Chop Wood, Carry Water, Write Blog
I was ten years old when my father got his first calculator. It was 1963, and a few years before he had left his position as City Engineer in the just-barely-big-enough-to-be-called-a-city I grew up in to start his own engineering and surveying business. The calculator was the size of, say, a slightly elongated 300-page hard cover book, but the thing was, it could do trigonometry, instantly calculating sines, cosines and tangents (and therefore distances) that my father had been laboriously calculating ‘by hand’ until then.
This was significant for my family because my father worked long hours in those days. He left early, came home for lunch, kicked back in his recliner for a brief nap, returned to work, showed up again just ahead of dinner, and then usually headed back to the office after dinner for a few more hours of mental toil. It was particularly hard on my mother, who was left to contain myself and my two brothers. The arrival of the calculator, my mother announced, meant that we would all see more of my father.
It didn’t happen. Any let-up in my father’s work schedule came only years later as the result of a growing business, and the hiring of staff.
The term I remember from the 70s for this same naive hope was ‘cybernetics.’ It’s a word that seems to have meant many different things to many different people over the years, but the meaning I recall touted was one which suggested that, given the incredible speed and efficiency evolving via modern science and technology, we would all soon be enjoying far greater amounts of leisure time.
It didn’t happen. You may have noticed.
What a gloriously well-intentioned crock it all was, and another lesson in how poorly we predict the future direction and impact of new technology. (No one, for instance, foresaw the rise of social media ten years ago.) We know now that technology—especially digital technology—doesn’t save us time, it simply accelerates our lives. It simply closes the gap between what we can do now, and what would have previously taken us longer to get to. With an instant calculation, or instant information, or instant communication, that task which we would have formerly had overnight, or maybe two weeks to anticipate and ponder, is immediately upon us, demanding the doing.
The fact is, if you’d like more time on your hands, get off the grid. Escape electronic technology altogether. Chop wood, carry water, save time.
Until recently, the place on Galiano Island where I write this was off the communications grid. No phone (no cell phone coverage), no TV, no internet. Electricity and radio, that was it. To come here was to immerse yourself in the pre-digital age. That experience became the inspiration for this blog.
Thus, this the inaugural post for a blog intended to be about our changing times, about the accelerated change we are all living with on a daily basis. Ken Auletta, who writes a column on communications technology for The New Yorker, has said that we are now experiencing a greater degree of change than at any time in our entire history, and I suspect he’s dead right about that. (It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million; the internet just four.) And I further think that this condition isn’t given quite enough attention these days.
Make no mistake, the digital revolution has many, many positives. The often-mentioned benefits of social media for the Arab Spring protestors should suffice as an example. But so too do we have the catch phrase ‘digital Darwinism’ accompanying the ‘e revolution,’ as if to say that any who are not gleefully on board the digital train are doomed to an embarrassed extinction. These purveyors of doom employ the word ‘exciting’ more often than any other in discussing the future of the revolution underway (Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, tells us, grinning, that we are still in “day one” of the revolution.), but let us make no mistake about this fact either: the burgeoning ubiquity of digital technology is driven by money. Those who wax so enthusiastic about all of us participating in the social media game are themselves coaching from the sidelines. They want to win alright, but the winner’s payoff for them is exactly as Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay for The Social Network would have us note: “Baby, you’re a rich man too.” Those of us out there battling on the field are playing for very different stakes. And for those on the field, the game is not without injury.
It’s not fashionable to say so, but the digital revolution warrants our skepticism, a critical rather than an eager or unthinking reception, and this blog is intended to facilitate exactly that.