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Technology and Human Responsibility | Information, Computers, and Education

Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away?
Stephen L. Talbott


[This article in its original form was published in Orion (spring, 1998) and also appeared in The Internet and Higher Education (vol. 1, no. 2, 1998) and in NetFuture #70 (April 30, 1998). It is now a chapter in Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines, released by O'Reilly Media in spring, 2007.]


If you’ve ever looked through the wrong end of a telescope, you know that this instrument has opposite effects, depending on how you use it. What may be less obvious is that even normal use of the telescope can be rather paradoxical.

We marvel at the incomprehensibly remote galaxies brought near to us by the modern telescope, and know that our existence on earth would be sadly impoverished without their austere majesty. And yet, by expanding the universe without limit, isolating our vision from our other senses, and encouraging us to view ourselves as chance objects among billions and billions of objects, far from the center of things, this same telescope has whispered to many: “You are an accident, lost in a vast, wind-blown desert where the grains of sand are stars.”

Things, apparently, can be brought closer while at the same time becoming more remote, more disconnected from us. “We had to travel to the moon in 1969,” surmises psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in Technology As Symptom and Dream, not because it had come so near to us, but “because it had gone so far away.”

Did we, like the middle-aged man seeking the long-lost love of his youth, travel to the moon in order to see whether, in our state of alienation, we still had a connection to it? Did we vaguely hope that the magic, the dying coals of an earlier flame, might be rekindled through this reunion? If so, the question is whether our chosen instruments of approach were self-defeating. If the telescope not only brings things nearer, but also transforms and objectifies space in a way that can easily make us feel like chance intruders, it is not at all clear, for example, that the rockets within which we fling our bodies through this alien space are vehicles of reconciliation and homecoming.

Home, of course, is where every child belongs. But a world that feels like home is increasingly what we deny our children -- this despite the televisions and Internet connections that bring the world into the intimacy of their bedrooms. Such devices, I would argue, only accentuate the central educational challenge: how do we help the child find his own connections to the world?

The Loss of Significance

I don’t think modern technology necessarily alienates us from the world it mediates. But a lot depends on our recognizing how it can do so. And the first thing to say here is that the problem is not and never was one of scale. It is badly mistaken to think: “The telescope reveals the earth as a mere flyspeck in the cosmic infinitudes, so of course we can no longer consider ourselves significant in the old religious sense.” That’s as confused a bit of thinking as any nonsense for which we ridicule the ancients. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, “Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space.” Nor, Lewis adds, do we really believe that a six-foot man is more important than a five-foot man, or that a tree is more important than a human, or a leg more important than a brain.

Spatial dimension has never been a measure of significance. When we argue today that big is significant and small is insignificant, we merely testify to our loss of any sense for what is significant.

So if telescopes and other instruments of modern science express our alienation from the world, it is not because of the dimensional scales they introduce, but because we have tended, with their encouragement, to substitute dimension for the things that count. Employing such tools, we are invited to ignore our own significant connections to the world, which are never merely quantitative.

But it is not only the moon and planets and stars that have come to seem remote from us. The historical psychologist J. H. van den Berg, in tracing the alienation of Westerners from their own physical landscape, has written:

Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty .... They are simulating an emotion which they do not actually feel. It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment. (1961, p. 233)

The spirit of simulation, moreover, extends to the feverish effort to capture the experience on film. “I’ve seen people in the Everglades come onto the walkway with their video equipment, take a picture, and go away,” says Massachusetts naturalist John Hanson Mitchell. They scarcely noticed whatever it was that made the scene worth capturing.

We take much the same approach toward births, graduations, marriages, and the like. It’s as if, not trusting our vague, subjective experience of the event, we need to freeze and objectify it in the hope that we can come up with a more fitting appreciation later. But what the stored image will enable us to recall and appreciate most vividly is the experience of picture-taking.

