Saturday, April 19, 2008


"We are, in short, amusing ourselves to death"
-Neil Postman

Boy at Aquarium
The story goes like this: parents take their boy to the aquarium, and they see the sights, colorful fish in their tanks, various habitats represented. The boy is fascinated and finally asks "is this real reality or virtual reality?"

That's one of the anecdotes that Steve Talbott uses in his book Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines. Mr Talbott is trying to examine the effects of being so wrapped in technology and what it does to education and our ability to understand ourselves as human beings. He looks at the child's life just that day and shows why this might be a reasonable question for a youngster in today's western world.

Last night Billy was up late playing video games on the LCD high definition television. He went to bed late and wakes up tired in his bed that has technology designed to make the mattress feel like air out of materials never seen before the 1980s. He dresses in clothing from a store with no idea how they are made or where the material even comes from.

Billy gets into the family car that is designed to make the ride as quiet as possible, isolating them from the outside world entirely. While on the drive, he texts his friends on his personal cell phone, watches a DVD on the screen set in the back of his mom's seat, and the world that goes by is a picture in his window, if he even looks out.

The family stops at a fast food restaurant and gets food handed to them out a window in boxes with no concept of where the food comes from, how it's prepared, what it is made of, or how much trouble this entails. It is specially packaged just for kids with a toy.

They drive to the aquarium is along a highway that is surrounded by buildings and billboards, with carefully planted trees for effect and any outdoors and natural world lanes away and behind concrete barriers.

Billy gets out of the truck in a parking lot and goes into a special building with tanks of brightly colored, carefully lit fish in thick tanks with meticulously designed backgrounds and ornaments in the water to appear like their natural habitat.

Which is real? Which is fake? What is reality to someone like this?

Grocery ShoppingIn a world where you can go your entire life without needing to personally deal with any of the sources of all that you enjoy, it can be easy to lose touch with what is really going on and what life is truly about. If you get your food in packages at the store, you miss the smell of the dirt, the effort weeding, the time spent watching the plants mature, the toil of collecting the food and washing it, the difficulty and skill in preparing and canning food. The meat is in tidy, mostly blood-free bundles of plastic, you miss the animals in their feeding, their smell, their sounds, the effort and grisly task of butchering. Even if you make meals from basic components (cook "from scratch") the wheat is grown and harvested and ground into flour before you get it, and so on.

Your clothing is made for you by people thousands of miles away using materials gathered in another place, remote from you and disconnected. Your house was built by someone else you don't even know, your car was assembled by people who never saw the original parts created by people who didn't collect the raw materials to make them. At every stage we're disconnected more and more from our world.

Computers have made this effect even more pronounced, by giving us the sensory impact of various events without the reality of them. You can watch the world's events, see movies of various actions, play fantastic games with immersive worlds and people from a dozen countries, talk to people from anywhere on the globe, but all of it is one more step removed: the news is produced for television from actual events, and you're seeing it one more stage distant on the internet. The people are real, but their chat is only what they reveal at the time, with time to rethink and retype what they've said or thought about.

As a people, we in the west are isolating ourselves more and more from reality so that step by step the world that we live in and take for granted becomes something behind a thick wall we dimly her about and and see pictures of, a place we enjoy the benefits of but do not know how to personally achieve. When children grow up around hunting, they are not shocked to find out that hamburgers come from slaughtered cattle with blood and gore. When children grow up around farming, they understand the effort that goes into making a salad. When children grow up around textiles, they understand what it takes to make a shirt, even when children grow up around and learn personally to repair and sew, they learn what it takes to get the clothing they have to wear.

