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  • Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age
  • Michael C. Barnhart
Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age. By Peter D. Hershock. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 308.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, paradoxical, and—in Peter Hershock's way of thinking, in Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age — predictable aspects of the digital "revolution" is the degree to which information technology becomes less a means to an end and more an end in itself. Take, for example, the humble phenomenon of the "techno-bore." Such people, having acquired some new electronic gizmo, spend all their time talking about the thing, especially savoring such conversations with like-minded techno-bores, who go on in equal and endless length about their latest toys. Rather than becoming a tool for organizing one's affairs, the digital assistant becomes one's main affair. Or, consider the case of the Internet. Although the "Web" is supposed to put us in touch with each other, say, by making e-mail possible, we find ourselves either unable to cope with the avalanche of mail that comes over the portal and thus unable to respond to it all (or at all), or we spend much more time on our mail than we ever did, thus making the mail itself a nuisance and consequently much less useful than formerly.

Of course, none of this is unique to computers and the digital workplace. The same complaints have been voiced in regard to cars, television (and radio, too), modern medicine, and industrialization—in fact, the whole gamut of innovations that we label "technology." Indeed, although information technology is Hershock's main target, it represents only the perfection of a form that has been developing for some time and which he often refers to with the phrase "technologies of control." That is, cars, televisions, blenders, can openers, and computers are tools that are put to use in order to make our lives easier; they accomplish this purpose by putting some element of the world, some range of things, more directly under our control and, importantly, by limiting our involvement with them as well. We make things more tractable, more subject to our wanting (as distinct, Hershock says, from our desiring, which involves an element of respect for the desired), and thus more an extension of ourselves rather than obdurate and resistant things. For example, insofar as a sledgehammer makes breaking rocks easier, it makes rocks and their sizes and shapes more a function of our will, less a reflection of their nature, and distances us also from the material thing. To touch a rock with one's hands is an entirely different experience, a much more intimate experience than touching it with a hammer. In a curious way, says Hershock, the rock becomes more "iconic." In other words, it becomes more representation—our representation—and less a thing-in-itself. The computer and its screen "icons" simply push this envelope to its logical end, reducing all things to "buttons" that can be pushed at will, as our wants dictate. [End Page 414]

The more things become iconic, the more they become an extension of our will. But the more they become an extension of our will, the more they become "us." That is, insofar as I successfully "technologize" my world, the more my world becomes simply a reflection of what I want. The situation is not so different from that of the absolute dictator who purges all dissenting voices from his or her realm. The realm becomes the leader—Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany, for example. And as we well know from Orwell, such power corrupts absolutely and completely, corrupts both the ruler and the ruled, reducing citizens and ruler to an infantile level. Two related phenomena attend such a development, Hershock tells us: narcissism and nihilism. We become more narcissistic because we become more obsessed with our wants as a reflection of our world. We become more nihilistic because our world of wants is intrinsically meaningless: it reflects what we want, not why we want it, no larger purpose. In short...


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pp. 414-418
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