The Opportunity Remains

A twenty-five year fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’ve only recently come to appreciate one of director Stanley Kubrick’s themes: films are a way to enlighten audiences and can be a means to enlightenment.

Don’t believe me? Check out the fascinating work that Rob Ager did to uncover the meaning of 2001’s most infamous symbol, the monolith. (I don’t want to spoil it, but the key is rotating the monolith 90 degrees.)

Though very different from Kubrick’s work, Ager’s is the same in this way: he shows that enlightenment – which is to say mental and spiritual and perhaps moral progress – only comes with effort. And in fact, that goes for both sides of the creative process, the maker and the consumer.

Enlightenment via the creative process requires effort on the input, as Kubrick showed in the dense and meticulous and demanding movie that he made. But – just as quantum physics says we cannot exist except in a relationship – the creation cannot exist except with an audience. And as Ager’s dig for meaning in 2001 illustrates, achieving enlightenment and insight from a creative work also requires effort. Wonderfully, that willingness to be receptive and to work at the message is also inspiring, for Ager did not just investigate 2001, he also went on to produce an exhaustive explanation of Kubrick’s film.

Another spoiler, but that’s too bad: it’s not a big leap from the meaning of the 2001 monolith to your phone screen. And the message for us in 2020 then becomes clear: our phones – our screens – can be a source of and a means to enlightenment.

That was the hope, right, when our phones granted us all unlimited space- and time-crunching communication?

Believe it or not the opportunity is still there. Think the millions of people around America and the world celebrating (and sharing their celebrations of) the end of a hate-filled, incompetent presidency in the U.S. (Yes, some are sharing their disappointment, and a small number their disbelief and their adolescent conspiracy theories.)

But even including the good vibes felt now, our phones as an extension of the Internet have not lived up to their potential as a means to enlightenment. Why isn’t obvious, but there must be a connection to that something in our nature that inclines us to the easy way out.

On the creator side of the ledger we so often opt for lazy input. That goes for many (most?) of the tweets, videos, and Instagram posts you’ve made, even those that took you hours to meticulously craft. Most belong in, and have been relegated to, the great digital garbage pile, never to be seen again.

Why? Because on the audience side of the ledger we opt for lazy reception: hours of scrolling through others’ creations, passively looking at and promptly forgetting all that passes before our eyes.

Director Wim Wenders said as much in 2018 when discussing the end of photography: “We’re all taking billions of pictures, so photography is more alive than ever, and at the same time, it’s more dead than ever…” Lazy input.

He continued: “The trouble with iPhone pictures is that nobody sees them… Even the people who take them don’t look at them anymore, and they certainly don’t make prints.” Lazy reception.

These lazy tendencies are far from the worst downside to our online lives. The hatred, violence, and grotesquerie that we also so easily post and spread via our phones is the dark flipside to the potential we have from this technology. But if we can’t even approach the upside that is there for us to grasp, then that dark side has all the more chance to thrive and prevail.