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 acquires.
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?