Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Better Off

One of the more vivid stories from mythology we have carefully carried through time, is the flight of Icarus. It is a cautionary tale, and the villain is sometimes thought of as Hubris and sometimes as Recklessness. Daedalus, Icarus’ father, builds 2 sets of wings out of wood, feathers and wax, to use to escape from Crete. Icarus’ father had warned him not to fly too low or his wings would get wet and not too high or they would melt. Icarus, of course, flew higher and higher, in ecstasy at the glory and sense of freedom, until he flew too close to the sun and melted away his wings. It is a valuable story with many possible nuances in the telling.

I found myself thinking about that ancient tale while watching the latest incarnation in the Stargate franchise. Television, with its truncated story arcs, tendency to melodrama and its use of unlikely situations to illuminate the human condition has always struck me as being akin to a modern mythology. In Stargate Universe, our heroes are trapped on a hyper-advanced alien space ship that has run out of fuel and is on a collision course with a star. They soon realise that they should have burned up, but instead, their shields are holding. Depicted in breathtaking visuals, we watch the ship swoop down right into the star to harvest energy. The ship refuels and our awestruck heroes continue their quest into the unknown. Watching, the hair on my arms stood on end, I felt misty and moved and having followed the narrative through the crisis-climax-relief, I had a swirl of endorphins churning inside that gave me wonder at the possibilities in the universe. Great story-telling.

And you know part of why it was so satisfying? It was a myth of wish-fulfillment. It was the opposite of the kind of wisdom that has been honed to its essence in a myth. The Icarus myth warns us of our shortcomings, our short-sightedness and what we stand to lose when we neglect what is important in a bid to have it all. The Stargate myth is the myth of our time. It is the technology myth and it is the myth of no limits and it is the myth of more is better.

Only it isn’t a true myth. It is a child’s fantasy of being loose in the candy store. Fantasy and myth are not the same thing at all. Fantasies provide escape and temporary relief from stress and are a valuable contribution from our imaginations. Myth, like its cousins fable, parable and allegory, is meant to harness the power of story in order to guide, instruct, and provoke reflection. Myth is meant to give you pause.

I came across a book recently by Eric Brende, entitled, “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology”. In the course of completing a PhD at MIT on the social effects of machines on human life, Brende spent 18 months living in a small Mennonite-styled farming community that had closed the door on electricity and fossil fuels. He did this to gain some sense of what life is like without automatic machines, to discover other forms of technology and to reflect on what technology brings as well as takes away. Brende is instinctually wary of technology, yet not wanting to be reactionary. He asks how much technology is enough. How much is too much? Like Daedelus, he is looking for a successful flight path.

In a sumptuous narrative that twines strands of history, science, religion, economics as well as community, friendship, and family, Brende weaves an engaging story of his own voyage, his own reflections on the myth of technology. The very structure of the book is designed to be an example of what it discusses. It moves at a lazy pace, and winds in and out of spaces and times and ideas. It encourages the reader to step out of linear efficiency and slow his own pace down. It invites the reader to have his own reflections interact with the text. That the book turned out the way it did, is a demonstration of things learned along the way.

It isn’t an anti-technology polemic, far from it. The first thing Brende does is distinguish between tools and automatic machines. Tools bring a person into contact with his aim. Tools engage. Tools are useful without being in the way. Machines tend to rob a person of skills, physical health and human connections. Machines, designed to free up time tend to rob a person of many human pursuits and take activities that once integrated many functions—social, physical, mental, emotional, and fractures them. Aside from the energy drain of working for the money to buy and maintain machines, life becomes cluttered and stressful trying to manage jobs and friends and family and personal life that each have their own little compartments of time. He makes the point over and over again that instead of shaping machines to our human ends, we end up shaping ourselves around the machines.

Brende soon learns that life among the Mennonites isn’t drudgery, but a rich complexity of skilled tasks set in a densely interdependent community and carried out with gentle rhythms and cycles. While he is at it, he discovers a multitude of simpler, sometimes older, technologies, each with a specific purpose, each requiring human skills. Some technologies are recent innovations, applications of human ingenuity that fine tune an application without displacing the human input.

When it comes to questions about technology, members of the community meet in council to discuss what purposes their might be in adopting a new technology and what risks it entails. Society at large tends to simply adopt most technology on the principle that more is better. At best, we ask what can this technology give us. We don’t spend much time at all worrying about what it will cost, what will be lost, and if it would be reversible. To this day we use the term luddite to ridicule anyone who questions technology. The luddites balked at the introduction of automatic looms which destroyed an entire skilled trade, severed a history of skills and craftsmanship, put an entire sector out of work, concentrated the wealth of the community into fewer hands, and probably caused all manner of tragic circumstances in the families of those affected. And those are only the immediate consequences. One might ponder higher order consequences linked to standardization, homogenization, the consumerism that follows mass production.

