Where are you John Muir? We need you now more than ever!
" Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and; tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love."
Recently I watched A Conversation With Myself by Alan
Watts, a fascinating informal talk exploring the failure of our technology. My
profound interest into his ideas is born from my own classroom and from my own
thoughtful ramblings. Over the past several years I have had many conversations
with students about the ramifications of our technological advances.
These discussions tend to be fun, lively, random, and are almost
always poignant and enlightening. Our conversation usually ignites from the
students reading of The
Euphio Question by Kurt Vonnegut – a story focused around a machine
that produces “happiness by the kilowatt.” At the push of a button, anyone
within range of the radio waves feels unfettered joy and happiness. While
destruction, starvation, and infidelity engulf the experiment they are living,
the players in the story feel only great happiness and contentment. At first
glance the story may appear to be only a commentary about mind control; however, it is not a great stretch to suggest that Vonnegut is instead satirizing the
dangers of a society that now finds its presumed joys in the gadgets it
Although Vonnegut’s story is one of great playfulness and Watts's is one of profound seriousness, it is not a stretch to see the common
thread between each narrative. According to Watts:
"Everything we are doing to try and improve
the world was a success
in the short run, made amazing initial improvements, but in
the long run we seem to be destroying the planet by our very efforts
to control it and improve it."
When we think of technological
advances such as the gasoline powered automobile engine no one will argue that
this has not been advantageous to us – we can travel farther and quicker to see
our family and friends, we can exchange commerce across the interstate highway,
we can heat our homes by simply turning up the thermostat. And yet as our
planet warms and our ozone continues to break apart and more and more wars
originate from our thirst to power our industrial society, is it also not a
stretch to suggest that at some point we must think differently. Instead of
more research and development in solar and wind power, we instead continue the
narrative that “fracking and digging” can solve our energy problems. Our oil addiction is an example of Watts’s ideas that what improves our temporary existence is really a false promise – a promise that we not only continue to believe but also one that we promote.
Yet as Watts’s argument focuses more
on the physical challenges of our earth, it is not without reason that Vonnegut’s
story is a reflection of how our social world is threatened by the
technological advances of instant communication. Young people walk our hallways
and streets plugged into their iPods. Adults go to restaurants, athletic
events, and even their vacations plugged into their “smart phones” – apparently
afraid to walk away, for even a few minutes, from the world that is outside of
the only thing we can truly control, the moment we are living. It appears we
are moving closer to the world Vonnegut critiqued, one in which our happiness
is found not in our relationships – both with our friends and with our natural
world – but instead with the gadgets we are afraid to go without, especially in
places that were historically important social gatherings. So isn’t it fair
then to ask if we are better off because we carry worlds of information at the hands
of a search engine? Do we really need to keep up on the 24-hour news cycle? Are
we really more informed, and more importantly, correctly informed, because we
are the first to report news to our friends?
I certainly know and understand that
returning to a world in which we travel by horse and buggy, or communicate by
telegraph is unrealistic and nonsensical. Yet still, the presumed question that
both Watts and Vonnegut present – yet neither answer – is one worth
considering. Within the successes and advances in our technology have we lost
the very parts of ourselves that make us human?
One of my favorite videos I have come across this past year comes courtesy of the video blog, The Perennial Plate. Mesmerized by the depth of the words and the rattling of the boat against the surf, I dream of being as relevant and yet as simple as Seaweed Man.