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 --
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
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
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
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