My original Valentine's day plans involved drinking rye in my housecoat and perhaps watching IBM's Watson crush the collective spirit of the human race on Jeopardy. I realized that this would be far worse than facing the commercial onslaught head-on, as it would likely be a lesson in futility as well as mere solitude. Solitude isn't all that bad when you think you might be able to accomplish something. To witness the triumph of sheer processing power over the human mind would probably call that into question.
Of course, something to this effect is already prevalent as a symptom of the technological age. Why do a job a machine can do better?
This is much of what underpins the general antipathy towards learning that permeates modern culture; it is the ethos of the Year of the Google. A recurring theme in much of the discourse surrounding the information age is the puzzling observation that the unprecedented availability of information has yet to birth a super-species of hyper-enlightened scholars, nor has it really done all that much, fanfare aside, in furthering democratic ideals.
This inexcusable ignorance, more than a generational fad, is owed in part to an intimation of the overwhelming force of technology. The experience of this potential is an embarrassment of riches, a parody of the numinous. It breeds a sense of inferiority, a crippling defeatism at the prospect of an insurmountable body of knowledge.
Learning requires courage in the face of the unknown, but it is precisely this courage that suffers when everything knowable can be accessed on a smart phone from the comfort of a bathroom stall. In the absence of such courage grows a pessimism of the spirit: "I do not know therefore I cannot know, have not done therefore cannot do."
Admittedly it is strange to speak of the spirit in these thoroughly modern times. It is not simply a peevish antiquarianism on my part. I know that I have mentioned it before, and probably stated a similar qualification. Absent a search function for this site, I will risk repeating myself. (More on the low-tech nature of The Puddle in the next week or so.)
First off, I speak of the soul as a nod to the discipline in which I have recently been spending my days. We tend to adopt the conventions of the conversations we have most often. But this is more than some academic holdover, or some distinguishing affectation. I have found in my brief experience with students that the concept of a soul still holds a certain weight, regardless of their secular rearing. By this I mean that what someone like Socrates means by the soul is still intelligible to a twenty-something raised by television.
Certainly the crusades of popular science and public atheism have chased such terms from common usage. We might think twice before using it to describe ourselves, anticipating the raised eyebrows that tend to give a term like "sub-conscious" a free pass. Nevertheless, I think that the currency of such a concept, even if only amongst the few and however devalued, is still worth examining.
Indeed, if the connection between technology and the pessimism of the spirit described above has any validity, an examination of this concept is crucial to understanding the movements of consequence that shape our contemporary experience.
The soul offers a refuge from the encroachment of science, the vivisection of rationalism prescribed by the likes of Descartes. It promises the irreducible validity of inwardness in the face of universal laws. Romanticism and Idealism tend to promise the possibility of some kind of constructive moral role for the irrational and unutterable fruits of inward searching, of the soul's direct or even transcendent experience of reality.
Traditionally, the spirit is not solely sentimental, it encompasses rationality in varying iterations. This cannot be said for a world so heavily influenced by disciplines such as neurology, which claim reason for the realm of electrical impulse. The modern soul stands in opposition to empirical reason; it is wholly individual and in some sense incommunicable. This makes it the only option in the face of technology, and a disturbing one at that.
If the triumph of modern science has led to a spiritual hunger, what do you feed these hungry souls? The wholly irrational soul cannot communicate its needs, cannot be fulfilled save by chance. This does not prevent the pursuit of fulfillment: our making and taking in a speechless frenzy. The anti-rational tendencies of such phenomena as Scientology are testament to the troubling power of this need.
Not to risk too much augury, I would venture that the manifestations of anti-rationalism we are witnessing culturally, such as the success of The Secret or the recent drive to remove fluoride from the Calgary water supply, are only the first drops of a horrendous shit-storm to come.
Barring a global cataclysm, we cannot hope for a spiritual re-immersion that will instill life with the luster technology has seemingly tarnished. You can only will ignorance up to a point, but that doesn't mean you can't try to take it all the way.