14 January 2010
A friend of mine, a high school teacher, wrote about a student needing to look up a word. She sent him to the library's print dictionary. When he opened it, she said that he stood staring, almost reverently, for a few seconds and then, in hushed tones, said, "There are so many of them!"
I laughed heartily, but it gave me pause. I grew up using print dictionaries, of course, and always found them fascinating, word lover that I am. Every time I needed a definition or a spelling, I was reminded of the huge numbers of words I didn't know, the amazing potential of the English language.
But today -- you just get on the web, look up the word in question at dictionary.com, and see . . . that word only, at most a couple more forms or similar spellings. No mysterious unknown words surround it to entice the eye and mind; no sense of how many words there are. We have reduced our sense of wonder and the potential to stretch our horizons.
The online thesaurus is as bad, really. You find a few more words there, a little more potential to become intrigued and follow the trail of this word, and then that one, and then another -- but still the actual number of words seen at any one moment is extremely limited. And the one niggling my mind, refusing to come forward, never does seem to be in the limited list, though I find it so often in the print thesaurus, over there on the facing page at the top, in a slightly different category . . .
Yes, yes, yes, benefits come from technology. I weary of saying this; anyone who knows me in the least knows that I joyfully benefit from many forms of technology every day. But there are losses with every new technology that comes our way, and someone ought to point this out -- and I do not think these losses are always merely acceptable trade-offs. We have more speed and convenience -- and so often lose wonder and mystery and a sense of awe.
And we lose even a clear sense of how the world works, sometimes, without any actual gains that I can see. Take digital clocks. All you see on a digital clock is this one exact moment, then another single exact moment, then another. There is no sense of the cycle of time with a digital clock. Sure, it's a mite easier to read a series of numbers than a dial face -- but does the series of numbers give a sense of the reality of time, that it circles from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day?
Where I teach there are digital clocks on the classroom walls. I hate them. I have to have my traditional dial-face watch to get through the hour. With a dial face, I have only to glance at it to see the hands and know how much time I have left. I don't need to know the time; I only need to see the minute hand just past the seven to know that I have a bit less than fifteen minutes left before class ends. I see the whole hour at once and know where within that hour I am; past and present and future all reveal themselves to me in that one quick glance.
But that digital clock tells me nothing of the time passed or the time left. It only tells me what this present exact moment is, forcing me to consciously process the time left. It says 9:36:41 (42,43,44,45 . . .), and how many minutes is that, what portion of an hour, until 9:50? Have I grown a bit more used to them over time? Of course -- but what is the cost to those who have known only the digital clock? Isn't it a reflection of our modern cultural insistence that the only thing that matters is the present moment? The past is gone and is therefore of no use to us; the future hasn't come and is therefore unimportant. Live for the moment without thought to what brought you to that moment or its influence on future moments.
Thoughtfulness -- that's all I really want. Just because something exists, just because something can be done, doesn't mean it's an unmitigated good. If we were thoughtful, we'd still use most modern technology, but maybe we'd use it better, with attention paid to possible losses, and maybe we'd attempt to mitigate those losses. And maybe there would even be times when we'd say "no, thanks; we don't need that." And that would be a marvel of wisdom.