“You’ll be the troublemaker.” Arif gave me a sly look as he guided me to a far corner of the restaurant, and I nodded, because surely life is too short for small talk.
There were six of us seated at the table. Four middle-aged women — each one attractive, intelligent, engaging, successful. A quiet-spoken serious young man with a shock of brown hair. And me, wearing camouflage-colored Yankees cap and a few days’ worth of stubble.
This was an “intergenerational dinner,” hosted by the Hoot Owl, a cozy restaurant in upstate New York with a loyal local following. The event was organized around a series of questions designed to elicit discussion.
Anne had been tasked as the table’s guide, and now she opened with the first question – what makes you feel most alive?
The table went silent. She waited a moment before volunteering an answer — that perfect mix of dopamine, serotonin, and oxycontin. Speaking as a neuroscientist.
I sat there. Listened. Wondered what would happen if this scientific formula was missing an ingredient. Because to explain reality, wrote quantum physicist Ernst Schrodinger, science must cut out our personalities. “We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us,” he wrote. Which is why “science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, or why and how an old song can move us to tears.”
But I didn’t say anything. Because it’s not polite to interrupt.
Susanna jumped in. She was grateful for video-conferencing technology. During the depths of the pandemic, Zoom had allowed her to connect with people around the world.
The young man with brown hair (his name was Charlie) was thoughtful and serious; he spoke quietly, and the rest of us, being older, hung on his every word. He talked of social isolation during the pandemic. And of his interest in computer science.
By this point I’d heard enough. At the next lull in the discussion, I asked for a show of hands. Who thought technology made life better?
There was a moment of hesitation. Then five hands went up.
I sat back to see what would happen next, as conversation swirled around the table. Charlie pushed back against the proposition that was implicit in my question – he didn’t think of himself as a slave to the machine, rather he used computers for problem-solving. Although he was troubled by certain trends. For example, the software design strategy known as “worse is better,” according to which developers rely on increasingly powerful machines, which allows them to get away with writing sloppy code. Charlie worried that developers were becoming “complacent.”
The conversation swirled around some more. Ayshe commented on nature. As she got older, she hungered for simplicity. There was a general agreement that material goods did not bring happiness. It seemed like people were edging closer to my view.
But Susanna was insistent – Zoom had saved her during the pandemic.
So I countered – was not the pandemic itself an example of technology gone awry? Since the response of the civilized world was disastrous to the economy, the education and development of children, the mental and physical health of millions. Not to mention the (non-trivial) possibility that the virus was engineered by scientists engaged in gain-of-function research (which is illegal in the U.S.) and released by accident.
Then Charlie muttered something about weapons of mass destruction. I leaned back in my chair feeling smug, for now the debate was over. No-one could seriously think that technology made life better – at least not at this moment – not while Russia was threatening to employ nuclear weapons. In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment, a cat is at the same time both alive and dead – exemplifying the paradox of quantum physics, that until the wave function collapses, all scenarios are possible. I pictured the cat strutting through the streets of Kyiv, its fur thick and glossy — and simultaneously, as a black stain upon a chunk of rubble. The same black cat prowls the streets of Moscow, by the way, and New York City.
Does technology make life better?
Writing in the 1950s, the French philosopher Jacques Ellul warned that the spread of technology would lead inexorably to totalitarianism. Of course, the horrors of twentieth-century Europe were fresh in his mind. Battlefield casualties. Industrial genocide. Mass purges. Famine. The collapse of Europe – the fountainhead of science and civilization — into a charnel house. Seventy years after Ellul published his magnus opus, The Technological Society, it was disturbing to see democratic governments enforce lockdown, impose draconian restrictions, unleash police brutality on those who resisted the insanity. I have an Australian friend who is as tough and generous a person as they come. She was in tears at what happened there.
The problem with technology, according to Ellul, is that it “atomizes” society – uproots traditional communities, destroys traditional values, replaces them with a mass consumer society of disconnected individuals. I read somewhere that he was a devout Christian, so maybe he resented the shift toward secular values. Be that as it may, the laws of economics support his logic. For technology leads to bigger markets and greater scale, which favors larger and more powerful organizations within the corporate sector, while the state becomes the administrative nexus for coordination and control. President Eisenhower made essentially the same point when he warned America to beware the military-industrial complex. He also warned us to beware the rise of a “scientific-technological elite” intent on dominating public policy.
Some people date our problems with technology to the development of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago. John Zersan, the self-proclaimed “anarcho-primitivist,” sees technology as an insidious force that spreads as we become dependent on the latest innovations – and as a predatory force that facilitates domination and control. He warns that civilization is on the verge of collapse, as is presaged by the rising tide of depression, suicide, and violence. (And he acknowledges the irony that as a primitivist, he uses the internet to get his message out.)
