I have a confession to make: I am prone to doom-and-gloom scenarios regarding the future. I’m not talking about 666 or the moon turning to blood. I experience existential despair over a future in which commas roam free over the fields of independent clauses, in which people define themselves by corporate slogans, and in which face-to-face contact with other human beings is optional. In other words, I am old and cranky, and I fear the coming of the stupocalypse.

When a fit of curmudgeonliness comes upon me, I try to resist as much as possible, trading the mini-Nicholas Carr in my brain for a mini-Clay Shirky. Try as I might, though, I can only come up with one and a half cheers for the radical democracy of the Web. Tremendous potential, yes, but it holds little hope as long as people have no idea how to use free knowledge-building wisely. I don’t think that Google is making us stupid, but I do believe that we are using it stupidly, failing to pay attention to the ways in which daily actions form and shape us as people.

More helpful to me than the predictions of Carr, Shirky, and company are the visions of the future presented in novels and movies. Three recent works in particular—M. T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed (2002), Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy (2006), and Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010) all paint bleakly stupid futures for us, yet at the same time hold out a smidgen of optimism that people will still desire deep connection with others, even if they don’t know how to achieve it.

In Idiocracy, natural selection, rather than the internet, is to blame for the rise in stupidity. The intelligent few hold off on reproduction, while the stupid masses go forth and multiply. While the premise is uncomfortably reminiscent of early 20th-century eugenics, the movie is more insightful—and shares more in common with Feed and Super Sad True Love Story—in its depiction of the diminishing of language as a result of the stupocalypse. Somehow, the scene in which a store greeter intones, “Welcome to Costco. I love you,” strikes me as perfectly representative of a future in which all the rich nuances of language have been lost. A whole range of emotional expression has been whittled down to two options: “I love you” (in which “love” is meaningless) or “F— you” (which, in Idiocracy, is what an ATM says to you when it won’t give you your money).

It’s even more difficult to represent the post-stupocalyptic loss of linguistic nuance on the printed page, especially since Feed and Super Sad True Love Story are both narrated in first-person. This feat is particularly impressive in Feed, since the style is the polar opposite of M. T. Anderson’s hyper-literate pseudo-18th-century narration in The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. The huge challenge of narrating through the voice of the post-stupocalyptic individual is getting readers to care about these characters through their shallow, self-absorbed, illiterate exteriors.

Super Sad True Love Story, for me, achieves this task more effectively than Feed, perhaps because the shallow, self-absorbed narration of 39-year-old Lenny Abramov alternates with the shallow, self-absorbed narration of 24-year-old Eunice Park. Lenny is just enough older than Eunice that he belongs to a different world, though he still desperately tries to find acceptance among the younger generations (in an attempt to ward off death, as the book rather unsubtly suggests). He still reads books—books, whose noxious smell so offends the youthful nose that Lenny has to spray them with Lysol. Eunice’s narration occurs through chats and emails sent through her GlobalTeens (read: Facebook) account and is full of slang, misspellings, and brand names: yet, as many reviewers have noted, her narration is more compelling than Lenny’s, possibly because we pity her for living her whole life in a diminished world. She is a digital native, rather than a digital immigrant.

One of the most poignant scenes in the novel occurs when Eunice asks Lenny to read to her. He complies, hopeful that they will be able to connect over the shared experience of the text. However, when he asks Eunice if she’s understanding, she collapses in a confused, self-hating muddle. “I’ve never really learned how to read texts,” Eunice confesses. “Just to scan them for info.” As someone who spends much of the daytime trying to convince students that reading a SparkNotes summary of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not the same experience as reading the novel itself, I felt that this scene captured the future that I often fear we’re heading toward: a future in which information is substituted for full, incarnate experience.

This last point is also related to the way human sexuality is portrayed in post-stupocalyptic literature and film. After their failed reading venture, Eunice tries to connect with Lenny through sex, because it’s the only form of intimacy with another human being that is still available to her. Yet, in Super Sad True Love Story, as in Feed and Idiocracy, the future is over-sexualized to the point that it’s actually rather asexual. In Shteyngart’s novel, brand names for women’s clothing include TotalSurrender (and other, less printable options), and the most coveted fashion items are see-through, “onionskin” jeans. Shteyngart once again makes Eunice more sympathetic than Lenny by showing, through her obsession with pleasing men with her appearance, that women are the true victims of a society that falsely bills uninhibited expression of sexuality as “freedom.” This freedom, however, is really enslavement to definitions promoted by corporate marketing.

