For 99 percent of the time we’ve been on Earth, we were hunters and gatherers, our
lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside we still
have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our
language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.
When I was growing up, technology was a relatively new word. I don’t think I ever used it, but I heard it sometimes. Technology was what was taking us towards small tractors and away from work horses. Technology was an electric line into the home, the end of the kerosene lamp. Technology was a telephone, an indoor toilet, radio, the beginnings of television.
As a kid, I was unquestioning and comfortable with what was going on around the word technology. Given the details mentioned above, why not be? The dark side of technological progress hadn’t shown itself all that clearly yet. (Yes, the atom bomb had been dropped, twice, on civilian populations no less, but on the other side of the world. Pretty much out of sight, out of mind.)
So, block out a few horrendous but far away details, what was called modern technology in the late 40’s, early 50’s seemed altogether positive and no big deal at the same time. My father purchased our first TV when I was 10. A console with a 12 inch screen was suddenly sitting there in the living room. There were 13 channels on the dial, but only one came in, and often the picture was “snowy.” I was largely neutral about the whole thing. By that time in my life, the great outdoors had a good hold on me, and nothing indoors had the power to erode that connection.
From a boy’s point of view, tractors were intriguing, and from an adult point of view work-saving, although now part of a farmer’s work was keeping his tractor up and running. I noticed how often my father and neighboring farmers were fixing something on their tractors, and I also noticed that even if a tractor had more horse power than a flesh and blood horse, it was a dead piece of machinery compared to an animal.
My mother was a little more technology suspicious than was my father. I remember her saying that she didn’t even want an clothes dryer. (Automatic washers and dryers were just coming in.) Maybe a washer, but definitely not a dryer, because of how fresh the clothes smelled coming off the line, having dried in the sun and the wind..
The wringer washing machine had surely been an improvement over scrub boards, which still were lying around in my youth – not as antiques, but as appliances that hadn’t been tossed away yet. But who knew when scrub boards would still be needed again, when the machine would break down, or modernity would prove itself to be more trouble than it was worth. Women not infrequently got their hands caught in the wringer and seriously hurt themselves. A scrubbing board might wear out but it never broke down. And you didn’t catch your hand in it.
By the mid-60s, it was becoming more clear to me that technological progress was dubious at best; that TV, for example, wasn’t neutral, but harmful to a person and a society. Entailed far too much passivity. And that was before I learned from Marshall McLuhan that the brainwaves emitted while watching TV are very close to the brainwaves emitted while sleeping; and well before the obesity crisis of today and the disappearing art of conversation — both connected to too much TV watching.
But even in TV’s infancy people were catching on that too much of it was a dumbing-down of consciousness. The terms “Boob-tube” and Idiot box” go back as far as I can remember. Now it is estimated that the average person is dumbing-down four or five hours a day. By the time we are out of our formative years, most of us will have imbibed millions of false, demeaning, silly television advertisements. And really, is not the Bud-Light ad — everybody always having so much fun — but a step along the way to the typical insipid Facebook posting of today.
Then there’s the phone, another “too much of a good thing.” Our first phone back in the old farm house was one of those big, rectangular wooden boxes, with the hand-held ear receiver. It served a good function. No one ever just chatted on it. For one, we were on what was called a party line. It was bad manners to tie it up. But it was bad consciousness, too. (We wouldn’t have used that word then.) If you were going to visit with someone, you went to their home. The function of the phone was to make the arrangement.
The early stage of the telephone as a convenience has now proliferated into something akin to an invasion of the zombies. From those seemingly innocent beginnings we have the monster that now lives among us as the number one (non-drug) addiction problem in the world. We are only now beginning to tune into how deeply this collective addiction to communication devices, adorned with its numerous bells and whistles (in case there should ever be an empty moment), is destroying communication skills.
As for the personal computer, that bit of technological progress didn’t get off the ground until well into the 80’s. By then my “progress-shit-detector” was on high alert, and I held back from the computer for a good long time. I remember once writing in a coffee shop and a passerby stopping to ask, “Is that an honest-to-god typewriter?… You don’t see one of those everyday!”.
Finally the ability to move paragraphs around or to make small changes without having to type a whole essay over again seemed a good thing. But after that, every so-called advance in the computer world has been more loss than gain for me, even though I can no longer function without it. By that I mean I can’t hold down my job without it. Things like that. It drags me along with it. I will post this essay on a website, for example. But I would happily exchange that outlet for the days when the newspapers were flourishing, during the end years of which I wrote a regular column for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.
Not spoken of yet is the technological progress gone berserk in reference to the implements of war — atomic bombs, napalm, lands mines, cluster bombs, etc, in the wars between people. (As far as any new technology related to peace goes, not much is looked for in that direction.) Technological progress has gone equally berserk in the war on the environment in general, with practices such as fracking and mountaintop removal, to name two of many. It starts to become obvious to intelligent thinking that Pleistocene peoples, hunters and gatherers, had a far higher quality of life than we have today. Safer, saner, more efficient, and obviously closer to nature and more personal.
What we seem to be building towards here is a technologically implicated cataclysm that will make Vietnam and Chernobyl look like child’s play. What may issue forth out of such a cataclysm is unimaginable. It will at minimum mean that human societies will have to take a few, maybe many steps backwards, technologically speaking. Whether we can do that remains to be seen. The cataclysm itself looks like a sure thing.