authored with David O’Hara.)

Of course all that their works suggest, imaginatively, about technology, would take a long time to explore. Some agree with their ideas. Many disagree. If you think that their writings ring true, and offer a picture of the good life, then you have to take seriously their thoughts about technology. But my only point here is that both of these men were both brilliant thinkers and brilliant writers, and so whether you ultimately agree with them, or disagree with them, what they had to say mythopoetically deserves attention; it is a thoughtful treatment of an important topic: the human use of technology.

Between the Lines: A Conversation with Matthew Dickerson

We recently got a chance to talk with Brazos author Matthew Dickerson about his book The Mind and the Machine (2011). Here is Part 1 of that interview:

1:  Are social media and our increasing reliance on technology indicative of future human and technology integration?

When I was a college student, my friends and I were aware of our university’s seeming efforts to control where and with whom we spent time our social time.  We used to criticize these efforts as attempts to engineer our associations and relationships. The term “engineer”, of course, was metaphorical in one sense; no significant modern technology was being used. It was done through rules and incentives.

In hindsight, what went on twenty-five years ago feels like nothing compared to the extent to which our present society—and, indeed, human life itself—is increasingly both engineered and technology-dependent. For example, how so many of our relationships are entirely virtual? I am “friends” with people I’ve never met, and may never meet. And these friendships take place through tightly controlled technologies whose main goal is the extraction of personal information from users, and the sale of products to users.  Their goal is not to foster healthy relationships. The fact that these technologies may be used in real and good relationships is coincidental or accidental.

Even more concerning, we treat human bodes like machines to be mechanically tinkered with, or in cases entirely re-engineered. I’m not speaking if surgeries like hip and knee replacements, or vision correction—technologies that help seriously wounded, aged, or diseased bodies to continue to function, and for which I am thankful. Nor am I speaking of drugs for the physically or psychologically ill. Rather, I am speaking about drugs to change our very personalities, and of technologies to engineer our bodies to be something different. We use technologies to change the sizes of our noses, breasts, and buttocks. We even change our biological sex through both drugs and surgery.

We are not so much integrating human and technology as we are confusing the two.

And for that reason, I think that the trend will continue, and even accelerate. Too few people are asking questions about what is desirable. We tend to ask, instead, only about what is possible. That is the nature of a culture, like ours, that is enamored with technology, and sees it as a means of salvation. And my main response to this is a simple line of questions. “Has it made us happier persons? Has it made us more content as persons? Has it made us better persons?”