Living in a Virtual World

There are many other symptoms of our estrangement from the world. I once spoke to an extremely intelligent high school graduate who was not sure in which direction the sun rose. Bill McKibben tells of a camping trip during which he learned that adolescents who had lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks did not know there was such a thing as the Milky Way. I’ve heard an astronomy teacher lament that, after Star Wars, students lost interest in the “boring” view through a telescope, and a naturalist complain about the television generation’s disinterest in the not-sufficiently-exotic local flora and fauna.

None of this reflects a shortage of information. The problem is that today something is substituting for the child’s intimacy with the world. And if you want to know the nature of the substitution, consider the lenses, video screens, instrument panels, windows, phones, loudspeakers, books, faxes, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and various protected environments through which we gauge our relations to the world. How can the child possibly feel that the natural world counts for much of anything at all?

Michael Crichton tells of a young boy who looked at all the sea creatures in a public aquarium and asked, “Is this virtual reality or real reality?” The audience, I think, was expected to be disconcerted by the boy’s cluelessness. Rightly so. But let’s picture the situation for a moment:

After a couple of hours watching Saturday morning cartoons, the boy is handed a lunch extracted from various cans, bags, and cartons and cooked in a microwave oven. Then he leaves the house with his parents and gets into the family station wagon. Driving off with the radio playing, they pass blindly through the local environment at fifty miles per hour, and then negotiate the traffic and lights of downtown, where virtually everything to be seen has been constructed. Eventually they park their car in a huge lot near a large, concrete building, enter the lobby of the building, buy tickets at a movie theater­like ticket window, walk through a large hall filled with weird, eye-catching promotional posters, go down some stairs, and then, along with a crowd of total strangers, they enter a series of rooms whose glass walls display the brightly colored forms of exotic fish dredged up from the bottom of the Atlantic.

Now, ask yourself: Is this boy peculiar for having some uncertainties about the “reality” he is being hustled through? Or are we the ones hopelessly out of touch, failing to appreciate the problems of disconnection and incoherence written all over the surface of our daily lives?

In my opinion, the most revealing thing about this story is our own surprise at the boy’s puzzlement. The degree to which we have subjected him to a manufactured, chaotic, and disconnected sequence of images and experiences simply escapes our notice.

Now, I happen to believe that the construction of truly human environments is no bad thing. In fact, it is one of our highest callings. But there is no denying that what we have constructed so far is more an assault upon the world and a fragmentation of it than a crowning of it.

Realistically, I think we should have expected the boy to exclaim, “Wow! Where’d you get those awesome 3-D screensavers?” But whatever the child’s response, we can be absolutely sure of one thing: his experience had almost nothing in common with that of the young Tom Brown, Jr. -- eventually to become a famous tracker and wilderness expert -- who was mucking about in a local stream, entertaining the crawdads, at the fateful moment when he met Stalking Wolf. That stream became a teaching resource for Stalking Wolf because it was connected via a thousand pathways to Tom’s interests and daily existence. It was there.

Those of you who have read Tom Brown’s books know that Stalking Wolf, the old Apache scout, had a peculiar way of teaching his young student during their ten-year partnership. Stalking Wolf was no citizen of the Age of Information, for his “coyote method” came close to being a flat-out refusal to divulge information. In response to questions he would say things such as “Go ask the mice,” or “Feed the birds.” The student would immediately be off on a new adventure of days’ or weeks’ duration.

To teach fire-making with a bow drill, Stalking Wolf gave Tom a piece of oak from which it would have been impossible to coax a live coal. Only much later (and after long struggle) did Tom discover that, using cedar wood, he could start a fire almost instantly, thanks to the techniques he had honed so well upon the recalcitrant oak. So now, not only did he know how to make a fire, but, much more importantly, his skills grew out of an understanding of the world in which he was embedded.

Tom went on to develop survival and tracking abilities that seem all but supernatural to many observers. He has located lost persons and helped to track down criminals for law enforcement agencies. During recent years, he has devoted his life to teaching others.

Interestingly, though, he quickly gave up the coyote method of teaching. It simply doesn’t work for most people today. They just get lost and discouraged because, unlike Tom with the crawdads, they have no time and they’re not connected to anything. Or, rather, their connections are one-dimensional, abstract, arbitrary, and of uncertain reality. The creek is one thing, but how do you make a child’s world out of a concrete building with exotic “screensavers”?

