“Give me problems, give me work” – thus sayeth Sherlock Holmes. Though possessed of a superhuman enthusiasm and eye for detail when at his best, Holmes could barely function in the absence of a new case or a worthy opponent. So fares humanity in the face of complacency and routine. We have become anaesthetized by the apathy afforded to us by our gadgets, by our pursuit of ever more “entertainment” that arouses mainly – in lieu of curiosity – one’s sense of schadenfreude. We used to dream of setting foot on Mars – now we pine for the iPhone 5. As much as Steve Jobs deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of technology, the rest of us should be ashamed at how we allow the numbing convenience of that technology change us into passive receivers of information, or worse, robotic consumers valued only for our ability to enter our PIN at the cash register. Human beings are more than that, aren’t we?
I don’t want to sound like the Luddite pining for the days of the telegraph and the cotton gin as civilization advances around him. I’m as guilty as the next guy. I have a smartphone, a high-def television, a PVR, a Wii, a Blu-ray player and Netflix; I tweet, blog, use Facebook, Quora and many other social networking sites. Gadgetry is cool, there are no two ways about it. Stephen Fry, who – apart from my friend Tadd – may possibly be the most literate man alive, has long been obsessed with advances in technology but has not let that passion diminish his zeal for the irreplaceable substance of the written word. There has been more than enough dystopian fiction penned about losing ourselves amidst the efficiencies of the mechanized society. The challenge is, as always, to integrate that technology into life without abandoning oneself to it entirely – to log out every once in a while and reconnect with the organic. To look back at where we’ve been and learn from what has gone before.
There is an interesting parallel to this when it comes to writing, especially in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. Too many authors, it seems to me, get caught up in creating their worlds – crafting unpronounceable place and character names (rife with apostrophes), imagining new systems of religion and government, fanciful creatures, mythical objects and rules of magic. While those kinds of details are certainly important, they’re the icing, not the cake. Key to any successful story, no matter the genre, is the humanity of the characters – that their emotions and conflicted feelings can be understood and shared. I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan; J.K. Rowling focuses too much on weird beings, MacGuffins and deus ex machina for my liking, but the reason Harry Potter works and reaches the audience it does is that everyone can understand the sense of alienation from the rest of the world and the wish fulfillment of finding out that one is truly special after all. As large book retailers go bankrupt like falling dominoes and e-readers eat up the market, hopefully the humanity of our stories will continue to shine through – from the glowing screen if not from the printed page. We must take care not to let the pursuit of greater technology become our raison d’etre – if so, we are only the Borg minus the physical implants. Rather, technology’s aim should be the enhancement of the human spirit – to make our souls shine brighter and stand apart from the darkness. To do otherwise simply does not compute.