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Davis, California

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The new great society

Seventeen-year-old Magnus Carlsen recently reached the number five rank in the chess world. Like other prodigies past and present, his rise has been meteoric. But Carlsen is possibly the youngest player ever to accomplish so much in so little time. By any measure, his brilliance is so phenomenal that he has even been nicknamed theMozart of Chess.

But Carlsen emerges at a time when chess itself is undergoing a period of subtle transformation. While primarily an individual sport, chess once functioned as an active process of collective endeavor, players frequently corresponding through group banter and shared analysis. Now, however, chess is increasingly individualistic.

And the reason for this change is the invention of computers and chess-playing programs. These programs have classified, researched and analyzed much of preexisting chess knowledge. Consequently, modern opening theories can run up to 30 moves long. The element of surprise has been digitally removed. Computers solved the secrets of chess in ways humans never did.

What this small incident truly illustrates is a larger symptom of mechanization. Simply said, every facet of life has become more connected to technology. And it is taking over, slowly but surely.

We live in an era of increasing predictability. Through GPS, we bypass the process of learning new directions, instead simply following the arrows on the map. We no longer have to patiently rummage through the towering stacks of books, but obtain immediate Wikipedias at the click of a mouse. Online, we fulfill the promise of the Internet and become the person we want to be through MySpace.

We shut ourselves out from the world by listening to iPods when cycling to class, and we limit ourselves to the same DJ Tiesto webpage we visit everyday. In sync, we mouth profanities at a disliked presidential candidate and glorify the other by joining the chorus of fellow Huffington Post message boarders. We surround ourselves with selective, and intense, affirmation. In a limited world, we sense the unlimited.

Our relationships are similarly evolving. We don’t write letters as much as we Facebook to keep in touch. What for a previous generation was a necessary commonality is for us a casual accessory.

Moreover, entertainment, once a pejorative of theaters and sporting arenas, is now transported directly to our comfy homes. Bowling on Wii doesn’t just look real it recreates reality. Grand Theft Auto 4 is no longer leisure, it’s a lifestyle. Our lives outreach in ways nobody could have ever imagined. It’s no longer the same.

But what does all the new things we do mean? In many ways, atomization takes over. Our modernity becomes postmodern, reality becomes surreal. We depend less on society and more on computers for the tasks we want to accomplish.

Personal freedom has never been greater, yet as we isolate ourselves in devoting attention to the familiar, repetitive routine, we become the sole occupant of the worlds we inhabit. We somehow take ourselves apart from the society we want to be part of.

Do we lose anything? We do. Pivotal to reason and emotion is not just our newfound order but disorder. Disorder is an unpredictable encounter with an old friend, the surprise of walking by and hearing the roaring energy of a street hip-hop show. It is the moment when we become lost during the road trip, and in wandering, we chance upon the far-ranging golden mountains and crystal-clear blue lakes that leave lasting impressions.

Disorder is the moment when, searching for the library assignment, we accidentally find a book that radically challenges our views and dramatically reshapes our thinking. It is not the things that we expect because we expect nothing. It is instead the moment we feel genuine joy when we witness the unexpected. Chaos disturbs our equilibrium, yet it keeps teaching us something new about life. It becomes life.

So technology means that our lives have changed. It is frightening and promising, monumental and miniscule. And you know what? The choice is ours. It is up to us to choose how to make the best of it. For Carlsen, the answer is clear.


ZACH HAN isn’t really sure anymore of what’s real and what’s surreal. Wake him up at zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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