To Own or be Owned: A Virtual Reality Check

Amazon’s electronic reading device known as Kindle is not exactly as “Green” as it is cracked up to be, but now we have another reason to reconsider the merits of paper-based reading: Censorship.

Kindle users may not have anticipated it, but Amazon can recall an e-book purchase at the push of a virtual button. Need those annotations for a book report? If your digital reading material is recalled, Amazon removes those too.

Tough luck.

Amazon claims they are working to amend a hasty retraction process that resulted when an allegedly unauthorized source made available a number of e-books to which the lawful copyright holder objected, reports the New York Times in “Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle Devices“. Refunds for the illicitly encoded material are on the way, but the questions have only begun. And well they should.

In an ongoing series on the transformative impact of high tech, the Social Critic aims to explore the lesser known consequences of the virtual world. In this instance, we find a stark reminder that in the digital universe the price of “virtual” amounts to easy come, easy go. You can’t share an e-book. You can’t recycle an e-book reader — at least not in the Green manner one might have hoped [see “GreenSmart vs. GreenDumb”]. And you can’t take for granted that you “own” anything in the virtual realm in the same physical manner it is possible to own DVDs, books, magazines, newspapers and the like.

What this article doesn’t touch upon is disturbing in its own right: The questionable health effects, particularly on the eyes and brain, of exchanging the tangible for an imperceptibly flickering digital view screen. Over time, exposure may blunt brain development in children, promote sleep and attention disorders, lead to career-limiting repetitive strain injuries to the spine, elbowswrists or fingers — or more commonly still, eyestrain and headaches — all while aiming electromagnetic radiation at our craniums (of which cell phones and CRT monitors are among the worst EMF offenders). None of this, however, takes into account the fastest growing concern of all: the controversial notion of Internet addiction. Until recently, in fact, China took a very heavy-handed approach to digital addicts: electroshock therapy.

Library systems, in a sign of the times, are taxed, meanwhile, not by people who wish to check out books but by the number of people who wish to access the Internet. As discussed in the aforementioned post, the billions of computer users plugged into electric grids around the world, connected, in turn, by scores of Internet data centers, come at a profound environmental cost that most of us fail to appreciate. In the US, these electrical requirements translate into burning more coal, a process that for all the talk of “clean“, is anything but.

In the irony of all ironies, this Digital New Age appears to have brought us full circle: From transnational trains at the turn of the last Century belching out billowing clouds of coal-black ash to power plant smokestacks “sequestering“, at best, billions of short tons of the same in the opening decades of the 21st Century. Much of this progress arrives under the trendy guise of going Green — paying our bills online, killing time on Facebook and surfing for free media content on the web even as news and content providers go broke for their efforts. Talk about unsustainable — in more ways than one!

In exchange for the privilege of conducting increasing amounts of our business and personal lives virtually, we pursue nifty new interfaces — costly electronic devices, cell phones and seemingly essential hardware and software packages, which we have been conditioned to frequently upgrade as a result of wear, tear and obsolescence. All of this lends itself quietly but effectively to privacy-intruding remote processes most of us fail to comprehend. Ours is an inverse relationship with technology: As the devices of our supposed need or pleasure become exponentially complex, our appreciation for how little we control, own and regard as personal and private diminishes.

Are our ownership claims even worth the virtual paper they are printed on?

Probably not.

Have you read any virtual fine print, for that matter, lately?

Who does?

Arguably, it causes more eyestrain — a greater headache literally and figuratively — to read a large body of typewritten material on a bright, brazen, backlit surface largely devoid of eye-resting “white space”, much of it jam-packed instead with ad-based imagery begging for attention. So what’s a person without an entire day to spend sifting through this chaotic “information soup” to do? Answer: Go in search of the news, information, social contact and entertainment we want — not necessarily that which we need.

