Tuesday, January 18, 2011


More, more, more. More economic growth, more cars, a 2nd home, more stocks and bonds.

More stuff.

Our economic system constantly demands more. It depends on filling voids, both real and perceived, with an endless stream of stuff. The consumption of goods requires the production of more goods. These goods are designed to fail sooner rather than later and to be easier to replace than repair. Within the limitations of this system, our logic often tells us that it is cheaper to buy a new item than repair the old. We often do not have a real choice in the matter.

Technology. The silver bullet. Our savior. The great enabler. We have endless variations on the theme, but it is basically the knowledge and tools we use to modify the natural world in order to satisfy our needs and wants. Agriculture is technology. Ideas are technology. (Perhaps our most important tool is our brain--is that technology?) Pens and computers and telephones and chairs and clothing are all examples. Technology enables so many things to happen. It is hard to deny that the computer that I am typing on is an incredibly complicated and fabulous piece of technology.

I love technology, but I also hate it. I hate the way is stresses me out, and the way it connects some people even as it creates barriers between others. I cringe when I see two people sitting together, out for a nice dinner, with individual noses in individual screens. I love being able to sit down in an airplane and travel to California to see my Grandmother, to Oregon to see the Hutchison clan and enjoy time on Cannon Beach, to Morocco to study Arabic, but I hate being crammed like sardines in with strangers on planes, feeling jetlag afterwards, and thinking about how many tons of greenhouse gases my 22 years of air travel have put in the atmosphere. I dread the thought of sitting for 8 hours a day in front of a computer screen for a career down the road. I hate how thoroughly hooked we are on having the newest gadgets, the latest model, and how sold we are on the endless stream of ipads, ipods, iphones, imacs, nooks, kindles, blackberries, laptops, cellphones. None of this stuff is designed to last more than a couple years--that is why it only comes with a 1 or two year warranty, max. They can't guarantee you more because it is intentionally designed to fail. Either that or it is designed to be somewhat limited in its features. That way, you will feel so fulfilled when you buy the gadget2.0 in a year. I saw a Harvard employee's desk once practically dripping with iproducts: a monstrous-screened-imac with wireless keyboard and mouse, a shiny new ipad (resting in its case at a jaunty 45 degree angle), and an iphone all jostled for space and vied for the young man's attention. He was checking all of them.


Okay, take a deep breath. I was ranting, of course, which doesn't do much good and doesn't solve any real problem (except for providing my brain with some much-needed release). A more productive approach is to take a step back and evaluate my personal relationship with technology, something that I think we all need to do more of. These devices are man-made tools, and they should serve a purpose. My housemate Libby sent me this great article called "Seven criteria for the adoption of new technology" by Will Braun. It is his take on the necessity to critically evaluate the adoption of a new technology or gadget, and he draws lessons from the Amish for his personal dilemma: whether or not to purchase a car. Whatever your opinion of the Amish is, Braun thinks they deserve some admiration for thinking hard about the long term social impact of a new form of technology. I agree with him.

This reminds me of a discussion I attended at the 2010 Boston Skillshare led by a pair of self-described neo-luddites. They are not against technology, per se, but they, like the Amish, question the things they use and the effects those things have on themselves and others. In particular, these two women got rid of their personal computer because they found it was causing more trouble than it was worth. It was a thought-provoking and eye-opening 50 minutes that I will probably never forget. As much as I complain about technology, I still carry a cell phone everywhere and am clearly writing to you on this computer. Many people talk about how much they hate technology but how hard it is to resist its allure, how easy it is to waste away hours in front of the computer yet stand up with a lingering feeling of what-did-I-just-accomplish? The example of the neo-luddites, and that of the Amish, show that it is possible to live, and live well, by taking a critical stance towards technology.

We all do this to some degree, but don't be afraid to fight back more. Reclaiming an hour of your life from television or the computer to read, write, play cards, cook, go for a run, anything, will do you good. Remember, we don't always have to be connected or accessible all of the time.

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