The Mennonites ask will this technology rob us of skills? Will it cut us off from cherished activities? Perhaps, most importantly, they ask will this technology interfere with the cooperative nature of our community. They are concerned with their social fabric. They don’t see independence and idleness at rewards. They’re all for technologies that help get the job done well, technologies that serve their efforts and technologies that genuinely benefit the community.

By way of example, forgoing cars is seen as essential to maintaining a human pace. Just as the “new urbanism” movement discusses building communities that are human scaled, human pace is to be considered also. Travelling by foot, bicycle or horse drawn wagon limits speed and the sphere of travel. It is a precondition for neighbourly stability, mutual aid, and everyday face to face interaction. Brende makes the point also, that human paced transportation lets you remain interactive with your environment. You can see more, hear more, you can smell things, touch things, talk to people. He described the wagon as a “kind of moving front porch” that let you become a “transitory neighbour”.

After functional communities, maybe the best benefit discussed is silence and stillness. Human paced life is full with quiet times, slow times. It leaves time to reflect and be mindful. It is difficult to lead a directed and centred life if you are always rushing about, your whole life is compartmentalized and your day is an assembly line of moments. The sensory overload that comes from our electronic commercialized world can be both blinding and numbing.

One of the first criticisms that comes to mind is the question of whether any of this folksy charm is applicable in the greater world of near seven billion rapidly urbanizing souls. As well, technologies are linked in an intricate web and it is hard to just pick and choose. I might feel many of the technologies in a hospital are quite desirable, but they do not manifest without a whole host of other technologies I find undesirable.

Between fossil fuel shortages and the need to constrain carbon emissions, we may just find out the wide scale applicability of the ideas in Brende’s book. But the obvious first question is: what is more likely, that technology will solve our problems, or that runaway technology helped us arrive at this problematic place in the first place. Frankly, I'm often terrified by our desperation to hang onto what seems to me to be a fairly ugly way of life. I carry an image in my head befitting a Steven King story, of the slaves working in the fields to grow corn for the cars, and then the cars drive the slaves back home and plug them into their televisions to maintain stability. I carry another one similar to the “grey goo” theory of nanobots, except we are the nanobots and we eat every last thing on the planet.

I also have daydreams of a country having thousands of small towns rather than a few megacities. I imagine endless variations between towns in their look, culture and flavour. I imagine people working at many different tasks rather than being specialized. I imagine knowing and needing your neighbours. I imagine people listening to live music together that they produce instead of having massive CD collections that they listen to isolated in their headphones. I imagine communities where the various talents of everyone is useful because we haven’t sought out economy of scale, mass production or the most efficient path to profit.

I'm not naive. If we are in for challenging times ahead, I understand perfectly well the problems engendered by greed, paranoia, and desperation. I understand collective action problems and the problem of previous investment. And then there are the hardwired problems of evolution around competition for resources. The list doesn’t end there. I have a hard time hanging onto my little daydreams of a more wholesome slow paced world and an even harder time not being overwhelmed with frustration and fear at the bad places I can imagine ourselves heading to.

Icarus plummeted after attaining great heights. That the sun educated Hubris and Recklessness is a sublime serendipity when viewed today. The sun gives all life and is the source of every energy we have from oil to the flexing of our own muscles. It is a symbol of power and ambition and a destructive force. Apollo, a sun god, is a god of harmony, yet a god of conquest. He is associated with healing and with bringing plagues. The issues we face today are all about our relationship to the sun, and which side of Apollo we have been promoting. In our own playing out of the Icarus tale, we have been trying to change our relationship with the sun from harmony to conquest. We keep cranking out the technology trying to heal our ills and we bring more plagues. The ancient sunlight in coal and oil that we burn have given us flight, but with the onset of climate change, we are melting the wings we have been so proud of.

As much as that Stargate storyscape is wondrous and fascinating, I don’t need or want that in my future. I don’t need more technology. I need very simple things, the same as everyone else does: food, community and meaningful things to do. Brende’s book may contribute some idea and inspiration for how we respond to the things that are coming our way. It may also offer a sense that what is coming could be viewed as a renewal, not a collapse.


  1. This is an excellent piece sir. You explore some very deep themes with insight and delicacy, and I, too, share your daydream.