A Most Irritating Affectation

The most irritating affectation of the modern intellectual is to pretend to be technically incompetent. I exaggerate, of course, but I hope you catch my drift. Especially if you’ve encountered the specimen of humanity that I have in mind. (Mostly on social media, but often in person too.)

The type is clearly identified: a clearly intellectually accomplished individual–perhaps by dint of academic pedigree, perhaps by a body of public work, or just plain old clearly visible ‘smarts’–claims that they are incompetent in modern technology, that they simply cannot master it, that their puny minds cannot wrap their heads around the tools that so many of their friends and colleagues seem to have so effortlessly mastered. (‘Oh, I have no idea how to print double-sided’; ‘Oh, I have no idea what you mean by hypertext’). They are just a little too busy, you see, with their reading–good ol’ dead-tree books, no Kindles or Nooks here!–and writing–well, not on typewriters sadly, but word processors, for some change really cannot be resisted. Rest assured though, that they have to call for help every time they need to change the margins or fonts or underline some text.

This absorption in old-fashioned methodologies and materials of learning thus marks them as gloriously archaic holdovers from an era which we all know to have been characterized by a greater intellectual rectitude than ours. While the rest of us are slaves to fashion, scurrying around after technology, desperately trying to keep up with the technical Joneses, our hero is occupied with the life of the mind. So noble; such a pristine life, marked by utter devotion to the intellect and free of grubby mucking around with mere craft.

Why do I find this claim of incompetence to be an irritating affectation? My suspicion is easily provoked because I do find posturing in all too many places–as I did above in expressions of faux modesty, sometimes called humblebrags in the modern vernacular, but here, I think, is the rub. Those who profess such incompetence merely outsource the work of learning the tools we all learn to do our work to us. They are unwilling to put in the time to learn; they are too busy with their important work; we are not for we have, after all, shown that we have time to spare to learn. We should help–it is now our duty to aid their intellectual adventures.

A claim to incompetence should not be occasion for cheer, but it is. We are, after all, ambivalent about the technology that so dominates, regulates, and permeates our life; we are, all too often, willing to cheer on evidence that not all is well in this picture of utter and complete absorption in technique. We applaud this disdain; we wish we were so serene, so securely devoted to our pursuit of knowledge. We are also, of course, clapping wildly for a rebellion of sorts, a push-back against the creeping march of technology into every corner of our lives.

I think we can find better heroes.

Note: I’m willing to make some concessions for those over the age of fifty, but anyone younger than that bragging about their technical klutziness needs a rhetorical kneecapping.

7 comments on “A Most Irritating Affectation

  1. patricksodonnell says:

    I don’t plead incompetence but avoidance, i.e.,a rebellion of sorts: no cell phone, microwave oven, camera, Kindle/Nook/what have you, laptop…never have used an ATM machine. In fact, I’ve never flown in a plane (low carbon footprint!) and ride my bicycle whenever possible (never owned anything remotely close to a new car). Folks laugh at our small-screen TV, and while I often can figure out my computer problems, I do have an expert on occasion come and fix things. The only reason I bought a computer in the first place was for my part-time employment as a teacher at the local college (and yes, I’m now otherwise dependent). Nothing in principle against such stuff, I just like simplifying things so as to help me focus on what, for me, truly matters (I need all the help I can get, so I don’t assume that what works for me is necessary for others as well).

  2. Anna says:

    That seems a little random: no microwave, but you probably have a refrigerator and a coffee maker? No cell phone, but probably a land line? What makes one thing different from the others? How old they are? How environmentally horrible/not so horrible they are? I guess it is just not clear to me how having a cell phone — and thus being able to communicate a bit more easily with those who matter to you — stands on the way of “what truly matters”….

  3. patricksodonnell says:

