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December 02, 2008
Digitalized Decadence
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

This year, our Thanksgiving was interrupted by unsettling blips on our (plasma) screens, Blackberries or smartphones:

 

A young man webcasts his own suicide.

 

One hundred-ninety plus people are massacred in Mumbai by Islamic terrorists.

 

 A Wal-Mart employee is trampled to death by a mob of shoppers on Black Friday.

 

Beyond the disturbing nature of these tragedies in themselves, I find myself disturbed about something else:  about what becomes of these incidents in the information age.  What cultural perils beset us as we digitalize and informationalize human tragedy?

 

In our digitally-driven media culture, these incidents are transformed into information.  We call the information "facts." In print and e-media, they appear as headlines and text; they become story-links on websites and grist for the blogging mills. To be sure, they become material here for my own e-column: click on the any of the incidents just mentioned above, and you will be hyperlinked to an internet-based story.  No, I am not faulting the existence of digitalized media or these uses of technology -- I use them regularly just like the next guy. But I think we all have reason to worry, nonetheless.

 

What does the digitalization of human events -- especially tragedies -- do to us?  I would say the potential perils are multiple.

 

Minimally, it makes us callous. We become accustomed to tragedy:  "Yeah, well, I guess those things happen." A tragedy appears in a one-liner on Drudge. We perhaps glance at it on a Blackberry. Later, we might Google the topic. We scan some web-based stories. Or, perhaps more traditionally, we read about it in the local paper as we sip our morning coffee; we assimilate a few details, glance at a grim AP photo, and then flip to the sports section to see who the Giants are playing on Sunday. 

 

And thus tragedy becomes a collection of factoids, blips of information, and bite-size knowledge chunks. It becomes flattened and homogenized along with a gazillion other bits of news, information and factoids. 

 

In this way it also becomes utterly objectified and depersonalized. It becomes "safe," sanitized, and distanced from ourselves:  we can just turn it off, we can Google something else, or we can move on to the sports page. 

 

And while our digitalized culture brings about this banalization of tragedy, it also occasions a paradoxically opposite effect. The Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant famously affirmed that:

 

Technology is the new ontology of the age. Western peoples (and perhaps soon all peoples) take themselves as subjects confronting otherness as objects -- objects lying as raw material at the disposal of knowing and making subjects.[1]

 

What did Grant mean?  Writing this in the late 80's -- really at the onset of the digital era -- he meant that in the minds of many it would seem that to be is to be technologically valuable or objectively useful.  It means to look out on the world and on ourselves and assess reality through the prism of objects-for-use.  Fast-forward to today, and perhaps Grant might venture to say that digitalization is the (new) ontology of the age.

 

 That is to say that, today, incidents and personal realities (right down to the most intimate expressions of one's conscience), seem in the mind of many to really become something, attain a zenith of value, worth, meaning, substance, and significance only if digitalized, only if they find their place in cyberspace.

 

Abraham Biggs's digitalized suicide illustrates this almost metaphorically. It's as if this young man were making one desperate grasp at meaning in the chaos of suicide by digitalizing it -- elevating his tragic death to the pseudo-meaningfulness achieved by attaining web-based acclaim and attention from his cyber-based voyeurship. 

 

Some of Biggs's viewers egged him on to the suicide. Did they think what they were watching was real? Did those who believed what they were seeing and egged him on anyway find this entertaining -- perhaps the most compelling item they had stumbled across on the web that day? How many others, their lives so immersed in a digitalized culture, thought the whole thing to be a ruse? How many didn't even bother to ask themselves, perhaps read one or two of Biggs's suicidal blog posts, wondered for a fleeting moment, and then went on to other Internet pursuits?

 

This desensitization, this existential numbing of our reflexes and reactions that is worked upon us in the digitalized age is what I find most dangerous and, indeed, dehumanizing.

 

Might we not also find this desensitization somehow reflected in the Wal-Mart incident?  The Saturday after the trampling death -- which occurred in Long Island -- our local Gannett journal (serving the Lower Hudson valley region of New York) decided to headline the story in Section B: "Tragedy mars post-Thanksgiving rite." A thoughtful piece, its most salient observation was how the shoppers, when required to leave store premises because an employee had been killed, vociferously complained; and many just continued shopping until forced by police to evacuate the building. How much of that callous insensitivity might, just might be the residue of their immersion in the digital culture?

        

One might ask, of course, what topped their Black Friday shopping list?  The latest accoutrements of our digitalized, informationalized age, no doubt:  DVD players, plasma screens, Blackberries, smartphones, iPods, computers -- all at huge bargain prices, of course.

 

 And as they trampled a Wal-Mart employee to death, half way around the world, in Mumbai, terrified tourists were stampeding out of harm's way, through hotel lobbies and shopping plazas. Live images and headline updates flowed throughout the three-day siege.  At close to midnight Eastern Time on Friday night, it was over.   

 

Perhaps the participants of both incidents -- the victims in Mumbai and the perpetrators in Valley Stream, NY -- have already read each other's stories on the web by now. I wonder if at least they are sickened by the digital banalization of their experiences. I wonder if at least they will never again finish reading news of a tragedy without lifting a silent prayer to heaven for those who in the real world suffer, and whose suffering stares out at them from a digital screen.

 

 

[1] Technology and Justice, 1986.

 

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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