COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | KATHRYN FEHRMAN

Luddite levity and summertime musing

I expect to see this story any time now on the nightly news, because the trustworthy Dr. Grant told me it will happen someday.

Dr. Spencer Grant, oft-lauded sports medicine physician at a well-respected local medical office, finally succumbs to a fit of lunacy induced by his prima donna electronic assistant, tears the PC — screen and all — from the wall in the patient room, hurls it through the sea-green glass window onto the street below, where it dies, tossed and flattened beneath the tires of 1,109 Suburban Assault Vehicles and Priuses at rush hour. Dr. Grant wrings his hands and shakes with echoing maniacal laughter, as he stands in the shards of shattered glass watching the machine meet its demise. Is this situational insanity? Justifiable cybercide?

The fodder of long ago science fiction is coming true. These creepy little boxes are taking over the world. And they are not doing it well.

I started an essay about “distance learning” last week after I saw a sign on the 5 in Los Angeles: “Attend Princeton From Home: Distance Learning, Princeton University.” And some Web address. Then, in short order, I read an article about the growing “distance learning” industry for law schools and medical schools, had lunch with a distance learning guru, and a long discussion about distance learning with a local bio-med entrepreneur.

“Seriously, what sort of people will we become if we learn sitting zoned out and rhythmically distorted by a buzzing humming electric master?" I asked. "There’s research out there telling us that brain waves react to the waves from satellites, electronic towers, and the dozens of little and big cyber boxes we carry with us, stick in our ears, and sit before endlessly day after day. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. This is your brain on cyber-energy.”

I’m supposed to “network” on LinkedIn, Facebook and a dozen Listservs. I have at least two dozen password-protected sites that I can’t remember the passwords to. I have my own website, for which I pay too much money. My child (a linguist no less) went through a — thankfully brief — disability phase when she couldn’t communicate without texting — for which I also pay too much money. My students expect me to answer their questions within an hour of posing them, no matter when in my sleep cycle that occurs, or how well or poorly thought out the questions.

My own cousin called me a “dinosaur” when I said I was trying to avoid email as much as possible during my time off, so he should call to talk. His wife texted me point-blank that she is far too busy to phone me, and continues to text while I am driving. (She does all of this by a series of a gazillion texts, because she is so busy, and heaven forbid she should talk. What is this, “The Artist” in reverse?)

Finally, when Dr. Grant couldn’t get his program to work as I sat shivering on his exam table, my well-reasoned and logical opinion solidified: I hate computers. Yes, I know “hate” is a strong word. I also hate their ugly little stepbrothers, those hand-held “phones” that purport to double for nanny, mother, guy or gal Friday, and chief cook and bottle washer. Heck, people even set them to vibrate, put them in their pockets, and hope they’ll double for a special companion.

Good gracious. Whose idea was it to distract American people from reality in this way? And why must I be a slave to electronic machines? I have worked too hard and sacrificed too much for my freedom and spirit.

"Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking." — Steve Jobs.

Meanwhile, I feel like the fabled Little Dutch Boy with my finger in the dike, begging my students to understand that the practice of law, medicine, psychology and social work, teaching — most professions and services — are rooted in the field of human communication. How we share energy, how we relate to each other as human beings, is crucial to maintaining social balance and order as a community and civilization. How do we “distance teach” human relationships?

So while “distance learning” may provide some benefits (which are obviously not the focus of this essay), it provides none of the depth, dimension, essence, richness or graceful civil exchange central to our lives as human beings. It is useful in the realm of information, not relation. There is no wisdom in that manner of conveyance. And like Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message,” right?

So Dr. Grant, thank you for throwing the computer out the window. I am healed.


Fehrman is a professor of legal skills at California Western School of Law.

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