    First, the list was representative, not exhaustive, nor are all the reasons of an environmental sort. And It’s not random (to me) in insofar as I’m trying to reduce the number of gadgets in my life (in part, by asking, ‘do I really need this?’). I don’t like to “cook” with a microwave (and yes, there are differences with regard to cooking) and no, I don’t have a coffeemaker: we use drip filters. Not having a cellphone saves us money (and being on a very limited income, the ‘need’ question involves an economic rationale), and I don’t have to worry about being tempted to spend all my time staring at the thing in public or other spaces as I observe countless other folks do on a daily basis, thereby avoiding meaningful and or even the barest forms of human (including ‘eye’) contact. In other words, it’s easier for me to interact with others while observing minimal forms of human etiquette or manners (in a Confucian sense), or simply human decency as I’ve come to understand it. If there are no differences between a land line and a cell phone, why do so many prefer the latter over the former? For me, those differences do not amount to sufficient reason to purchase the device; on the other hand, our children bought my wife a simple cell phone and I’m glad they did (e.g., she drives a car built in 1967 and it occasionally breaks down at odd hours and awkward places, so the phone was quite useful). The list can be seen as random from the outside looking in inasmuch as it is yours truly who decides what I want to give up and what I might need or want (i.e., justify to myself). As I said, I don’t expect others to make the same choices or have the same reasons. I’m also a vegan, and some of the reasons I’m a vegan are health-related, environmental, others economic, a few moral and spiritual. I don’t expect everyone to find all these reasons necessarily persuasive but I’d certainly be willing to make some of these arguments to others (at the right place and time), to attempt to persuade them why they might or should give up eating meat, fish, and dairy products. I’m not prepared to do that with regard to the sum total of my personal technological choices or technology-related behavior. These choices revolve around a highly personal attempt (perhaps as an ‘experiment in living’ in the Gandhian sense), however inconsistent, awkward, or idiosyncratic, to “living simply” (cf. see David Shi’s Living Simply: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture), something that is done in degrees and in different ways by different folks. In my case, it enables me to be more attentive to my surroundings, including the human and non-human animals dear to me as well as those I may encounter in my daily life. Relatedly, it helps bring a “stillness” of mind (and perhaps heart!) that many appear to find rather elusive or impossible to attain in the “busyness” of their everyday routines, a busyness that is often intimately bound up with technological devices of one kind or another (one reason an increasing number of people find it necessary to take periodic ‘time off’ from social media, their cell phones or computers…).

  4. Anna says:

    Thanks for your response. It’s interesting that our communication is being mediated through the kind of technology that you seem to want to exclude from your life — but here we are. Also, I do not think that Samir is talking about someone like you — there are other people whom I am pretty sure he has in mind. However, a few general thoughts: I am perfectly willing to grant that people are motivated by all sorts of things, and choose lifestyles (to the extent that they can be truly “chosen”) based on values and desires that have deep personal significance. But I am still very much with Samir here in suggesting that one person’s choices not to engage can mean other people’s having to work that much harder when such engagement is necessary. For example, if I refuse to learn how to drive, then chances are, someone will have to drive me. If I do not have a cell phone in an era where they are as ubiquitous as credit cards, chances are that people who want to get in touch with me will be forced to work that much harder to do so. And, economic considerations aside, I am just not sure that my personal preferences for what — purity? simplicity? something else? — ought to burden others in a way that, really, is just a lifestyle choice. After all, having an electronic device does not mean that I have to stare at it all the time and avoid “real” human contact — I have one, and really am not attached to it at the expense of interacting with the rest of the world. In other words, having something does not mean that one will necessarily fall into the worst habits as far as its use goes. The reasons that so many people prefer having a cell phone rather than a land line are many, and, other than the ability communicate (or not communicate: it does have an “off” button!), you can get directions in an unfamiliar place; find out something interesting about, well….anything….if such a desire comes to mind; listen to music; write things down if one does not have any pen and paper, and so on….My point is this: there is a difference, and the reasons that people choose hand-held devices is because they do something very positive — even though there are, as with most things, some bad side-effects. Focusing just on those side-effects and asking what the big deal is is, at , best a bit odd. Finally, I think that there is a huge difference between being ambivalent about technology — a healthy ambivalence is, I think, a necessity — and completely, or almost completely opting out due to a desire for a particular image, or an ideal, or a lifestyle choice. One certainly does nor have to chase the latest and the coolest and the most expensive and the fanciest gadget. But declaring that one is pretty much refusing to join in any meaningful way the common language of the most COMMON, everyday technologies is not engaging with the world — it is retreating from it into some kind of private wish-fulfillment about how it was, or how it ought to be. The whole “man versus technology” meme is so 1980s, so high school, so, well, lacking in a broader understanding about how we have become the kind of technological species for whom its technological creations are not “other,” but very much a part of our individual, and collective, identities. And not necessarily in some Hollywood-ized, dystopian way, either: we are not becoming cyborgs, disengaged from nature and from each other (although the temptation and the possibilities are always there). Instead, we are grappling with these very difficult questions of who we are, and how technology fits in. So, it seems that if you are completely opting out (and I realize that your opting out is not complete), you are either, as Samir suggesting, engaging in the affectations of privilege, or simply confusing the act of participating in the human conversation as it is currently taking place, which surely differs from the way that it has taken place before. If what you really want to do is connect to others, then you have to have the proper tools — and those, like everything else, evolve.

