In One Week No Tech, I object to what I perceive to be an oversimplification. In short, what is tech? If we leave work at work because we don’t have a tablet and cloud storage, have we left tech behind? Can we still drive home, or do we have to walk? The subway is out of the question- too many complicated, coordinated systems- but is a bike ok? If so, why? Can we still use a landline to call home to see if there’s anything we need from the store? And can we still use the store? Can we refrigerate the milk? Can we even pasteurize it? Do we have to throw out all of our processed cheese and mechanically separated chicken pieces, our GMO corn everything? Can we even use the stove to heat that one can of organic beans from Whole Foods, or do we have to go out back and light a fire? And if we do, can we use a lighter? Can we even use matches? Or do we have to rub sticks together?
“Tech” only means whatever newfangled yet life-changing invention has captured the imagination of the people who live with it. Sure the internet and smart phones have gone from imagined to ubiquitous at a remarkable rate, but so did the Polio vaccine. The automobile. The revolver. This new wave of tech taking over the world, this isn’t a new thing. And of course globalization has contributed to the dissemination of this technology in an unprecedented way, but the same thing has been happening to our various societies for as long as humans have been saying, “I have an idea.”
We use our phones, out tablets and TVs, too much. They’re contributing to our stupefaction and our fatness. Anybody who denies that must be kidding themselves, or us. This we know. But they aren’t these incarnations of evil that are taking us over. If you want your kids to get off their phones, take them away. If you want to use your computer less, watch less tv, then read a book, or go outside. The world isn’t going to revert, you better pray to your God it doesn’t, to some pastural Eden with all the things you like but none of the things you find frustrating. Super Nintendo is ok, but none of that damn Angry Birds and Xbox Live. It doesn’t work like that. We make our own damnation. If you want out of this cycle of tech torment, all you have to do is unplug. It won’t be easy, but it won’t kill you. It probably won’t kill you, but I’m not a doctor, or a lawyer, so just use your judgement.
When Hurricane (Superstorm? Eat shit, weather man) Sandy tore through New Jersey, a lot of things happened. Bruce Springsteen got along with a man who was like, literally, a fat cat Republican. It was a confusing time for all of us. And while we were rescuing each other from wrecks and flooded houses, and donating supplies and time, and demolishing and rebuilding, there was something else going on. Those of us without power, which was many of us, we had some things to think about. We used generators, those of us that could, to power some essentials, and some nonessentials. But for a lot of that time, the lights were off. The TVs were dark, the trains stopped running, no commercial air traffic flew overhead. There was no wifi. For a little while, the days were crisp and busy and the nights were dark and quiet. I’ve never experienced a real life harvest season, but I get the feeling they’re a little bit like that. One of those nights I was walking home from a friend’s house on one of the few blocks in town with power. She lent me a tiny reading light; I had some comic books to catch up on and was used to staying up much later than the simple farm boy I was pretending to be. About half way home, I decided I wasn’t done walking. I went right past my street and down another, into the next town where mist lay over the low ground of the high school soccer field. I went over by my late grandmother’s old neighborhood and came back up streets that were familiar to me before I was old enough to ride a bike. But now they were silent, not even lit. At one point I just sat down in the middle of the road, right on the double yellow line, and looked around. The stars were many more than usual, but the moon was so bright. It was so bright. I saw the town that I had lived in for almost my entire life, literally in an entirely new light. The orange and purple glow of streetlights was replaced by the silver-white resplendence of the nearly-full moon. It didn’t change it all that much, honestly, but it was incredibly serene. I slept well that night.
In a few days the lights came back on, and the heat, and the wifi. It wasn’t bad for us, but it had been for others. Things were lost. People were lost. But we started to do our normal things again. The restaurant I worked in opened again with nothing but a little leak in the roof. Text messages started to come in greater number. The soundtrack of commerce stirred back to life, intensified, and stabilized. It had been kind of a vacation, but I hadn’t really left my house for more than a few hours at a time. The thing is, aside from the air traffic, we don’t need a natural disaster to go back to that week. Its really easy to just shut off your stuff for a little while, to go back to basics. To only use gas to cook and hot water to shower, and to spend your day working and your nights in whatever fire-lit diversions you choose, isn’t that far away from many of us. This technology, this long awaited future, isn’t bringing us down. We have tools, we all of us have these tools, the likes of which had only been dreamed of in science fiction, and they can do incredible things. Good and decent and helpful things. And if we spend our days wasting our time on them, we are wasting two gifts, and that isn’t anyone’s fault but our own.