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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Which Way to Progress?

Later this year, my entire existence will be going to high definition. It’s a very exciting milestone, with far-reaching ramifications. When I go outside, the scenery will be crisper, rainbows will be more vibrant, and my vision won’t be in letterbox anymore — that’s going to be a big relief. I’ve heard the sky is going to be 18000 x 13600 resolution, which is a major upgrade for the makers of our atmosphere. I’ve got to tell you that I can hardly wait. To enjoy this new technology, all I have to do is attach a converter chip to my spleen, which may at first seem like somewhat of an inconvenience, but the tradeoffs are undeniable. I’ll even have an RSS feed for whenever Barack Obama clears his throat. It’s going to be marvelous.

Technology, after all, is about making what you used to enjoy no longer good enough. There isn’t going to be a point where technologists say “We’ve done enough, and now you can just enjoy whatever you have.” That would put them out of business. They must be continually upping the ante. They tell us we should be demanding more, more, more! Happiness is all about never being satisfied with anything, right? According to modern theory, pre-modern life was supposedly destitute of entertainment and therefore its inhabitants couldn’t enjoy things as much as we do now. How on earth did they survive the boredom of real life?

It is true that technology has improved our lives in matters of convenience, yet it has not improved the human condition overall. Our behavior hasn't noticeably changed for the better over the past several decades concomitant with these newer innovations. I’d like to see something which causes us to all get along better, like an upgraded character. Can that be coded?

What technology does is programs our lives to be busier — involved in more mundane activities with more mundane objects. So we get more done, but often because we’ve given ourselves more things to do. However, in a strange twist, we’re breeding new generations of lazier attitudes. How could this be if we’re so involved all the time now? Maybe it’s the content of what we’re doing and not the volume of how much we’re doing. Modern man might be spoiled into thinking that life should have everything at our disposal, and so we’re less equipped to handle it when things don’t follow this idealistic template.

We seem to be surprised that our advanced civilization still has wars, as if humanity with all its weaknesses could be cured through invention. We can’t very well try to let modern advances make us be better people in lieu of our making a truly committed effort from within. Some things have no substitutes. We still have to sleep, and we still need to constantly nurture our character.

Television is an example of a wonderful technology that has also compromised our attention span and our interactivity with other people. Likewise, it infiltrates the home with nonstop promotional advertising. Advertising itself lends the illusion that we should be in constant pursuit of great deals in an attempt to gain that elusive monetary advantage. When does the hype die down to let us enjoy life for the sake of enjoying it? Are we promoting ourselves into oblivion?

Telephones have made it easier to contact people, but also made it easier to be contacted, thus invading our privacy, even if willingly. While we can choose to go without services like a phone, we generally cannot rightly do so and function properly within our general community setting. So we’re stuck in this curious dilemma after creating a need.

And we’re so giddy with our new toys that we haven’t taken time to see where they might fit in properly. It’s nice that people can carry a phone on their hip, but do we need the intrusiveness of beeping at concerts and church gatherings, for example? Does technology get a pass at being interruptive because it's too busy forging a path into the future?

Advanced modes of travel have made it easier to go long distances in a short time. Still, is there really an innate necessity for us to take so many trips to far-off places? Did people of the 1700s have such a need? Perhaps with the new technologies, we have created accompanying needs, which would suggest that technology is also more demanding on us.

Families are moving farther apart, which creates a niche for greater travel, so then it becomes cyclical. If we just stayed closer together, we could accomplish the same thing and eliminate the middle man. We can go farther, but we only need to because we’re spreading out. Once again, technology comes to the rescue to solve a problem it created in the first place.

Technology is a mechanism for achieving something that might not have been essential or even beneficial, but since it was not previously possible, it is assumed to be a progression. Innovation is the buzzword. If it’s new, it must be better than what was old, so the mindset goes. A lot of times, we should ask “What was wrong with the old way?” The answer seems to be that it lost steam with the consuming public, and therefore needed to be replaced with glitzier packaging. We’ve improved on the mechanical tools of our progenitors, so are we to also assume that we’re better at being decent people?

On both a physical and physiological level, technology has a plethora of undeniable benefits. We’re able to live longer and healthier lives — or at least the potential is there. But on a socio-emotional level, the techno-boom appears to take away just as much as it gives. It’s not some special elixir that magically creates more social wellness. Technology in many respects causes us to depend less and less on ourselves (or each other), and it shifts the focus toward form, sacrificing substance. In providing the illusion that it makes life better, it draws our attention away from those things that really do.

So you weigh the negatives, like the ability to make elaborate bombs and recreational drugs, versus the positives, such as ways to combat disease and increase communication and overcome oppression.

It’s hard to tell what the overall effect is when taking almost simultaneous forward and backward steps. If you believe in evil forces, technology didn’t exactly make them go away but merely made them more efficient along with positive forces.

Technology isn’t all bad, nor is it all good. The difficulty comes when we look to it as the solution for our deepest concerns, as I feel we’ll be disappointed. We should be learning that a blanket industrialized approach to answering our innermost questions merely gives us assembly line answers.

In the end, all the "white noise" created by technology can make it harder for us to think clearly. In spite of these technological advances, notice that we're still desperately hanging onto our pastoral origins. A healthy green lawn, along with the plush trees, bushes, flowers, and other foliage, are more than fashionable adornments — they are requirements to maintain a hold of our sanity. Why do we have so many plants inside buildings? We don't cling to bits of the past for sentimental reasons so much as we do to keep some semblance of the natural in order to survive in the midst of the utterly complex. Maybe we’re struggling amid the advances of modernism to hang onto the things that really matter to us most, even though we don’t want to consciously consider them as often, thinking of them as relics that we need to move past.

Technology might be generically represented by so-called city life, while times prior to our current technology could be signified by country life. Which people would seem to be happier? Are the city folk better off because they have more gadgets, more appointments, and more to keep track of? What do these gadgets do for them that country folk didn't already have? Do things faster, farther, with less effort? And why would lower effort be a worthy goal? Does that teach us to try less hard? As such, are we turning into nothing more than very efficient machines? It causes me to wonder if we’re always expecting more of them, and never satisfied with the status quo. A narrative from the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy echoes some of these sentiments (the photo of the bushman in the upper right-hand corner of this blog is from that movie):

These bushmen have never seen a stone or a rock in their lives.
The hardest things they know are wood and bone.
They live in a gentle world, where nothing is as hard as rock, steel or concrete.
Only miles to the south, there's a vast city. And here you find civilized man.
Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment.
Instead he adapted his environment to suit him.
So he built cities, roads, vehicles, machinery.
And he put up power lines to run his labor-saving devices.
But he didn't know when to stop.
The more he improved his surroundings to make life easier, the more complicated he made it.
Now his children are sentenced to years of school, to learn how to survive in this complex and hazardous habitat.
And civilized man, who refused to adapt to his surroundings, now finds he has to adapt and re-adapt.
Every hour of the day to his self-created environment.
When I retire, I'd like to "get away from the things of man," as they say in Joe Versus the Volcano. And I don't mean a trip to an exotic location, but a permanent vacation where there are no tourists, no bright lights, no embellishments. Somewhere in Montana would suit just fine. And all of you don’t follow me there, either. Oh, did I say Montana? I meant to say Florida, or Arizona. What was I thinking? Don’t follow me to Florida or Arizona...

And one final postscript: Take note that the technological age has added a grand total of zero colors to the sunset. Regular definition will be good enough for me.

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