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Are These the Dark Ages?

May 5th, 2022 by dk

I wonder if people living in the Dark Ages knew that’s what it was. Did they miss books and learning? Did they guess that their destruction wasn’t complete? Did they expect a new societal order to eventually emerge? Or did they just tend their plot of vegetables, hoping not to lose their harvest to marauding barbarians before winter’s onset?

If we’re living in a dark age right now, would we know it? How could we tell? We aren’t starved for food, but we do seem to be tilling our own tiny, shiny rectangles. We seem to be searching for something that will get us through each day. We seek warmth from the glow of our screens, but they don’t sustain us. We’re stuck in Narnia, where it was always winter but never Christmas.

We feed ourselves daily with conspiracy theories, tribal hatreds, and primal envy. The American Library Association counts more book bans in 2021 than ever. The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services last year. Superstition has replaced learning and curiosity.

We can blame Facebook or Twitter, but most of those concerns rehash earlier warnings about television. The generation before was warned about newsreels and radio. Human passivity is the continual culprit. The phonograph replaced front porch music-making.

If we’re in the dark, it’s been dark for a long time — a century or more. The darkness may be spreading, but it isn’t getting darker. Its reach is progressing but its pitch is not. If history is any guide, humans eventually adapt. We may yet see through this darkness.

In my view, it all started during World War I with the popularization of the wristwatch. Americans always had a timepiece in their pocket. Field generals moved it to the wrist so their soldiers could synchronize attacks. Civilians picked up on the trend. Wearing a wristwatch signaled support for the troops. Information has been stalking us ever since.

With pocket watches, we weren’t told the time unless we asked. Once on our wrists, we stopped seeking information. Information started seeking us. Yes, church bells did that centuries earlier, but those bells didn’t target individuals.

Who has ever accidentally looked at their watch, instantly assessed their situation, and reflexively felt anything but small and feeble? Follow that trend through the later technologies. Crooning lovers, filmed heroics, radio dramas, television glamour, Instagram vacation photos. Do any of these make us feel better about ourselves? Nope.

Stir the pot with advertising that subsidizes these technologies, making them popular to the point of becoming irresistible. Advertisers are the Greek Chorus, always reminding us that doom awaits. We feel insufficient without their product, helpless and hapless until we succumb. Those voices are now everywhere — pervasive, polarizing and personalized.

It’s not a cheery picture, I know. What feels like our fate might still be averted. What will lift the pall? Here’s a hunch.

We’re just a few years away from a quantum leap in computing power — literally. Quantum computers will be unimaginably powerful. What we use today will look like Texas Instruments calculators. That’s really all they are. They can only answer questions, not solve problems. We tell our machines what we don’t know. Our ignorance propels the machine.

Future computers will be fueled by our curiosity, not by our ignorance. A computer that is able to assign precise GPS coordinates for every grain of sand on a beach won’t be used to answer questions. It will instead explore every possible solution to a particular problem. It will extend and accelerate what first lifted humanity — our curiosity.

How soon? How well? For whose benefit? No one knows those answers yet.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday and Sunday for The Register-Guard. Past columns are archived at

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