There are some minds which give us the impression that they have passed through an elaborate education which was designed to initiate them into the traditions and achievements of their civilization; the immediate impression we have of them is an impression of cultivation, of the enjoyment of an inheritance. But this is not so with the mind of the Rationalist, which impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his experience is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity and dissolving them into a succession of climacterics, each to be surmounted by a tour de raison. His mind has no atmospheres, no changes of season and temperature; his intellectual processes, so far as possible, are insulated from all external influence and go on in the void. And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in the technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. And if, with as yet no thought of analysis, we glance below the surface, we may, perhaps, see in the temperament, if not in the character, of the Rationalist, a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.
I was having some fun on Twitter this morning with this piece of prophetic silliness — silly even for the a-scientist-predicts-the-future genre, which is saying a lot. Computers will disappear! — because they will be ubiquitous, and I’m sure there’s no need even to wonder if ubiquitous computing could be useful to ubiquitous governments, because we’re told later in the piece that technology is bad for dictators. Capitalism will be perfected! — which means that there will no longer be any possibility of sales resistance, of saying No to the capitalists. That silly “digital divide” people used to talk about never happened! — which I know is the object of constant gratitude for all those kids in Bangladesh and Mozambique with their iPads. And since there’s no mention of global warming in the piece, or the provision of electricity to places and people that don’t have it, or the availability of clean water to places and people who currently don’t even have that, I’m sure all those little glitches in the March of Progress will have been straightened out by 2050, probably with a few lines of elegant code.
You know the kind of thing. So here I just want to make one comment: that whenever I read this kind of thing I find myself recalling the first chapter of Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, from 1904, which begins with these still-utterly-relevant words:
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
Today some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work — regardless of what we do. We are now people of the screen. And of course, these newly ubiquitous screens have changed how we read and write.
I’ve said this before, ad nauseam no doubt, but: please. There is no such thing as “the screen.” A laptop screen is not a TV screen is not a movie screen is not an iPad screen is not a Kindle screen. They’re all different, and we experience them in significantly different ways. And “letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper”? Really? All these books and magazines and newspapers and memoranda that I encounter every day are figments of my imagination?
Please, Kevin, stop it. Just stop it. Lose the oracular pronouncements and think about what you’re saying.