Our Digital Selves
I applaud James McWilliams (“Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie,” Spring 2016) for his valiant literary effort at rescuing the self from the mindless divertissements of the digital age. At my gym, I have watched in horror as millennials interrupt sets of bench presses to check their cell phones. Or as young girls sit side by side and text each other—missing the time-honored pleasures of youthful conversation. But McWilliams should not confuse social media with all forms of digital media. The truth is that I read his article on an LG tablet. No pulp was required; no trees were destroyed in the process. At the touch of a finger, I could employ the wonders of the Internet to explore McWilliams’s many references and allusions—as well as the rich etymology of his language. I am convinced Gutenberg would have loved my tablet.
John F. Whalen
James McWilliams’s article examines in a very contemporary way the eternal question of our human dichotomy—we exist alone within our own consciousness while constantly seeking community with our fellow, similarly wired human beings. Although the digital age has given us new ways to seek community and connectedness, its platforms have become shallow and dehumanized. I particularly appreciate the author’s suggestions for amelioration, rather than just an examination, of the problem. I resolve to read books alone, and then discuss them with my friends individually, face to face, and in a book club!
Rochester Hills, Michigan
James McWilliams’s observations are not only a delight but also necessary in an age when electronic devices will be flying our planes, driving our cars, and doing whatever else can be imagined and programmed. But there are dangers that we seem to be ignoring in ceding so much control to computers.
All professionals, armed with knowledge and experience, bring to their activity the ability to think, a process that cannot now—or ever—be duplicated by an electronic device. This is why, beyond the storing of facts, digital media is a disaster in medicine, a disaster that takes the form of the computerized medical record.
We old doctors were raised on the necessity of the medical interview and the preparation of a narrative chart. We did not just fill in the boxes. Neither did we make these entries while speaking with patients, which is counterproductive and just plain rude. What we did was to take a history, and while doing so, form a differential diagnosis, one question or answer leading to another. Then, when putting the encounter into narrative form, we reviewed, corrected, and added to it, which helped to narrow the differential and suggest the necessary procedures and tests.
Intertwined with that narrative were observations of smell, skin texture, state of anxiety, general appearance, and many other factors that cannot be digitized. Moreover, we now surrender the organization of our thoughts to the format imposed upon us by the programmer, who is not a physician. In short, the medical record was a tapestry woven from experience, knowledge, and a way of thinking that cannot be duplicated by compartmentalized digital data.
I enjoyed reading James McWilliams’s cover story, but it suggests some issues deeper than the “hollowing out” of a digital generation. Language itself (including mathematics) is a form of technology. Our remarkable primate ancestors probably started experimenting with it as early as they picked up the stone hammer and scraper. Today the great question for neuroscience is the relationship of brain to mind—of chemistry to consciousness. Close beside it stands the question of self. Is it necessary and inevitable to the conscious observation of an objective world that we have a sense of subjective identity?
Nearly contemporary with Socrates was a philosopher in the Ganges Valley who proposed that the first fact of conscious living is suffering and that the way to overcome it is to abandon the sense of self, with its agonizing knowledge of impermanence. Buddhist mystics have worked at achieving the “No-Self” even as human technology has expanded from the spoken to the written to the printed to the electronic word. Meanwhile, our base of ideas and our collective power have spread across both space and time. Yet as McWilliams rightly points out, few of us have ever experienced the immediacy—“weirdness,” he says—of direct contact with reality. We cannot “separate the human and technological perspectives.” The Word itself defines, draws limits, and colors all things. It is the map, not the territory. “In the beginning …”
Rhoda R. Gilman
St. Paul, Minnesota
James McWilliams is incorrect that “the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it.” Far from “beginning to alienate” me from myself, the digital world enables me to form relationships that are based on common interests rather than mere propinquity. Far from making me “enslaved to a device,” the digital world enables me to escape the slavery of being “forced to pay attention to the world around me,” allowing me instead to enter a richer world of my own choosing. Lacking the puritanism of believing that certain “everyday analog endeavors are invaluable because they force us to confront discomfort,” I choose to pursue happiness whenever possible. Moreover, there is so much unavoidable discomfort in most people’s lives that, if discomfort builds character, even people who spend much time online will not be devoid of this supposedly character-building opportunity. Serious reading is wonderful, but doing it online has one huge advantage over the physical book McWilliams extols; when reading online, I can easily search out passages I previously read and want to savor again.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, Rhode Island
From the Mouths of Babes
Thank you, Christian Wiman, for another beautiful, powerful, and important meditation (“I Will Love You in the Summertime”). I too am ambivalent about religion but haunted by questions of faith. This essay so brilliantly interweaves the sayings of his children with the writings of George Herbert (that amazing poet) and Anna Kamienska (whose work I will now seek out) and Wiman’s own story. It’s lovely for me that the Scholar has published this essay because years ago, the editors published a poem of mine about my daughter that runs in part, “ ‘Lily of the valley: / that’s a lovely word.’ / At four years old / she hears our sayings freshly.” (She’s now 28 and a poet.) Wiman shows how children hear our sayings freshly, and he is also telling us important things freshly himself.
from our website
It is rich of Gustav Mahler to accuse Jean Sibelius of writing kitsch (“The Sound of Silence,” Arts), given the story of how, in Mahler’s mind, kitsch and tragedy were linked: in a famous incident, Mahler ran out of an angry household quarrel only to bump into an organ grinder. So even greats can have blind spots. It is a pity that Sibelius was so sensitive to such nonsensical charges. A composer has to compose or not compose at all, according to his own conviction. If that means destroying works, as Sibelius did with his Eighth Symphony, so be it.
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Right in Your Own Back Yard
In his “Back Talk” column, Ralph Keyes asks for “compelling examples” of phonetically misspelled words called mondegreens. On page 69 of the same issue, Doris Grumbach is up to the challenge: “ [O]ne of my daughters had reported to me that her teacher had called her a scurvy elephant. Indignantly I had asked the teacher why she did that. ‘Oh, no. I said she was sometimes a disturbing element,’ she said apologetically.”
Maxwell E. Siegel
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
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