In spite of our collective fascination, electronic interfaces are simply too fatiguing for many users to devote a great deal of voluntary attention to any single task. Real-world books, newspapers, magazines, DVDs and music albums are carefully crafted, edited, designed and packaged, whereas in the virtual world we are often gatekeepers and content generators — empowering, to be sure, but demanding nonetheless. For instance, few of us went to the time and expense to crop, retouch and “develop” our own photos years ago, but nowadays the time, expense and effort of digital photography — the self-service we euphemistically refer to as “creative control” — is a common undertaking by many a digital camera owner. But what happens when time, attention spans and the digital format itself are limiting factors?

It stands to reason that as the novelty of this digital medium wears off, we will increasingly reserve our limited energies for learning a whole lot more about a whole lot less, particularly in comparison to our analog-based predecessors. The information at our fingertips may be limitless but our patience is not. More disturbing, the digital landscape may not be as boundless as we would like to believe. Not only does the virtual printing press make it a lot easier to remove unflattering stories from the electronic record, it’s also a lot easier to let the news we can use fade into a backdrop of dizzying digital distractions, the search result that never appears, the umpteenth page we never click.

For all his technological high hopes, would the late, great newsman, Walter Cronkite, be impressed?

When a resource is rare, even something so amorphous as “the news”, it is perceived as valuable and desirable. When it’s easy, cheap and pervasive, we take for granted that it will always be there, and that nothing will escape us even if we opt out entirely. If an asteroid were headed our way, many of us would learn of it from a coworker or a friend on MySpace — the proverbial grapevine now stronger than ever, the “herd immunity” theory, if you will, applied to social awareness.

Witness the phenomena of college-educated individuals passing along hoaxes, chain letters and urban legends via email without so much as a 30-second effort to verify the claim. Technology may make it easier to avoid making fools of ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re making the best use of it. The Digital Age, in this respect, presents a curious duality: People who are inclined to believe almost anything they see and read in an email or on YouTube, and those who become so wary of sloppy citizen journalism and anonymous email assertions that eventually mainstream media sources are lumped in the same suspect category. Such is life in the disposable e-universe: The democratization of information on the one hand, the responsibilities of liberty diminished on the other.

As much as technology connects us, a prevailing counterforce threatens our capacity for common experience, shared culture and community values. In the virtual world we lose, most notably, what art, literature and history buffs refer to as a “sense of place“. As our digital future progresses, we are certain to experience less and less of the hallowed, snapshot-in-time sensation of looking back on an old photo, magazine, newspaper, yearbook or, for that matter, the tactile experience of turning the pages of a letter or book sans mouse and keyboard.

There’s something we’re sacrificing in this brave new world, and it’s more than the paper it is written on.

Welcome to the here and now. It’s great for contract attorneys and high-tech moneymakers — a deceptive deal for the environment, news providers, and consumers alike. Still, we’re eating it up, one “IT” gadget off the production line at a time. Pay off that home or car loan early? Save money for the kids’ college tuition or your retirement fund? Embark on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip from coast to coast? Naw. We have more pressing pastimes to spend our digital dinero on. And they’re lovin’ it.

Psst! I hear Sony makes a pretty cool e-book reader, too. Circuit City, anyone? Their virtual doors are open for business!

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Resources:

Printed Copies of Orwell Books Pulled from Kindle | Yahoo News

Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others | David Pogue/NYT

Internet Use Burns Coal, Report Says

Better Technology Needed if Carbon Sequestration is to be Viable | TSAugust

The Internet Begins with Coal

The Internet is Big and has a Carbon Footprint to Match

Data Center Overload | NYT Magazine

User Demand for the Internet Could Outpace Network Capacity by 2010

The Sustainability Challenge: Can the Internet Help?

The Illusion of Being Well Informed | The New Ledger

When Computers Attack: Protect Yourself from Computer-Related Health Problems

Ergonomists: Kids too are at Risk from Repetitive Strain Injuries | Science Daily

Nighttime Computer Users May Lose Sleep

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain, Ma

Brain & Behavior: Blame it on the Box

Mind Control by Cell Phone | Scientific American

Is Google Making Us Stupid? | The Atlantic

Is Google Making Us Smarter? | Seed Magazine

Men as Internet Victims

Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?

Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Issues Warning on Cell Phone Risks

Teens Risk Health with Night Texting, Talking

Social Networks: Primates on Facebook | The Economist

Who Really Owns Your Phone?

Did You Hear About Censorship?

Internet Censorship in the US? Or Just Law Enforcement?

Top 25 Censored Stories for 2009 | Project Censored

Is Professional Blogging a Sustainable Business Model?

The Economy of Free is Stupid | Social Media Explorer

Free is Not a Business Model

Are the Days of Free Internet News Coming to an End?

Internet Companies: The End of the Free Lunch — Again

Advertising Is Not a Sustainable Business Model for the Web

Thoughts on the Costs of Digital vs. Paper

The Future of Reading — Digital vs. Print | Seattle Times

It’s In Your Head: The New Age of Narcissism

What does talk show host Oprah Winfrey, psychologist Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, medium James Van Praagh and “The Secret” author Rhonda Byrne share in common?

A belief that what you get out of life depends on how you think about life.

It seems straightforward enough. Empowering, even. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple.

Have you ever found yourself wondering if there’s too much ego attached to this trendy philosophy? Or what to make of its logical inverse: that victims are self victimizing?

It’s no surprise, really. Those who are successful seek out a self-affirming explanation for their success. A successful individual may look around and see plenty of people with great potential who nonetheless never seemed to get it right. So what was the deciding factor? Talent? Persistence? Intellect? Good looks? A great attitude? Good timing? The right set of parents? Birthplace? A superior education? Friends in high places?

Out of all the possible explanations — perhaps luck (destiny), preparedness (talent), or persistence (dedication) — how many times does it seem even modestly successful individuals adopt seemingly self-congratulatory explanations, concluding, “I maintained a positive (better) attitude”, or “God has blessed me because I have been faithful”, or “I sent good karma out into the world, and it returned to me in spades”?

Whereas ancient man comprehended his own frailty in the face of a brutal natural world, modern man believes in choice over fate, and self confidence over faith. Insulated within the relative safety of our man-made environments, we feel largely invincible. Going from a victim of the whims of the gods to a victorious Creator certainly holds a certain attraction. We are no longer helpless in the hand of fate, for the only destiny is the one we create.

Over the past 40-some years, however, a darker side to the man-as-god mythology has emerged. The same perception of control that inspires a successful individual, forms a motivation to assign blame. “Negative” and “lazy” become character descriptions for those who do not validate another’s perceived sense of order in the universe (control). This attitude doesn’t merely trickle from the top down, either. An unsuccessful individual may brand him- or herself as one’s own worst enemy — the primary cause of one’s adversity. Such an individual may spend years in therapy attempting to negate the innate genetic, biochemical and personality characteristics that make him or her unique.

In a world that holds there are no victims, only self saboteurs, it is easy to embark on a path of self doubt and criticism for one’s perceived lack of willpower (control). This negative self-determination carries weight because it implies the power of choice. If we made some aspect of our lives go wrong via wrong thinking or wrong choices, we can make all right with the world through right thinking and right decision making. We prefer this viewpoint because if circumstances are deemed outside our control, we are forced to confront unvarnished reality: Control is largely illusory.

At one time, American culture tempered emerging New Age assumptions with levelheaded reminders that we are not captains of destiny. The Serenity Prayer, which became a fixture in the 12-step recovery movement, reminds us that we need a higher power to show us the difference between that which we can influence, and that which is beyond our control. Scripture, likewise, deals with this same question, for it is an age-old concern:

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life,'” (John 9:1-3).

Here we see an example of Jesus teaching that in our frailty, God’s glory, grace and power shines. But in New Age parlance — and, tellingly, even from prominent megachurch pulpits — we learn to measure God’s love with a yardstick that is almost entirely dependent on outward measures of success (abundance — physical, financial and social). Year after year, these false promises are repackaged and re-branded by one talk show guest and bestselling author after another, who in so doing profits handsomely from this self-as-center-of-universe ideology. It is, after all, what the narcissist within each of us wants to hear.

What gives these half-truths such staying power in American culture?

