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ECONOMICS -
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Eat, Sleep, Work, Consume, Die

Posted in the database on Sunday, November 13th, 2005 @ 20:42:37 MST (1731 views)
by Tony Long    Wired News  

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Say you live in Greenwich, Connecticut, during, oh, the early 1850s. Your older brother left home a few years back to try his luck in the California gold fields. Like the vast majority of those who risked everything to go west, he came up empty. Now he's stranded, working in some dive on the San Francisco waterfront, pulling steam beer for the other would-be millionaires nursing their dashed dreams.

You take quill to parchment (OK, you have paper, but it's pitted with wood pulp) and write him a letter.

The Pony Express doesn't yet exist (the first rider won't set off from St. Joseph, Missouri, until April 1860), and telegraph won't be functional until late 1861, so your letter will go the usual way: by sailing ship around the Horn. Assuming it doesn't run into heavy seas or founder off Tierra del Fuego, the vessel should arrive in San Francisco Bay about three months after weighing anchor at Mystic. It's the cutting-edge technology of its day.

Today, sitting at home in Greenwich, you can dispatch an e-mail to your bartender brother out west that he'll be able to read within minutes of mixing the day's last cosmopolitan. Or you can call him and leave a message. Heck, if you guys use text messaging, you'll be chatting almost instantaneously.

On balance, any of those are probably a better alternative to the clipper ship. Hey, if I miss my brother it's kind of nice to be able to get hold of him -- now.

But that's the point. My expectations have been raised to this ridiculous level by technology running amok through my heretofore-bucolic existence. I used to be a laid-back guy. Now I'm impatient. I chafe. I get irritable when my gratification isn't instantaneous. And it isn't just me. The whole world is bitchier these days.

I'm old enough to remember when waiting a few days for a letter to arrive was standard operating procedure, even in the bare-knuckles business world. I recall a time without answering machines, when you just had to keep calling back on your rotary phone until someone picked up. (Which had the unintended benefit of allowing you to reconsider whether the original call was even worth making in the first place.) The world moved at a more leisurely pace and, humanistically speaking, we were all the better for it.

Just because technology makes it possible for us to work 10 times faster than we used to doesn't mean we should do it. The body may be able to withstand the strain -- for a while -- but the spirit isn't meant to flail away uselessly on the commercial gerbil wheel. The boys in corporate don't want you to hear this because the more they can suck out of you, the lower their costs and the higher their profit margin. And profit is god, after all. (Genuflect here, if you must.)

But what's good for them isn't necessarily good for you, no matter how much filthy lucre they throw your way.

Civilization took a definite nose dive when the merchant princes grew ascendant at the expense of the artists and thinkers; when the notion of liberté, égalité, fraternité gave way to "I've got mine; screw you" (an attitude that existed in Voltaire's day, too, you might recall, with unfortunate results for the blue bloods). In the Big Picture, the dead white guys -- Rousseau, Thoreau, Mill -- cared a lot more about your well-being than the live ones like Gates or Jobs or Ellison ever will.

But stock-market capitalism is today's coin of the realm, consumerism its handmaiden, and technology is the great enabler. You think technology benefits you because it gives you an easier row to hoe? Bollocks. The ease it provides is illusory. It has trapped you, made you a slave to things you don't even need but suddenly can't live without. So you rot in a cubicle trying to get the money to get the stuff, when you should be out walking in a meadow or wooing a lover or writing a song.

Utopian claptrap, you sneer. So you put nose to grindstone, your life ebbing as you accumulate ... what?

Look around. Our collective humanity is dying a little more every day. Technology is killing life on the street -- the public commons, if you please. Chat rooms, text messaging, IM are all, technically, forms of communication. But when they replace yakking over the back fence, or sitting huggermugger at the bar or simply walking with a friend -- as they have for an increasing number of people in "advanced" societies -- then meaningful human contact is lost. Ease of use is small compensation.

The street suffers in other ways, too. Where you used to buy books from your local bookseller, you now give your money (by credit card, with usurious interest rates) to Amazon.com. Where you used to have a garage sale, you now flog your detritus on craigslist. Almost anything you used to buy from a butcher or druggist or florist you can now get online. Handy as hell, to be sure, and nothing touched by human hands. But little shops lose business and close, to be replaced, if at all, by cookie-cutter chain stores selling One Size Fits All. The corporations have got you right where they want you.

Is this the world you want to inhabit? Really? I live near San Francisco Bay. When I think about all this, I miss the canvas sail and the wind whistling through the shrouds.



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