Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age


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There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?

—rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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3 Responses to Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

  1. Pingback: Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age — Brimmings: up from the well | Watson's Blog

  2. Jungian introvert says:

    These are rather typical ruminations of an old man, who has been passed by, like every generation. His writing, while lovely and flowing in the classical style, lends little new in substance. And it all seems engineered, always, to call attention to himself. He was the gay Freud, impressive at the moment, but historically irrelevant.

    Like

    • RJ says:

      Thank you for your thoughts on Sacks. I hadn’t come upon this kind of negative comment on Sacks before, so I welcome your perspective. I see your into Jung, a man to whom I owe a great deal in my career.

      Like

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