I found my self in the car yesterday, driving at midday, and as is my habit, I tuned in to public radio. The topic of yesterday’s midday call in show was technology; various experts were weighing in on hot new essential technology, in anticipation of the post Thanksgiving American shopping orgy. As I listened, I got more and more confused, despondent, and horrified. Confused because these Maine based early adopters were eagerly and happily describing a world very unlike the one I live in. The described a shiny vision of seamless integration—information technology woven into our lives to the point where we don’t even think about it. A watch that gives you driving directions and pays for your drive through coffee (wear it on your left wrist for drive through ease!). A speaker the size of a can of soup you place in your home that listens to everything you say, and when you call “her” by name, the software inside her fires up and talks to you, fulfilling your every need. Wearables, clothes with this technology embedded in the very fibers of the fabric. Listening made me more and more glad that I was on my way home to stack firewood. There’s no app for that. And let me be clear, stacking firewood and heating my home with wood is not about righteousness. I prefer it because it is idiot proof, and sometimes I am an idiot. If I am cold, I build a fire. If it is cold, I keep the fire going. The wood I burn comes from trees, and where I live I am surrounded by trees (they grow right out of the friggin’ ground!). If the piece of wood is too big, I split it with an axe. It is that simple, and in this world where less and less is simple, for me, simple is good.
This past weekend I went with some girl friends to the Flagstaff Lake hut in the Maine Huts and Trails system for a night of unplugged peace. My girlfriends are all mothers, so they reveled in the ability to simply sit by the fire and read uninterrupted for more than 3 minutes. I reveled in the inability to check my two different email and social media. There was nothing vying for my attention except the book I brought, my running shoes, and the drawn down lake’s sandy shoreline. The Flagstaff Lake hut is blissfully beyond the reach of cell service and I hope it stays this way. We need some wild places where the phones don’t reach, where we are not accessible. More and more I realize I need these retreats from the digital world to help me get my head on straight. I know people who have managed to walk the razors edge of balance between connectivity and reality, and I hold them in the highest regard. I haven’t been able to manage that edge half as well as I would like, so I physically have to remove myself to enforce a digital Sabbath. First world problems, I know. But connectivity is being sold as the savior of the developing world (and in many cases is IS), so this will not be strictly a first world problem for long.
The technologists’ vision of the future is one where you no longer are tugged and torn between two worlds, the virtual world/internet of things and the real world. You are no longer torn because these two worlds are fused. It is the tug back and forth that is uncomfortable, so a seamless world no longer chafes. I am admittedly aging and the world is changing around me not unlike a wave crashing over my head and passing me by, but I just can’t see how that will work. Just like the “multitasking” has been shown neurologically to be myth, I don’t think it will prove possible to be fully present in reality while monitoring email, imessage, facebook, snapchat, tumbler and paid advertising streams, coming at you seamlessly as you move about your day.
This technology is supposed to make our lives easier. Folks—I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our lives are already pretty easy, relative to what they used to be, and relative to the lives of billions of people coexisting on this planet with us. Emotionally, it doesn’t get any easier to be a human being, we are flawed, we make mistakes, we hurt each other, we die. There’s no app for that. But materially, most of us in the western world live in unprecedented comfort, even those of us living in trailers, visiting food banks and shopping at Goodwill. What we all want is more time. More time on this planet with the people we love to do the things that are important to us. If technology truly serves that I can get behind it. So far though, the record is mixed. I’m not a luddite. I use my computer daily, I have a smart phone. But I can’t embrace a starry eyed vision of a computer mediated life that some technology enthusiasts are promoting. There is just too much in my daily life that can’t be rectified with that vision.
As I write this, Venus is rising over my right shoulder, in the eastern predawn sky. I know this because an app told me. An app also told me that Jupiter and Mars were right there with her. I’ve watched these planets in their slow motion dance all fall. Technology gave me just a little bit of information, and I’ve taken it from there, watching the sky, wondering how fast they will move, when I won’t be able to see them anymore, when they will move away from each other. Questions are what make us human, not answers. In this information age that is in the end what separates us from the machines. Machines have the answers, only we can ask the questions.