Monday, February 22, 2010


Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn't have to experience it.
- Max Frisch

I love me my technology. I'm not a hardcore codemonkey like many of my friends are, but the Internet is an integral part of my daily life. More than that: it is my daily life. I work on the web, I get my news from the web, I interact with my friends over the web, I write reviews on the web, I play games over the web, I write my blog on the web; I spend more time in front of a computer than I do anything else, with the exception of sleeping... and even that's probably only neck and neck.

But the fascination doesn't end at the boundaries of my online existence. I want to know what's changing, what's new; the latest gadgets, the latest phones, the latest possibilities. I don't even want to own them, particularly, although the sweet siren call of the iPhone is becoming harder and harder to resist. I just want to know what's out there, to see how far the boundaries of potential have been pushed back today. And more than that, I want to see how the infinite adaptability of humankind has coped with today's latest piece of tech - how we've taken something and given it new life, new meaning; new purpose its designers never intended. How we've shaped something, let it grow beyond its humble origins.

And how it's shaped us. It's a Newtonian law: every force has an equal and opposite reaction. It's quantum physics: you can't observe something without changing it - without it changing you, whether you want it to or not. Society is in flux, unable to keep up with the implications of the new possibilities opening up in front of us. How did we keep in contact before mobile phones, before email? How did we find our way to a strange address before satnavs? How did we organise parties before Facebook? There were ways, of course there were; but we look back at them now and think: how primitive, how slow, how inefficient. Isn't it wonderful, how from Switzerland my friend James can organise his Scottish wedding among guests living in Exeter, Southampton, Kent and Winterthur? How he can find and hire the castle he and his fiancée have dreamed of; how they can discover in humanism the perfect philosophical match for their relationship; how they can have wedding rings made to their individual tastes by a jeweller in Cambridge; how they can search the world of literature for books to suit each and every guest, and quotations for each with which to tease and guide their friends and family. This wedding would have been impossible without technology, without the constant innovation and relentless invention which drives the changing face of the world.

But after we'd scoured the 'net to find the cheapest hostels, flights and hire cars, and googlemapped our way to the middle of snowhere, all the mobile signal fell away and we were alone in the quiet. And it was so quiet, so peaceful and still, a century removed from the frantic dynamism of modern life. All through the wedding, through the whole two days we stayed at Dalmunzie, no twittering beep or whistle disturbed the peace. People laughed and joked together, really together, face to face. They exchanged remembrances, disagreed and reconciled their conflicting memories, forming a shared reality and reinforcing the bonds of friendship in the oldest ways. Humanity isn't even close to evolving beyond its hardwired emotional responses, and there's an intensity to proximity and physical contact that no amount of email or IM banter can compensate for the loss of.

There are other things technology can't compensate for, too; skills which become redundant in the face of sufficiently advanced magic. Just because we've developed beyond the point of need, there's something to be said for self-reliance. For knowing how to read a map, not just a satnav; from knowing how to lay a fire; for cooking a meal from scratch rather than firing up the microwave; for making and building and writing and haggling, not just buying and assembling and tweeting and I don't just mean in case of arbitrary technocalypse, although being a geek that's naturally the first thing that comes to mind. I mean in terms of being a contributor, not just a consumer - of having made something through the skill in your hands or the words in your mind, of the unadulterated satisfaction which comes from being able to do something and do it well, and have something to show for it at the end. Something lasting, something tangible. The more we surround ourselves with technology, the further we step from the world around us. The more we hand control of our loves over to someone or something else, whether it's Google or Amazon or the Government.

I look at the stark majesty of the rural wilderness, and I want to throw away my phone. I want to live somewhere beyond even the omnipresent intrusion of the web, where I don't need money and I live off the land. Where I rise early and settle in with the dark, and work for the joy of it. Already a little voice in the back of my head is reciting a litany of objections, from the lack of modern medicine to my lack of wilderness survival skills. And I know in my head this kind of romantic idyll is a fiction, that pre-industrial life is hard and unforgiving and only a fool who doesn't know how good he's got it might want to throw away all the benefits of modern living and retreat into yesterday. But part of me doesn't care, and so I'm riven - torn between the future and the past.


Nigel B said...

This is really thought-provoking Martin, and my initial thought is that the individual could, if they wish, choose both wilderness and technology. Obviously the complete wilderness experience might be compromised, but living in a remote bothy without electricity or other modern conveniences might also reduce the potential for face-to-face contact.

It's possible mobile phone or broadband coverage may not be as good, but it's great that we have the choice. For example, the jeweller could just as well be located in a remote Scottish village, conducting their business via the internet while at the same time participating in a genuine local community and having easy access to beautiful wild country.

Mystery Cat said...

Nigel: Agreed, at least to start with. But technology is self-propagating, and hard to resist; you might just start out with the basics, but before you know it you're back on a 5-hours-an-evening TED talk habit (and if you don't know that website, I'd recommend it (in an 'abandon hope all ye who enter here' kind of way)).

But you're also right: technology does let small companies find the balance between rural existence and effective business practice, and not just in the usual way of allowing access to new markets - there's a fascinating Wired article about the way technology has opened up creative opportunities for small-scale industry.

Nigel B said...

Thanks for the links Martin. Agreed technology is self-propagating, but some of it does so less successfully than others (the Sinclair C5 for example). TED talk looks to be a good example of some of the pros and cons of the internet - it makes a lot of good quality information available, but you can spend a lot of time accessing it. In the end it's a matter of choice as to whether you develop a habit.

Anonymous said...

I didn't understand the concluding part of your article, could you please explain it more?