In the wilderness of technology

Looking for the next megatrends in thought

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HIGH TECH HIGH TOUCH By John Naisbitt with Nana Naisbitt and Douglas Philips Broadway Books

This month, my office phone was replaced by a communication device with a small screen and enough special features to launch the Space Shuttle. We'd been invited to an hour-long training session, but before I'd seen this thing, I foolishly declined, convinced I had mastered the act of raising a phone to my ear. I was wrong.

"So with a hundred 'modern improvements,' " Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden. "There is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things."

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In his latest book, "High Tech High Touch," social critic John Naisbitt claims we are trapped in a "Technologically Intoxicated Zone." He castigates Americans for being "softened by the comforts technology brings to our lives, fascinated by its gadgetry, reliant on its constant companionship, addicted to its steady delivery of entertainment, and seduced by its promises."

The result, he claims, is that we're stuck in a world we don't understand and no longer control, a place that's "spiritually empty, dissatisfying and dangerous."

Though he often sounds like a Luddite, Naisbitt isn't really recommending we smash the looms, or the computers, or even the new phones. Instead, he and his co-authors, daughter Nana Naisbitt and Douglas Philips, offer this book as "a primer for detoxifying our relationship with technology" by helping us become more aware of its effects on our lives.

Their argument isn't particularly fresh, but the authors provide a convenient survey of recent developments to support their contention that we're moving too recklessly to satisfy with technological progress what are essentially spiritual needs.

As a result, they claim:

*We favor the quick fix, from religion to nutrition.

*We fear and worship technology.

*We blur the distinction between real and fake.

*We accept violence as normal.

*We love technology as a toy.

*We live our lives distanced and distracted.

Most of "High Tech High Touch" is a breezy survey of recent headlines and statistics that substantiate this diagnosis. Americans are going to church, but tend to treat religion like another consumer purchase. Cosmetic surgery is booming. Faux communities like Disney's Celebration are the wave of the future (for the well-heeled). Boys live on a steady diet of horrific video games.

Naisbitt is best when pointing out the inherent ironies of how we use technology. We buy time-consuming electronic organizers to save time. We use cell phones to stay connected, but can't get through a meal without being interrupted. Martha Stewart sells her simple country charm through the Internet.

A gruesome final chapter analyzes radical works of art that use parts of human beings and animals. These bizarre works, much in the news since the Brooklyn Museum show, are meant to resist the cult of the beautiful body, the hubris of genetic engineering, and the commodification of human life.

The book's weakest moment comes in a distressingly inarticulate attempt to define the terms "high tech" and "high touch." One sentence runs on for 20 lines in a catalog of sweet clichs before reaching (gasp) this conclusion: "High touch is embracing the primeval forces of life and death. High touch is embracing that which acknowledges all that is greater than we." Walt Whitman can do this. John Naisbitt should not.

The book's best quality is the inclusion of interviews with scientists, social critics, artists, and theologians (including John L. Selover, vice chairman of the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which publishes this newspaper). From their various points of view, each tries to calibrate the human costs and benefits of powerful new techniques like genetic engineering. These disparate voices, treated here with great respect, create a good model of the dialogue Naisbitt considers essential to a wise use of technology.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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