We can begin to attack the problem, but it always involves grounding the child in a world to which he can relate on as many different levels as possible. The daughter of one of our neighbors grew up to be a marine biologist, and I’m sure aquariums figured in her upbringing. But when she was a little girl, and throughout her youth, her parents took her to the seashore at every opportunity. They waded through tide pools, explored, and had adventures.

Learning the Language of Horses

The Man Who Listens to Horses is the remarkable story of how Monty Roberts, by observing horses -- by listening to their language of movement and gesture -- learned to relate to them as a friend and collaborator. In hundreds of demonstrations Roberts has persuaded wild or untrained horses to submit to bridle, saddle, and rider without any use of constraining force. Employing his own body to speak the horse’s language, Roberts plays out a subtle drama of horse behavior in which he must read and respond to the horse’s “utterances,” right down to the fear or intelligence or curiosity shining through its eyes. Finally he turns his back on the horse and walks away -- whereupon this often high-strung flight animal slowly comes up to him from behind to await further collaboration. It often takes less than thirty minutes to saddle and mount a horse that has never been ridden before.

Roberts speaks of similar “join-up” with deer, and he remarks that it is always a stirring moment for him when a flight animal agrees to be touched by the human hand.

But what is going on here? How can it be that such experience is so rare for us? If we can put a man on the moon, how is it that most of us can be so blind in our understanding of the animals our race has employed for millennia? Well, as I have suggested, we may have become blind in part because we have sent a man to the moon -- that is, because we have been interested only in the exploration and conquering of objects, and you cannot hold a conversation with an object. We have not been taught to look for the nuances of meaning and gesture through which we can hold a delicate, yet powerful conversation with the beings of nature. Certainly computer-mediated communication has not seemed to encourage development of our more subtle conversational potentials!

There are a few things I would like to say in relating Roberts’ story to education.

The first is that we’ve not lacked the opportunity to learn what Roberts learned. Many of the things he learned have in fact been learned before. Roberts’ uncle told him how the Cherokees used to capture wild horses: at the end of an extended conversation through movement, they would walk into a corral with the horses willingly following them. A book by John Solomon Rarey in the mid-1800s created a stir throughout Europe by detailing the dramatic potentials of collaboration between man and horse. In 1858 a writer in the Illustrated London News predicted that Rarey’s name “will rank among the great social reformers of the nineteenth century.” But instead the book -- along with its insights -- was forgotten.

Something in our culture works powerfully against a sensitive, participative understanding of the world, often obliterating that understanding wherever it does arise. I believe that a primary task of education today is to counter this one-sidedness.

Second, the “delicate conversation” I mentioned a moment ago is not a casual exchange of information. Roberts’ understanding arose from close observation of the finest details, repeated again and again while he was wholly immersed in the horse’s environment. He tried to experience that environment as the horse experienced it. This is not at all the sort of knowledge, or information, that can be passed automatically from one mind or database to another.

In our drive to achieve frontal, effective power over the world, we have generally not had the patience to cultivate the very different, but no less effective powers of intimacy and sympathy. But if we want to redress the imbalance of our culture, surely this is where we must apply ourselves.

Third, Roberts loved horses. He could not bear to see them suffer, and his desire to understand them was a passion that drove him through great danger. You do not hear much about that kind of love in the contemporary arguments for ever more thoroughly wired schools.

Fourth, if there is any one place where this intimacy and sympathy, this immersion in the concrete environment of the other, this delicate reading of nuance and meaning, is most required, it is in human relations. Here the task must surely be even more complex and challenging than it is with horses. Yet one can fairly say that the future hangs upon our capacity to read the other person in his own world -- certainly much more than it hangs on our ability to pass information around. Where you find social breakdown, you will also find people who don’t even know how to begin the process of mutual understanding that brought Monty Roberts and wild horses into fruitful engagement.