Feed, Super Sad True Love Story, and Idiocracy all envision a future in which corporate labels substitute for any sense of selfhood. In Feed, one character gets a “speech tattoo,” which results in the word “Nike” appearing in every sentence he speaks. (This incident springs to mind every time a company invites me to “like” it on Facebook in order to receive a discount or free shipping. Yes, I’m fond of discounts, but I fear the slippery slope towards soul-selling.) In Idiocracy, corporate slogans are so dominant that rational problem-solving becomes impossible. In one of the best scenes of the movie, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), as the newly appointed Secretary of the Interior, tries to convince the other members of the Cabinet that crops aren’t growing because they’re being watered with “Brawndo” (read: Gatorade) rather than water. In response, the Cabinet can only repeat variations on the phrase “Brawndo’s got electrolytes. It’s got what plants crave.”

Of these three prophets of the stupocalypse, Idiocracy is the most hopeful about the possibility of starting anew (though, as previously mentioned, it’s also the most troubling of the three in its suggestion that the stupocalypse is due to genetics rather than to the choice of habits that make us stupid). Super Sad True Love Story convincingly portrays a human longing for connection that persists into the stupid future. Feed is the most dismal in its outlook—Titus’ last act in the novel is to consume—which is perhaps surprising, given that M. T. Anderson is in reality very optimistic about the youth of today. In his acceptance speech for the Printz Honor award for Octavian Nothing, Anderson stated,

“I realized yet again how often I underestimate teens – how often we all underestimate them. . . . [T]eenagers are not the bland, banal, perfected ciphers we see sleazing around the groves of So-Cal on HD-TV. Those are the teens created by panels of writers terrified to alienate any potential viewers. In reality, teens are conspicuously the opposite of bland and blank: They are incredibly eccentric, deeply impassioned about their interests, fantastically – even exhaustingly – knowledgeable on the subject of topics like, say, drum and bugle corps, or horse-riding, or the United Nations, or submarine warfare. Their commitment to complexity of thought is, if anything, fiercer than an adult’s – because they have to fight so fiercely to defend it.”

This is the perspective we need to hold in tension with the dire scenarios regarding the future of our youth. At their best, the prophets of the stupocalypse remind us that what is at stake is not really intellect but rather the malformation of the soul. This is particularly important to keep in mind, since any attempt to reduce humanity to its intellectual potential is not only un-Christian but also extremely insensitive to those with mental disabilities. While my vocation as an English professor requires me to judge the skills of students in reading and interpreting texts, Jesus calls me to love and respect them all, regardless of the skills they may or may not possess. What concerns me about the future is less the diminishing of intellectual capability—though that would, of course, make my job more difficult—but rather the ways in which we are complacently allowing ourselves to be formed by technology use, without reflecting on its influence.

I’m not advocating Ludditism, but even a small gesture—a small symbolic withholding of our allegiance from the forces so dominant in our society, along the lines of Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay his poll tax—can make us more aware of the effects of the technologies in which we do choose to participate. I refuse to own a cell phone, partly because I relish solitude and partly because I don’t like the ways in which cell phones have made it culturally acceptable to be late (think about it—how many times have you failed to plan ahead enough to be on time, because you could simply call en route and let someone know you’re going to be late?). Yes, I use Gmail chat and Facebook and sometimes even Skype—my withdrawal from contemporary communications is not absolute—but my personal cell phone ban makes me more aware of how I use other technologies. I hear similar reports from individuals who have banned Facebook from their lives. It’s not so much what you choose to abstain from as it is that the symbolic gesture of abstention makes you a more critical, conscious participant in, rather than consumer of, technology.

Thoreau believed that individual acts of civil disobedience could end slavery; is it possible that small acts of resistance could prevent our indentured servitude to technology?


10 Comments

  1. “The future that I often fear we’re heading toward: a future in which information is substituted for full, incarnate experience.”