  5. patricksodonnell says:

    (I well realize Samir wasn’t necessarily talking about ‘someone like me.’) I think it’s patently absurd to imagine the choices I have made have added to anyone’s burden in any way whatsoever. If someone I know or want to know wants to contact me, they can: I’m not living in the Himalayas or in a monastic commune in the wilderness. I never said, to paraphrase, that “having an electronic device means one has to stare at all the time and avoid ‘real’ human contact.” Rather, I’ve experienced and observed other people behaving in this manner: I see them, they do not see me. I’ve asked my students about this and they nod in agreement. In the morning, these same students come to class and, for the most part (meaning, there are exceptions), stare down at their phones. When I was a student, we did not do this: instead, we often spoke with one another, introduced ourselves to each other, perhaps engaged the teacher in conversation (provided he or she was not late to class), and so forth (yes, sometimes we read a book or magazine or sipped our coffee in silence and ignored each other). As I walk across campus, I have to make sure I don’t walk or ride into other students who are looking down at their phones when strolling across campus: they don’t see me (or the Pacific Ocean from our bluff top campus!), they don’t care one way or the other. From my comparative vantage point, the earlier period of time was in some way, somehow, more “humane.” I realize there’s no turning back. Perhaps I’m just a nostalgic old fart (at the far end of 50), and no doubt I am “odd,” so be it. When I visit our local bookstore, folks are sometimes blabbering loudly into their phones, not infrequently about intimate details of their lives. Why should I be compelled to listen to that? I used to be able to browse through and read pages of books I was thinking of buying without interruption: no longer. I realize there has emerged some minimal standards of cell phone etiquette as well as occasional notice of rules regarding usage (e.g., at restaurants or in motor vehicles), so perhaps things will improve a bit on this front, I don’t know, but I’m not hopeful. You can have your cell phone and celebrate its virtues: I’m not stopping you, I simply have chosen otherwise: it’s surprising to me that this seems to bother you. I’m as engaged with the world as I need to be. I never said anything whatsoever about people becoming “cyborgs,” nor did I indulge in any “man v. technology” meme or claptrap. And if you care to accuse me of affectations of privilege, fine, I can live with that: I do have the privilege of deciding how I want to live my life (many others don’t have this advantage or may not even know what that means). Oh, and on occasion I have answered my wife’s cell phone when she could not get to it. Capitalist technological innovation means, invariably, that “wants” are continually transformed into “needs” (hence the relevance of ‘relative inequality’). I’ve decided, here and there, not to participate in that process in my own case and for my own reasons, some of which others might find applicable to their lives as well. You write that “refusing to join in any meaningful way the common language of the most COMMON, everyday technologies is not engaging with the world — it is retreating from it into some kind of private wish-fulfillment about how it was, or how it ought to be.” That strikes me as deliberately obtuse and hyperbolic nonsense. I’m as engaged with “the world” as I need to be, and I suspect in a manner more deliberate and attentive than those who spend more time with their technological devices than they do with their fellow human beings.

  6. Anna says:

    Just two things: First, being “as engaged with the world as I need to be” presupposes that one is, or should be, the sole agent of that engagement. I do not believe that this is the case, but this is a much more complex and involved conversation than I am willing to have here. Second, “spending time with [one’s] technological devices” can JUST be spending time with other people — on the other side of those devices. What “bothers” me is not that you do not “celebrate” the cell phone with me — I am not sure that I “celebrate” it, either — but that you insist on this “good old days” versus “the horrible now” narrative. I am not sure that the old days were that good, what with those punks and their boomboxes and Walkmans and noisy cars and all! Oh, and don’t get me started on MTV!

  7. patricksodonnell says:

    There is no totalizing narrative intended on my part except insofar as I do not see inevitable progress: the world as I see it is certainly not better in some if not many respects than it was earlier in my lifetime (and no, I’m not awaiting the apocalypse): that’s my judgment and others no doubt will judge differently, perhaps with different criteria…and in some respects I much prefer the world of today than yesteryear (as when visiting Los Angeles, which has far less smog than when I was a young man, or when dining out or grocery shopping: far more palatable vegetarian and vegan choices, or when changing a flat tire on a bicycle, which is much easier and simpler than it used to be). Nothing I said precluded the possibility that “‘spending time with [one’s] technological devices’ can JUST be spending time with other people — on the other side of those devices.” (I would have thought that could go without saying.) Of course should that be the primary or preferred manner of spending time with other people, then that might be some cause for concern (Sherry Turkle has some interesting things to say about this). In my neighborhood, noisy cars are still with us. (In general, you appear to read too much into my comments, making inferences not intended or necessarily warranted by what I wrote.)

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