“Civilization – why, it is a nervous disease,” joked Clarence King, 19th Sierra Mountaineer, geologist, and one of the brightest men of his generation. And then, on a more serious note — “I am convinced that science goes on and progresses at the expense of those absorbed in her pursuit. That men’s souls are burned as fuel for the enginery of scientific progress. And that in this busy materialistic age the greatest danger is that of total absorption in our profession…We give ourselves to the Juggernaut of the intellect.” Whereas what King wanted deep within his soul was more time to absorb the “sympathetic” side of nature. More time to sit on a rock and stare at snow-mountains.
“All good things are wild and free,” wrote the American Transcendentalist, Henry Thoreau.
“The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now,” wrote American Beat Poet Gary Snyder. And he meant a bobcat that roams from dream to dream.
Does technology make life better — or merely more productive?
My mom told me once that my great-grandmother Bessie went barefoot as a young woman. She was an orphan. No-one would buy her shoes. Go back far enough, before the invention of moccasins and sandals, and our distant ancestors were always barefoot. Caves and overhangs offered shelter and some protection. But hunger and other needs forced them out into the forest. Curiosity and the joy of movement helped them overcome the pain of placing soft feet upon sharp rocks.
Moving barefoot was the original human mindfulness.
Then someone created moccasins (or sandals), which allowed people to move more easily. Go faster. Cover long distances. Hunters became more lethal. Brought home more game. People grew stronger. Had more children. The population multiplied. And the hunters began to deplete the herds. So now they had to travel farther in search of prey. On these journeys, they felt the fatigue of exertion. In their aching muscles. In the rasping of their breath. So, the slow, painful act of walking barefoot was transformed into the fast, painful act of moving in footwear. Life was not better, for one source of pain was replaced by another. There were, however, more people alive. And maybe they lived longer.
As I’m writing this, an advertisement comes on the radio for Spravato, a new prescription nasal spray taken in conjunction with an anti-depressant pill. It is for adults with treatment-resistant depression or major depressive disorder. According to a YouTube video by Skeptical Steve, the drug in Spravato (Ketamine) is addictive, can put people into psychotic states, can lead to cognitive decline, and comes with serious side effects. But another video lauds it as an effective treatment for the seriously ill, and notes, by way of background, that Ketamine is favored as an anesthetic by Navy SEALs and popular as a recreational drug on the UK rave scene.
Earlier in the day, I’d seen a tweet – the U.S. leads the world in terms of anti-depressant prescriptions, with 11% of the population on these kinds of drugs.
I don’t think life is better or worse on account of technology, because I think of life as a kind of energy. Like electricity. You can have more amps or watts, but that does not make the current “better.” Energy is a constant.
You object – life is not energy, but rather a pattern of self-replication. Fine. Patterns may replicate more quickly or more slowly – so which is “better”?
Technology is nothing but a lever, the same kind that Archimedes spoke of 2,400 years ago when he claimed he could move the Earth. As a lever, technology produces “leverage.” It leverages our energy. Makes us more productive. While life remains a constant.
A hunter sits upon a slope in the High Sierra, juniper bow and obsidian-tipped arrows by his side, scanning the glacially scoured ledges across the basin for signs of bighorn sheep. The scene is silent. The sun sinks behind the western peaks. The alpenglow steals across the valley, paints the granite mountain wall in weird lavender and vermillion. The hunter returns to camp. His face lights up at the sight of his family. Then he thinks about food and winter drawing near and hunger. This is life. Nothing has changed. Even if you swap the bow for high-powered rifle with laser optics.
Here’s another theory – that we are born with a budget for pain and joy. Even if you don’t step on rocks in bare feet, you will still experience the same amount of pain in life — only it might show up in some other form – like the fatigue of running long distance races – or working long hours behind a screen — or anxiety and depression. Without a contrast between positive and negative experiences, how would we learn?
At one point in the discussion at the Hoot Owl, Susanna brought up technology that helps the disabled. Think of a medicine that saves a sick child’s life. Everyone agrees — the parents’ joy is unmistakable.
Save enough sick children, however, and the human race starts multiplying more quickly. From 50,000 original modern humans to what will soon be 8 billion. Charlie raised his hand and shared with us the latest estimate for when the population will cross that symbolic threshold – it would be in three weeks’ time.
