At right: The original iPad.
There has been much hype about Apple's latest toy, the iPad (which is being released today), just as there is about every new gadget that comes out. Since the 1990s, there has been an almost continuous stream of hype and giddy optimism about computer technology in general, and an ongoing myth about how the Internet, the iPod, smart phones, Facebook, blogs, etc. are "revolutionizing" our turn-of-the-millenium world. There can be little doubt that we are living in the midst of a technological and cultural revolution in the strictly objective sense (i.e., that things are changing a lot, and changing fast), but it is another question entirely as to whether this revolution is completely good or beneficial.
I can already hear the impassioned screams of "Luddite!" at merely questioning the complete goodness and beneficence of the current digital revolution, as though I were committing a grave sacrilege against the all-knowing god of the microchip. But technology is our invention and our servant, at least that is what it is supposed to be, and we certainly have the right to question our own creation and to evaluate it soberly (which doesn't mean blindly demonizing it any more than it means blindly exalting it).
As I've said before, computers have produced many benefits for society, and the iPad will surely prove to be a useful tool for many people, but it will not help to advance human knowledge and intelligence any more than the computer already has. And it is questionable how much the computer has done to advance human knowledge and intelligence (in many ways, it seems to work against it, but that is a topic for another post). The only real advantage for knowledge that networked digital technology provides--and it is a big one--is that it greatly aids in the dissemination of information, and makes it easier to find things. But it does nothing, and even harms, the ability to actually gain knowledge or to enhance intelligence. We have already reached the apex of mind-enhancing technology. In fact, we reached that point centuries ago. This great advance was called the codex (known more popularly as the "book"). Gutenberg's printing revolution greatly enchanced this technology and made it more widely accessible, but we haven't really improved on it substantially. Even before the invention of the codex in the early Christian era, however, human knowledge and intelligence thrived and advanced, and culture blossomed and flourished. Wisdom never needed technology, still doesn't, and never will.
In our oh-so-enlightened and sophisticated 21st century, we like to look back at the "naive" utopianism of the 1950s, with its faith in space exploration and household gadgets, and even to look back in scorn at disastrous 20th century attempts to "modernize" our cities and our food. But we ourselves have our own starry-eyed utopianism, and that is our optimistic faith in computers and all the associated digital technologies that promise to make our lives complete. Perhaps, in 2050 or so, our children's children will look back on us and see us as laughably naive, or perhaps even resent what we did to ruin our cultural landscape and obesify our intellectual lives with our blind digital faith.
In the meantime, whenever I enter the marketplace of the microchip, I will follow the example of my teacher Socrates and be amazed at how many things I don't need.