As someone who spent a number of years in the book business, I can venture an educated guess: Books that postulate that there is less order and more chaos fail in the marketplace. After all, the type of people who are likely to seek out and read self help books are typically those who believe that the truth is “out there”. They believe they can find answers in a book, a religion, a philosophy. When at last they connect with an articulate author’s prose, the crowing revelation is that of self as judge, jury and, ultimately, God. Readers aren’t looking to be reminded that the answers to life’s biggest questions are rarely contained in a $15 paperback, or that cultivating a mentality of control may lead to more suffering than success.

Revered author Ralph Waldo Emerson — perhaps because of his success — also advanced this half-baked philosophy:

“Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances — it was somebody’s name, or he happened to be there at the time, or it was so then, and another day would have been otherwise. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

While the principle of cause-and-effect is by no means entirely false, it is most often observed within the confines of a scientific laboratory. Boiling complex social, spiritual and interpersonal realities down to a question of input vs. output is an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age, not the real-world complexities that humans have been grappling with on this planet for millions of years. The child receiving cancer treatment didn’t “choose” his or her illness. The parents who agonize over a drug- or alcohol-abusing child are not necessarily the cause. The fellow who was injured on the job and struggled to get himself back together cannot be written off as someone lacking in ambition or a solid work ethic. The doctor who is sued for malpractice is not necessarily an incompetent practitioner. The overweight woman at church may not be a couch potato.

A desire to project ourselves into circumstances where others are neither to blame nor congratulate seems innate. But ancient sources of wisdom paint a more restrained picture. A biblical proverb states “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Pr 19:21). Another says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Pr 16:9).

Scripture confirms the idea that life is not fair, and may never be fair no matter how much we struggle to maintain the idea that the universe merely reflects our own intentions. Rather, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (MT 5:45).

An odd anecdote from the life of the late trance-medium Edgar Cayce backs the biblical concept of fate.

“One day in a large city I entered a department store to do some shopping. I was on the sixth floor and rang for the elevator. While I was waiting for it I noticed some bright red sweaters, and thought I would like to look at them. However, I had signaled for the elevator, and when it came I stepped forward to enter it. It was almost filled with people, but suddenly I was repelled. The interior of the car, although well-lighted, seemed dark to me.

“Something was wrong. Before I could analyze my action I said, ‘Go ahead,’ to the operator, and stepped back. I went over to look at the sweaters, and then I realized what had made me uneasy. The people in the elevator had no auras. While I was examining the sweaters, which had attracted me by their bright red hues—the color of vigor and energy—the elevator cable snapped, the car fell to the basement, and all the occupants were killed.”

Does this sound like a simple case of cause-and-effect? Were the people trapped in that elevator any more deserving or selective of their tragic destiny than the blind man in Jesus’ day whose friends and neighbors presumed a sin on the part of his parents?

Perhaps the strongest “cause” for any form of success is persistence. But persistence doesn’t necessarily correlate with greater intellect, greater talent, better looks or a better attitude that somehow entitles one individual to more “open doors” than another. So rather than allowing popular philosophy to create an insalubrious expectation that one can or should be able control outcomes — an assumption that parallels the meteoric rise in antidepressants, ADHD medications and all manner of costly prescription and illicit coping aids alike — it is time we make our peace with the counterintuitive.

Let go.

The idea that we can or should live a charmed life if only we project the right set of intentions backed by the appropriate thought process is insidiously toxic. It breeds arrogance among the elite and self doubt among those who have applied such principles only to realize that the Universe does not revolve around, nor faithfully reflect, them. Accepting the reality that good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people may not seem all that comforting, and it certainly won’t sell any books or self-help seminars. Yet acknowledging that the mysteries of life are more numerous than the answers is strangely liberating. Letting go allows us to make peace with an awe-inspiring aspect of life that might otherwise tear at our morale. Only when we remain humble — but for the grace of God there go I — do we allow gratitude, awe, contentment and compassion to heal our relationship with God, ourselves and others. For unlike Eastern philosophies born of gurus who retreated to the solitude of the wilderness, humility will stand beside us amidst our hectic, distracting, and unpredictable contemporary lives.

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