Not long ago I posted about Knut the cute little polar bear cub who grew up. The German people were horrified to watch Knut swat carp out of a pond and play with the fish until they were a gory mess, then eat them. That's silly enough in its self: this is a bear, it's what they do. Yet when you take it back a step, you see it gets even more detached from reality. It is illegal in Germany to feed live vertebrates to pets. No mice for your snake, no fish for your cat (or polar bear), because it would be cruel to the little creatures. Take it back another step: the zoologists at the zoo where Knut lives put the carp in his water, hoping they'd eat the algae. These were biologists, people who are scientists allegedly specializing in animals, yet they seemed surprised and dismayed that Knut ate these fish.

This is a people so out of touch with the basics of life and brutality of nature that psychologists are calling Knut "psychopathic" and people are suggesting that the only reason he'd kill fish is because he was raised by humans rather than a mama bear. That it is inconceivable for a bear to swat fish out of the water, play with them, and eat them unless humans somehow damaged its psyche.

How on earth could someone be so unfamiliar with how reality is and how animals behave that they even consider such a response? This is an example of what can happen to a society that is so detatched from reality that they lose any sense of how things really work. As a people, we in the west are largely becoming that Lord of the Manor who doesn't dirty his hands with the work of producing the goods he enjoys, so isolated from the people he finds them quaint and unknowable. The basic facts of what it takes to enjoy our lives are so remote we are drawing bizarre and irrational conclusions.

War was such a part of human experience that the destruction of a farm, someone being shot accidentally, and the death of family members was terrible but not shocking or unexpected: this is war, after all, that kind of thing happens. As time has gone on, we're at a point where blessedly most of us have never known war beyond images on a screen and feel virtually no impact on our lives despite being in a world-wide war on terror. This remoteness is good in one sense; it saves us the terrors of warfare, which by any definition (necessary or not) is evil. Yet in another sense, it makes events of necessary war so shocking and condemned that the will to fight what must be fought can be undermined.

Seeing the refugees from a war-torn nation, the destroyed homes, the terrified children, the mangled and burnt bodies, the shot and captured enemy, all of these strike comfortable, safe, and isolated people living so distant from this reality that they consider it unforgivable, impermissible evil. Why, you shot that man! How could you? This is where concepts like the British government paying compensation for buildings that were damaged in Iraq by British troops comes from: the idea that this isn't war, it's just some police activity and there are limits, after all.

Conversely being so isolated from the horrors of war and it's evils can work to make it seem more reasonable, more thinkable. Being unfamiliar with the rotting flesh of loved ones, collapsing homes and burning possessions, the jackboot smashing in the door and the terrifying sound of planes flying overhead to deliver bombs might make us more willing to engage in war as well. If you are so isolated from war that it becomes a matter of pushing buttons in a trailer to rain missiles on a distant area, or watching spectacular jets take off with a stunning roar piloted by handsome, daring men, the concept becomes less horrible and unthinkable.

We have seen this in the past, with gentry lining up to watch battles, confident in victory, won't this be exciting, Mrs Blythe-Smedley? The concepts of what happens to young men and property during war are so remote that the blood and screams and destruction and haunted nightmares are not even considered. We can watch the bombs and anti-aircraft going off on television at night like a light show and not know the fear of families huddled in their homes hoping their building isn't hit by accident, or by a random shot. We can watch the television shots of glorious soldiers and mighty artifacts of war under a waving flag without thinking about the filthy trench, the sucking chest wound, the intestines of a man blown in half.

So apart from the dirt and blood and sweat of reality around us, we as human beings can become irrational about the world we live in. The concepts of what it takes to create what we enjoy without considering can make all of us unready to face the decisions that must be made in hard times. It is this effect that makes a society not just weak and ignorant, but unready to do what must be done in times of peril, that makes it easy prey for those who do know and understand. The Muslims moving into and taking over Europe legally and genetically are from a world we barely read about, one that sees death and blood and hardship, that is familiar with basic labor and production to survive. They are ready for this world and what it takes, too much of Europe is not.

In a real sense, civilization and technology - despite their immense and numerous benefits - are their own enemies, causing self defeat as they corrode a people's ability to produce what they enjoy.