    This probably could have been the stated fear at the rise of the novel, a world in which people no longer experienced life but merely read about it. And I’m not sure the dangers are any more realistic now than they were then.

    Certainly I am a great friend of what somewhere along the line got shuffled under the heading of The Humanities. But I don’t know that it is right to make out a data-light existence as being a Better existence than one that is data-heavy. And I think your own quoting of M.T. Anderson goes some way toward illustrating that point. Rather than the future turning into the quaint, one-note dystopias of Super Sad and other comicbook fictions, it seems that those raised in a world with more data than ever before a adapting to it and making their own paths.

    I work with high school students. Many of them text incessantly. They use the typical shorthand of emoticons and textspeak. And they are just as brand-driven as their parents and grandparents were. And yet, the still read books. They still think. And with the wide expanse of data out there, they have the opportunity to think more clearly and freely than ever before. They are creative wonders. Just as we were when we were young.

    So far as reasonable futures go, the only one mentioned that strikes me as at all plausible is Idiocracy‘s in which intellectual culture is outbred by anti-intellectual culture. I mean, that’s long been the case anyway. And even the future of Idiocracy comes off as the fever dream of a paranoiac; as if the intellectual elites would allow the rabble to actually hold power.

    While I think your apprehension of technology is largely unfounded, I will agree that every tool should be used wisely and circumspectly and that we should always seek better ways to use the tools we have. Whether they be power drills or smart phones.
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    Also, do people really think of cellphones as a reason to be late? We abondoned a home phone for cellphones ages ago and I don’t think I’ve once used my phone to call and let people know I’m running late. Instead, I just show up late. I mean, I try to show up in a timely manner, but you know how it goes.
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    Also, the people who won’t use Facebook are an enigma to me. I use Facebook because I like people and I value being able to share in their lives. If I didn’t like people, then sure, Facebook would be a lame thing. But those who quit Facebook because it’s a temptation or because it’s distancing? I don’t grok that.

  2. I didn’t buy a cell phone to excuse me, but I’ve certainly used it for that.

    Carissa, this is a well-crafted review. I haven’t seen any of the three, but now I’d like to watch them all in a row.

  3. This is a very thoughtful essay (and I just added Idiocracy to my Netflix cue… which feels a bit ironic somehow.)

    It also reminds me of somethings I’ve learned from Albert Borgmann, a philosopher of technology. He talks about taking regular sabbaths from technology, not to avoid its evils necessarily, but to distance ourselves from it. Like ex-patriots are able to look back on their country and culture with a fresh perspective, people who take regular technology sabbaths can remember again what the technology does well (and what it doesn’t do well).

  4. This is a very interesting article, Carissa, but I have noticed an unsettling trend in your writing. You don’t bold key sentences that neatly summarize your main points. Reading entire paragraphs is quite tiresome. Just a tip, for the future :)

  5. Not many of the writers do it now, but most CAPC articles use to have bolded paragraph headers, which I thought was funny in the light of this article. So yes, I was joking. The misplaced comma may not have been a joke, though, considering I commonly misuse those.

    I did enjoy this article a lot. I was telling my wife about it and we talked about the diminishing range of emotional expression in modern language. She pointed out how many of our current expressions contribute to that. The example she used was the phrase, “getting emotional.” If you said that you “got emotional” about something, it means you cried, even though sadness is hardly the only emotion you can experience.

    Anyway, that was just one example, but glance at your facebook homepage (if you have facebook) and you will find many more examples. I actually think that instead of having a decreased emotional range in the future, there will just be a continual change/recycling of how it is expressed. I expect that saying “f— you” won’t be that big a deal 30 years from now, but that there will be new expressions (or old ones reused) that are used in a similar way that the f word is used now.

  6. Very helpful, Peter. My first thought was, “He’s got to be joking.” And you were!

    I do see the place for the occasional bold line (too many and it begins to look like a junk mail letter), but good writing doesn’t need much additional help outside of new paragraphs. Did you happen to see the long-form storytelling event that ProPublica hosted last month? It was a panel discussion about, among other things, holding readers’ attention. It wasn’t about bold lines, per se, but good writing in general.

    Here’s the link: http://www.propublica.org/atpropublica/item/watch-the-propublica-long-form-storytelling-event/

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