Letters at 3AM
By Michael Ventura
APRIL 20, 1998: We have been taught, from the cradle, by people who were taught from their cradles, that ours is an era of fantastic progress and that the proof of that progress is the ever-increasing power of technology. For two centuries now, this idea has been central to our sense of what it means to be a human being: We are the species that creates our own environment, and we do this with technology. Which is to say: We've been taught to identify with our machines. If they are growing in complexity and power, so are we. If our devices are grander than any ever known, why, we too must be very grand. Identification with our inventions has become so automatic that it's become commonplace to speak of the human brain as a computer - though the brain is infinitely more intricate, more mysterious. We couldn't make such comparisons so glibly unless we took for granted that our inventions are a sufficient metaphor for Nature. Yet our most complex gadgets are still crude, even primitive, when set beside a living tree, tiger, or even a bee (much less a brain). Still, we identify with our inventions, investing them with importance to the extent that our behavior has taken a strange turn: We organize our lives to accommodate our creations, rather than the other way round - as though we must live up to our machines! For many, this phenomenon is at the root of a profound crisis in identity. I think of the 19th-century folk song "John Henry," the story of "a steel-drivin' man" who worked with a sledgehammer driving steel spikes to lay track for the new railroads that were being allowed to re-constellate commerce and social life. When confronted with the steam drill, which could hammer rail spikes far faster than a sledgehammer, John Henry felt that for the honor of his manhood he had to match it. It is one of the most famous verses in American song: "A man ain't nothin' but a man, and before I'll let that steam drill beat me down I'll die with my hammer in my hand." He challenged the steam drill to a spike-driving race. The legend goes that John Henry did drive his spikes faster than the steam drill, but at the end of the contest he was so exhausted he died. A cautionary tale: These gadgets are stronger than you; adjust or die. But it is also a story about how personally, how intimately, we identify with new inventions, whether we welcome or oppose them. Welcoming them, they're seen as proof of how far we've come; opposing them, they're seen as a test of our humanity. Either way, we are measuring ourselves by the machine.
What else is the meaning of the new truism that if you are not "computer literate" you're not really literate? What else drives people who bought Windows 95 to run out and buy Windows 98 - though Windows 95, or even its predecessor, was sufficient for their needs? The identification with the machine is so complete, so taken for granted - which is to say, so unconscious - that we have in effect given the machine the power to judge us. Are we smart enough for it? Are we meeting its standard of modernity? Are we online? If not, why not? Are we, in short, plugged in?
"Plugged in!" Language is not a casual thing. Language tells. "Plugged in" is an eloquent, denigrating, awful image that has become part of everyday speech. Its usage reveals the assumption that to be a fully equipped, modern person, you, like the machine, need a plug - a capacity to absorb currents of power created by others, others who may not have your individuality or well-being foremost in their minds. "Plugged in" speaks of a willingness to become an extension of technology, a blip on a grid. A sense that the human body is incomplete without the machine. A longing for the body to join with the machine, so ingrained has become our identification with our inventions.
We defer to technology, assuming that its progress is our progress. But surely behavior is the only standard of progress. Not our machines, in and of themselves, but what we do with them. Is our behavior so different, so much better, than that of other eras? If we look not at our machines, but at ourselves, can progress be proved?
Our headlines are rife with the same wars, class conflicts, race prejudices, economic injustices, religious fanaticisms, crimes, political corruptions, and oppressions that have been the stuff of history since we began recording it. Our inventions have changed the way these things happen, but not the fact that they happen. Progress? Is our art more beautiful than the Impressionists of a hundred years ago? Is our writing more imaginative or eloquent than Shakespeare's of 400 years ago, or the Old Testament writers of 3,000 years ago? Are our musicians more daring and original than the mostly illiterate sons of ex-slaves who invented jazz a century ago? Are our political leaders more brilliant than the Founding Fathers of 200 years ago? Are we braver than the Greek warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae in 279 BC? Are we more just than the tribal councils of the Lakota? Are our buildings more beautiful and spectacular than the Great Pyramid or the medieval cathedrals of Europe? Is our spirituality more profound than that of the Tao te ching or The Upanishads? Are our physical exercises more beneficial than Yoga, a system perfected thousands of years ago? Are we more kind to each other? Are we more responsible than our ancestors? Are we better tenders of our planet? Do we take better care of our children?
Do you know how to spell "fat chance"?
I'm not sure that we're worse than our ancestors, but are we better? And, if not, can we claim progress? Or would it be more accurate to say that we've made machines that manipulate our environment incredibly, and we have far more scientific knowledge, and that's surely something - but that's all. In spite of our technology (or perhaps because of it?) we're in the midst of cultural and political wars about the meaning of as fundamental a word as "family." Doesn't that indicate that we don't even know who we are anymore? By what measure is that progress?
Women and gay people have more voice in Western countries than at any time in recorded history; race relations in America are better than they were, though still pretty awful; in terms of behavior - the essential element, I insist, of how we treat each other - that's the only progress readily evident. Otherwise, our behavior is pretty much the same as it's ever been. Our collective denial of this self-evident fact is a psychological complex all its own.
But it can't be denied that we are more technological. We travel faster, can kill more of our fellow creatures at a stroke, we know and can implement more information. We can fly into the air, photograph rocks on Mars, hear and see and e-mail each other across vast distances (though the measure of progress should be what we say across those distances). Thanks to technology, we live longer, though most of us spend those "golden years" in old-age homes, horribly lonely. Technology has made us more multi-cultural, more races and ethnicities mix at work and on the streets - but let's be frank, not many of any race seem to be overjoyed about this. It is undeniable that our inventions are amazing; but surely, at the risk of repeating myself, the standard of progress should be what we use our inventions for. How we treat each other. Perhaps it should even be how often, and in what situations, we tell the truth.
We lie a lot about technology. We say things we do not feel, do not embody, do not live - statements that brazenly contradict the experience of our days. Or we stand idly by while others lie, vaguely nodding our dazed assent.
For instance, we call our technological innovations "time savers." Do
you feel you have lots more time in your days? Is your time being saved by,
or for, anything? Many complain of the opposite: that in our technologically driven
life there is less and less time simply to enjoy time. Cars, faxes, computers, cell
phones, jets, washing machines, pre-cooked foods, what-all - enable us to do many
things more quickly. But the result, in "real time," is not that we have
more time for ourselves. It is, rather, that we fill our time by doing more things.
A hundred years ago, it wasn't easy to work two jobs; one job took all day - so did
cooking, washing, mending. Now, according to do the latest economic reports, more
and more people must work two jobs to make ends meet. Our inventions enable us to
rush from here to there, from job to job, and from job to home. That is why, as The
Wall Street Journal is so fond of reporting, "productivity" is up -
because "time savers" allow us to cram more into our day. Time hasn't been
saved. It's been strip-mined. The
A version of this piece appeared in The Salt Journal. It will be continued in two weeks.
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