Monday, February 27, 2006

America: Toys 'R' Us

One thing's for sure about we Americans: we love our toys. From iPods to TiVo to NetFlix to Bose Wave Music Systems (it's passe to call them "radios" now, didn't you know?) to 50" flat panel plasma TVs to camera phones to Viking ranges and beyond, we cannot seem to resist the ever-present lure of technology, the Turkish Delight of the "next new thing." No doubt this is one of the side effects of living in the most affluent, consumer-driven society ever known to man. And no one is immune from these obsessions, trust me... I am not saying in any way that I am. But the fact that we are obsessed with our toys, as a culture, is absolutely indisputable. In America, to a large degree, our toys are us.

Nope, I'm certainly no stranger to that desire for the "next new thing." And obviously these new technologies provide unprecedented conveniences and opportunities for entertainment for us. But, there is a flip side to all of this innovation and consequent consumption. And that's the side no one really likes to talk about. Most people don't want to take the time to ask what long-term affects some of these new toys might be having on us, on our children, on our society at large. We don't wonder, for example, what it means that we can now customize almost all of the news and entertainment content that comes our way, meaning we only need to hear and see that which we want to hear and see. We don't think about the ways in which our obssesive purchasing of expensive, restaurant-quality kitchen appliances doesn't make for more domestic happiness in the home, and why that might be so. We don't pause to consider what effects the constant bombardment of images might be having on our children's ability to analyze what they might read, to think through and deconstruct an argument.

In short, no one out there seems to asking the tough questions about Americans' love affair with their toys.

But there is at least one lone voice out there asking these exact kinds of questions, and she's coming up with fascinating answers, and doling out massive portions of healthy food for thought along the way.

I'm talking about Christine Rosen, who is a senior editor of The New Atlantis journal, and a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. The New Atlantis, which calls itself a "journal of technology & society," is a relatively new publication (began publishing in 2004), but to my mind it has rapidly become one of the most interesting and provocative journals out there. It looks critically at the development of technologies across all fields and disciplines, and asks the tough moral questions about their applications and possible misapplications. As you might expect (especially in this day and age), much of their content is dedicated to bioethical issues, and a quick perusal of any major newspaper on any given day will provide more than ample reason why this is so. Such issues are being pushed to the fore as new and society-altering technologies emerge at a dizzying pace, challenging even our basic assumptions about life, the universe and especially, ourselves.

But bioethics, as important an area of inquiry as that is, is not the only topic of discussion in the pages of this bold new journal. Rosen has written a series of fascinating and insightful articles about some of our most "revered" (for lack of a better word) technologies, our toys, and the effects they have on the ways we live, the ways we learn and the ways we communicate (or don't) with each other. I've read several of them and I plan on reading many more, simply because she continues to ask great questions about these technologies that I don't hear anyone else asking, and the more I read them, the more I believe they need to be asked.

Here is a list of some of my favorites of these articles, and the subjects they take on:

"The Age of Egocasting" (Fall 2004/Winter 2005) -- Takes a good hard look at iPods, TiVo, and our obsession with "content on demand." Asks the provocative question, If we can customize all content that comes our way, when do we ever engage in ideas that might differ from our own?

"Are We Worthy of Our Kitchens?" (Winter 2006) -- from the journal's web site: "We seek household bliss in our sophisticated appliances, but we devalue home life in the name of career. Christine Rosen takes a hard look at the connection between our domestic technologies and domestic tranquility."

"Our Cell Phones, Ourselves" (Summer 2004) -- examines the ways in which cell phone usage has become a high priority in our common cultural life, and dares to ask whether it's appropriate or not for us to be listening in to the high drama of each other's lives in our public trains, shopping lines, and restroom stalls.

"The Image Culture" (Fall 2005) -- Traces the triumph of the image over the word in contemporary life, and wonders why we as a society lament about illiteracy while we do everything we can in our power to rob our children the chance to read -- and to reason.

These are just some of the truly fantastic articles that Rosen has written over the course of the past 2 years for The New Atlantis, and it seems that she will continue to ask such important questions within the publication. And the greatest part is, all of these articles, as well as every article in the journal, is available for FREE on their web site. I heartily encourage you to take a look, and maybe evern download one or two of them. I would bet my bottom dollar that TST readers would find them to be interesting reads.

If I met Ms. Rosen on the street, I would thank her profusely not just for sharing her wisdom and insights, but also for holding our society to a higher (and an older) standard of what good education and good living means. She has planted so many worthwhile questions in my mind that have a direct and powerful bearing on how I raise my own children, and how I live myself. For that alone, it has been worth the little time I spent (*gasp!*) actually reading them. Technology can be a great gift, but we need to think critically about it, as we do any tool that we might develop -- with all good intentions, perhaps -- to help us live better lives. We ought not just go with the flow, and allow ourselves to be seduced by the newer, better, faster, simply because everyone else is. Toys 'R' Us indeed... but at some point you have to ask: do we own the toys, or do they own us?

Here is a link to Ms. Rosen's latest article, from which you can navigate to the rest of the articles in this outstanding series (right column of the page):

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

This was a wild post. I am not usually as interested in this kind of technology/modern cultural studies as Duke is, but the array of titles and subjects he lays out here in this homage to Rosen's work at The New Atlantis is a very interesting one. And it's kind of interesting that someone is thinking about this stuff and asking these kinds of questions.

When I see something like this out there, a part of me always wonders, 'Well, I mean, you could ask questions all day long about why we do anything in this culture, why do I really have to have this toothbrush, why do we need money, are we slaves to our televisions, DVDs, clock radios, light bulbs?' And in doing so you could almost exhaust yourself of anything and get pretty confused. But part of this kind of response might be that I am a product of this technologically-addicted culture and society and I, like just about everyone else, don't really want to ask such questions. There is something in me that always feels like, 'Do I really want to pursue something like this, is this going to mean I feel bad for the few things I do own?' So that is an interesting thing right there.

What I think a writer like this does for us is looks at things we don't normally take a hard look at and then asks these questions. And you can take her opinions and consider them and run as far with them as you want to, I guess, but it is interesting that someone is thinking this hard about this stuff.

Random comments, not fully thought out, but just initial impressions.