iPad, Therefore I Am

The Analogue Counter-Revolution, Part 2

Apple has a new gadget, as I'm sure you've heard. It's sleek and beautiful, a luminous and luxuriant screen they call the iPad, with which you can access and manipulate entertainment, data, and the internet with a brush of your finger.

It is an amazing machine. And like all great feats of technology, it makes itself seem, after only few minutes, both necessary and inevitable. Its sinewy siren song is loud and longing, crying out to be touched, played with, used. As many reviewers have noted, the great genius of this device is that the device itself drops away completely. You don't check your e-mail on your iPad -- you're just in your e-mail. You don't watch a movie on your iPad -- you're just holding a movie in your hand. The experience is at once immersive and invisible, seductive and submissive.

The iPad is and does all of these things. And what the iPad is and does has been the subject of considerable debate. Much less discussed is what this device, and its scores of imitators, will do to us.

I have thought and written for a while now that digital technology is exerting extreme evolutionary pressure on us and that we are witnessing before our eyes the rise of a new species -- Homo digitus, a new animal that is in fact a man/machine hybrid.

Such creatures have been standard fare in science fiction and fantasy for a long time, of course -- from Darth Vader, a villain who needs a machine to help him breathe, to Iron Man, a hero who needs a machine to keep his heart beating. In both cases, the mingling of man and metal is portrayed as a tragic yet necessary accommodation.

In our world, the melding is less physical and more intellectual and, I fear, spiritual. The internet has become a cloud brain; nothing need be memorized or remembered anymore, as the net allows for instant access to virtually the whole of accumulated human knowledge. Personalities are no longer needed -- Facebook profiles have become a simple substitute. The iPad, it goes without saying, will facilitate and accelerate these processes.

Young people who have been raised on the computer have had their brain synapses fused, if not directly to digital technology, then directly by digital technology. As a consequence, their brains are fundamentally different from the "old" kinds of brains, and therefore give rise to different kinds of minds. These new kinds of minds have different ways of viewing the world and the self, and they have a different understanding of how the latter can and should navigate the former. I submit that this difference is so profound that these new minds animate what is effectively a new species.

Speciation in the biological sense implies a genetic divergence which precludes successful physical pairing (success measured in terms of viable offspring). That's obviously not what's happening here. Rather, what is transpiring is a mental divergence which precludes successful intellectual pairing. In short, between the two peoples -- those whose brains were formed in the analogue era and those whose brains were formed in the digital era -- is emerging a vast and increasingly insurmountable mental, spiritual, and social gulf.

To give but one example: For people with analogue brains, music holds a supreme and sacred sphere in the human heart. Homo sapiens has needed music from apparently the earliest imaginings of our species, the soothing celestial chimes making the transition from beast to man less painful and traumatic. Friedrich Nietzsche summed it up as only he could when he said that life without music would be "an error."

For Homo digitus, however, music is ephemeral, mere ones and zeros, tunes and ringtones, utterly disposable and thus unworthy of love or loyalty. Music does not mean to these people what it did to their ancestors, and indeed, this new species lacks the capacity to either create or appreciate music as it was once constituted. This is no small difference; music was once thought to be the very voice of God. It is impossible for Homo digitus to imagine that experience, through no fault of their own, just as it is impossible for them to imagine a time when one had to memorize something worth knowing, such as a poem, a date, a face.

This is an old argument, the effect of technology on the human mind. In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates recounts an Egyptian tale wherein the god Thoth gives to man the gift of writing as an aid to his memory. According to Socrates -- who himself wrote nothing and indeed may have been illiterate -- the Egyptian king Thamus replied to the deity: "This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality." Socrates here points out a danger which is too often unspoken: Your shiny new invention may have many uses. But what will you give up in return for them? 

There is much discussion about whether or not the iPad is a "Kindle-killer." It is certainly that, but that is only the beginning of its potential rapacious capacity. It is quite possibly a television-killer, cell phone-killer, and laptop-killer. And maybe, just maybe, it's a soul-killer.

And God help me, I want one.

Matt Patterson is a National Review Institute Washington Fellow and the author of "Union of Hearts: The Abraham Lincoln & Ann Rutledge Story." His e-mail is mpatterson.column@gmail.com.