Once we recognize this, we can hardly avoid the uncomfortable sense that our society has gone quite out of its mind in making the computer the tool of choice for connecting young students to “sources of information.” The computer undeniably inserts a distance between people that must be overcome. As a result it is much easier for us to objectify others -- to treat them in terms of our own needs. It disconnects words from the speaker, ignores much of our nonverbal communication, and occludes the larger environment that is always speaking and being spoken through us.

I am not saying that the limitations of the computer, any more than the limitations of the telescope, are insuperable. We can and must learn to overcome them. But they are hardly the obvious instruments for countering the prevailing imbalance of society. And if it is true that the twenty-first century will be the age of unimaginably sophisticated and pervasive technologies, then counterbalance is what we will need most.

A Chickadee Lesson

I would like to conclude by elaborating a little on the story about chickadees (chapter 3) -- certainly a much more humble story than the one Monty Roberts relates. When I first became interested in birds, I wasn’t able to do much more than begin to observe and listen as best I could in my own neighborhood. But eventually I decided to see whether I could coax a few birds into feeding from my hand.

I spent four days -- about an hour and a half per day -- sitting on the steps of my house, beside a bench, which happens to be just a few feet from a mix of trees, weeds, and brush that makes an ideal habitat for many birds. I spread seed around so as to encourage the birds to come closer and closer as I sat motionless.

On the fourth day the first black-capped chickadee, with a lightning-quick peck, stole a sunflower seed from my hand and fled for his life. Soon, however, he and some of his kin were jumping right into my hand, and eventually an occasional one would go about his precision business of punching open the seed while holding it against my thumb.

Chickadees, of course, don’t really count, since they’re half human already. But other birds -- even including the storm troopers, which most people call bluejays -- got progressively curious. Juncos, titmice, and nuthatches braved the human hand. And at times, amid a flurry of wings and sudden little air blasts against the face, I found my head, arms, legs, and feet all used as temporary perches.

Now, rest assured: I am no man who listens to birds. I have no special sympathies or skills -- and in fact am probably deprived in this regard. I simply went rather mechanically through the steps required to accustom the birds to a human feeding station. After I had done this, my grown son took my place and had birds feeding from his hand on the first try. A child could do the same.

I am coming to appreciate the chickadee in ways I never would have thought possible. But the prolonged stillness and quiet of my vigils are themselves valuable. I see things I would never see while moving about normally. Once a hawk, attended by a highly upset bluejay, landed on a low branch about ten yards in front of my face, scattering all the smaller birds. A pileated woodpecker, I discovered to my surprise, sometimes visits our little grove. And I’ve watched a hare drowsing for an hour or so in the filtered sunlight just inside the brush line.

All this was an epiphany for me. It was all I could do to restrain myself from collaring everyone I met and exclaiming, “I had a bird eating out of my hand today!”

But this, I suggest, depicts a sad state of affairs. There I was, a middle-aged man, and I was discovering for the first time what it can be like to “join up” with a little bit of nature. Others are not as slow and backward as I. But it seems to me there is a question that might occur to anyone who has had such an experience. What would it cost us to wire, say, every third-grade class to a few birds? Just chickadee feed.

And the same question, with the same answer, applies to countless other aspects of nature. Yet we are spending billions of dollars to give our children computer-mediated, distance-increasing experiences of the world.

Where are our priorities? Children are not at risk of missing out on the fact that we’re becoming a wired society. We don’t need help making sure that future generations embrace technology. Technophobia just doesn’t happen to be the dominant trait of our society. What we need is balance and connection.

We are right to think that technology has huge implications for education. But no more with the computer than with the television will the decisive problem be one of familiarization and adaptation. The adaptation occurs all too well on its own. Children must learn, rather, how to hold these technologies in a human balance. And I suggest that a bird in the hand -- and a pine cone, and a rock, and a crawdad, and a snowflake -- are the counterbalances we need if our alienation from nature is not to become more than the world can bear. These bits of nature may not seem like much to us -- but that is the problem. For the child they can hold magic -- exactly the magic that, in a matured form, may be required to ground the adult in a society encompassed on every side by virtuality.

Steve Talbott :: Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away?

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