Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/28/2009

In Which I Exercise My Right to Be a Grumpy Old Man

Not quite in my father's lifetime

Students’ eyes glaze over when I talk about changes in the world in my father’s lifetime. The first airplane flight was fewer than ten years before his birth. In that year, the first gyroscope was installed in an airplane enabling stable flight. The entire history of aviation has occurred in his lifetime.  

He was twenty-nine when the first prototype of a binary-based electronic digital computer was completed (1943). He was thirty-one when the Electronic Numerical Integrator, the first useable computer, was completed (1946), and, shockingly, I was a year old. When my father was sixty-two years old and I was thirty-two, the FCC approved construction and testing of the first cellular telephone system in Chicago (1977). 

I’m pretty sure most people (especially those under 40 years old for whom these “advancements” are simply matters of fact, nothing to marvel at) would say the world has “evolved,” not “devolved,” but I don’t think so. 

devolve. v. 1. To degenerate or deteriorate gradually. 2. To cause to roll downward.
devolve. c.1420, from L. devolvere “to roll down,” from de- + volvere “to roll” 1545, from de- + (e)volution. In biology, as the opposite of evolution, it is attested from 1882.  

Most people I associate with regularly understand their lives to have a “spiritual nature.” They pray, they believe that—because they are human—they cannot in any spiritual sense control their own destinies, and, therefore, they give the guidance of their lives over to God. These attitudes are guiding principles of friends both religious and not. It’s interesting to me that “spiritual” in this sense is a modern term:

. . . . spirituality. . . . as ‘that which gives people meaning and purpose in life. . . . can be achieved ‘through participation in a religion, but can be much broader than that, such as belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts.’ (1) The use of this term with this connotation is of surprisingly recent origin. Anthropologists have typically applied the word spiritual to much more concrete aspects of religious and shamanic practice. Its current usage can be understood to have derived from a number of sources, some of them particular to recent trends in American culture over the past half century. (2)

As I have written here before, many friends have tried to convince me that, if I do not keep up with the changes in technology that drive society in the 21st century, I will soon become a fossil, redundant, an old man who is out of touch with the world. Presumably pathetic, lonely, and unable to communicate with anyone who isn’t also pathetic, lonely, and unable to communicate.

I have a peculiarly grumpy-old-mannish answer to that proposition: I would rather be pathetic, lonely, and unable to communicate than to have lost my spiritual nature to technology.

I must insert caveats here. As far as I know (I admit my perceptions grow more limited every day), not one micro-chip of technology can—in any real sense—act on my body, my mind, or my “spirit” to make my brain perform differently than it will of its own accord when the conditions are right for its synapses to misfire and gift me with a seizure. Neither does any technological apparatus have the ability to lift my debilitating depression. I am approaching this subject from my own special limited and (perhaps) bizarre perspective. My neurologist mentions brain surgery to control seizures. And I know all kinds of electronic and computer-driven devices are in place to help people with all kinds of brain disorders. Call me stuck in self-pity or whatever. I haven’t heard of any such device that would change the way I experience the world—and, besides, I’m not at all certain that others wouldn’t benefit from paying attention to a tiny bit of my explanation of the way I experience the world.

End of caveats.

Plato's School, 1st Century BCE, mosaic from Pompeii

Thamus and Theuth.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of the myth of King Thamus and the god Theuth. You might find it fun to read. (3) I learned of the myth in the 1990s in Neil Postman’s Technolopoly: the surrender of culture to technology. My grumpy old man commentary: I’ll bet almost no one who might read this blog has any sense of what Postman meant by the “surrender of culture” because a book from 1992 is fossilized in the library and—more likely—for most people who might stumble upon my little blog, technology IS culture.

My hypergraphia has carried me far ahead of what I can put in one posting. So I will obviously have to pursue this idea over the next couple of days. But first I will quote a chunk of Postman’s book. 

[King Thamus] points out, for example, that writing will change what is meant by the words “memory” and “wisdom.” He fears that memory will be confused with what he disdainfully calls “recollection,” and he worries that wisdom will become indistinguishable from mere knowledge. This judgment we must take to heart, for it is a certainty that radical technologies create new definitions of old terms, and that this process . . . . is insidious and dangerous. . . new things also modify old words, words that have deep-rooted meanings. The telegraph and the penny press changed what we once meant by “information.” Television changes what we once meant by the terms “political debate,” “news,” and “public opinion.” The computer changes “information” once again. Writing changed what we once meant by “truth” and “law”~ printing changed them again, and now television and the computer change them once more. . . . in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature” and creates the “conditions of intercourse” by which we relate to each other. It is what Wittgenstein meant when, in referring to our most fundamental technology, he said that language is not merely a vehicle of thought but also the driver. (4)  

In order to segue to the next installment of this endless writing, I quote something from the internet. And I also offer the URL for its source. The question: what does this have to do with technology, spirituality, or driving our thought?

I want your everything as long as it’s free
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it’s free
I want your love, love, love, love
I want your love

You know that I want you
And you know that I need you
I want a bad, bad romance

I want your love and I want your revenge
You and me could write a bad romance
I want your love and all your lover’s revenge
You and me could write a bad romance (5)


The Surrender of Culture









(1) Puchalski CM, Dorff ED, Hendi IY: Spirituality, religion, and healing in palliative care. Clinical Geriatric Medicine 20:689–714,2004. Quoted in:
(2) Galanter, Marc M.D. “Innovations: Alcohol & Drug Abuse: Spirituality in Alcoholics Anonymous: A Valuable Adjunct to Psychiatric Services.” Psychiatric Services 57:307-309, March 2006.
(3) Plato. Socrates’ Phaedrus – a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. Circa 370 BC.
(4) Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993. For any reader who doesn’t know how to check a book out of the library because their culture has been surrendered to technology, the first chapter of the book is available on line:
There. Is that sarcastic enough to make you hate me?


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