BlackoutThe comedian Joe Rogan talks about this some. He's joking, but there's a real sense of wonder and concern behind it. He asks the question: what do you do when the power goes out? I'll tell you what I do," he says, "I wait around until they turn back on." He points out something I've said for a long time now: I don't know how 90% of what I use every day was made or works, let alone how to build it myself. Sure, we may understand the basic concepts of how a radio works, or a television, a microwave, the computer you're reading this on, a telephone. But we couldn't build one. In fact, there is nobody on earth who could do it all, who knows how it all works. Nobody, because there's just too much to know and learn.

If the power shut off, just quit working, would you know how to get more? How long would you sit in your house waiting until you did something about it? Do you know how to even make candles? How to produce oil to burn? Where it comes from? Do you know how to keep food cool without a refrigerator? How to cook on a fire? How to make a meal that doesn't involve a microwave and packaged food? Life as we enjoy it truly is wonderful, as an American, I can live better than any king at his best moment lived 200 years ago, and with the same lack of understanding of how it came to me. The wine comes in bottles, of course, lamb always looks like that and the mint jelly grows on the plate.

I'm exaggerating, but I am not far off the mark even with the emphasis. If somehow it all ended tomorrow: the internet shut off, the satellites all fell out of orbit, the power plants shut down, half of America would die not from rioting or violence, but from sheer ignorance, we'd starve out of the basic lack of ability to take care of ourselves. We've built such a powerful technological cocoon around ourselves that we don't even have to learn how to deal with life.

This isn't true for all of us, of course. There are soldiers who have fought war who are coming back, and like the Greatest Generation before them, this is whence the leaders and visionaries of the future will come. There are farmers and hunters and rural people who do know what blood on their hands and the back-breaking work of growing food is about. There are people who live and learn and know the old ways, at least some of them. They're the future, not the glass and steel of cities. Cities are in a strange way self defeating, corrosive. They produce the money and the glamor, but what else?

Think about it: what does America produce? What seems to be the number one product of the United States? Entertainment. We produce ... nothing, in the form of images and distractions, we produce virtual reality for people to spend unproductive time with achieving no goals and producing nothing for their neighbors and society.

Yet behind the scenes, the United States produces gigantic amounts of food, and in truth, while Entertainment is a gigantic and visual effort in the US, grain and beef and rice and other food is produced by even larger amounts and sent around the globe. These farms tend to be enormous affairs, but they're still farms, and no matter how good the technology and science gets in agriculture, you're still getting your hands dirty and you're still working with the land, watching it grow, tending the plants. Granted, this version of farming is quite different from you working in your back yard garden, but it is still far closer to the reality of life than me buying pork chops and beets at the supermarket.

So there's hope, for now. Children aren't all being taught in schools with computers and video separated from the world around them. Not every job is totally isolated from the world around us, not everyone is disconnected from reality. Not yet, at least. In the end, the future of the west will come from the country, from the rural areas where you cannot escape reality and are far better equipped to deal with it. Latte-sipping elites chatting about how shocking it is a bear ate fish are not the future, they're already being left behind by the very world they live in. They have inordinate and damaging influence, this is true, but they do not represent the future.

Teach Your Children WellAll of us can do something to change our status as well. Grow a plant. Go on a hike. Learn a craft. Spend time at a farm or a butcher shop or a weaver. Read up on how these things work, try some yourself where you can. put buttons back on your blouse instead of buying a new one. Teach your children all of these things. The world is all around us, if we're willing and bold enough to see it. In the end, that's hope as humanity. We just may face a lot of hardship in the mean time.
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1 comment:

TXMarko said...


Excellent post.

I work at a college and you would not believe the number of 20-somethings that cannot change a tire, figure out a simple manual thermostat, know how to reset a GFI outlet by their sink, or understand that the plumbing wont take last nights leftovers in a huge greasy lump.

Very sad.