And now we face the question of what 8 billion humans means for the Earth. What it means for natural habitat. For biodiversity. For the climate. If human life gets better at the expense of all other forms of life, did technology create a net benefit? If we destroy the natural ecosystem, did we really make life better for ourselves?
Let’s take the discussion in a different direction. Suppose I cede my argument and agree that technology does in fact make life better – for everyone at the table agreed that technology was, anyhow, inexorable (so why fight it). So here’s a different question — does technology empower everyone, or just some of us? And if so, what about you and what about me?
As for myself, I worry about the consequences of sloppy decision-making. For every benefit comes with a cost, and sometimes the cost is hidden. Technology shields us from life’s rougher edges. It makes us comfortable. We no longer need to leave the cave in search of food. Safe inside, we lose the curiosity, awe, exhilaration, and joy (while the anxiety, which was always there, seeps into our consciousness). Sheltered, we lose the strength to withstand pain. We lose the power to manage our minds in stressful circumstances. Without which we cannot take risk and learn.
The cost is intellectual as well as physical. The 19th Catskills naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “We are housed in social usages and laws, we are sheltered and warmed and comforted by conventions and institutions and numberless traditions.” He saw the artists of his time as “timid” and “pampered.” He thought Americans had a “fear of being unconventional” which was greater than the fear of death. It was only the rare, rugged individual who sank roots into nature and tapped the original, elemental power.
At one point during the intergenerational dinner, Anne the neuroscientist mentioned she was working on a new project that had to do with “attention engineering.” I looked at her in surprise. She said no more. Many of us worry that modern technology is designed to distract us. We frequently blame our phones. But it’s not just marketing. Ellul warned that propaganda would become insidious – by exploiting hate, resentment, and self-justification, by flinging around accusations, “faking the news,” transferring evil to an official enemy. He saw propaganda as creating a collective passion, suppressing the critical faculty of individuals – indeed, they would become addicted to it, as to a drug. Reality would be reconstructed in their minds. The individual would live in a “sham universe.” Disappear into a “world of hallucinations.” Ellul saw propaganda as an offshoot of technology — and this was before social media, algorithms, big data, and machine learning.
I worry that we are outgunned — even the brightest among us. I’m concerned that our agency and personal sovereignty are at risk. I wonder where we will find space to retreat from the onslaught. Without wilderness as a refuge, argued Edward Abbey, “the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.” He wrote stories of monkey-wrenching gangs who went about sabotaging bulldozers, to prevent the commercial exploitation of our natural lands. But the battle lines are encroaching. The refuge is no longer empty land, it must be our bodies and our minds.
Quoting from a line of poetry by Walt Whitman, Abbey left us with a rallying cry – “obey little, resist much.”
Which I take to heart.
So, if you see me walking barefoot about town, it is not so much to protest the dress code of upstate New York. Rather, I am trying to preserve a sliver of the original human mindfulness. Trying to hold out against the sucking lure of the cybersphere and the siren call of comfort. Trying to experience more of nature without the intermediation of unnecessary technology. And having a little bit of fun.
And how about you?
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
— Walt Whitman, Speciman Days
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10 thoughts on “More Nature, Less Technology”
Technology. In some respects, a sort of prisoner’s dilemma.
Interesting thought. not especially encouraging
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I agree. I have had similar thoughts about technology – the good, and not so good. Enjoyed this post.
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I’m an observant, knowledgeable Jew, although I’ve studied and learned much from many religious traditions. I’m familiar with many philosophical and mystical systems, although I prefer Classical philosophies such as Western Platonism and Stoicism, particularly since those, along with Aristotelianism, are so much part of the Western religious tradition. I’m a traditional theist. I give you that background because my comment is that I find it disappointing that the opposing optimistic view of the role of Man and that role’s centrality on Earth was not even mentioned in the discussion. Of course, the question which started the discussion was so egoistic and self-centered. By contrast, Genesis commands us to “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Rainbow Covenant says that Earth will not be destroyed again, because of God’s satisfaction with Noah’s stewardship of life on Earth. Even in the Classical philosophical tradition, Protagoras says that “Man is the measure of all things.” Our favorite Stoics still by and large believed in the centrality and importance of Man upon Earth. Well, perhaps not Diogenes himself. But doesn’t the modern scientific “anthropic principle” also justify a faith in the centrality of the intelligent life of humans? For Stoicism and the Western theistic traditions, human law is supposed to parallel the Law of Nature. By contrast, it was the modern atheist and quite evil Rousseau who idolized the wild and savage nature. Modern technology has become so advanced that it enables a scale of destruction which is historically unprecedented. But it is evil people who bring about the destruction, not necessarily that the technology is evil. Should we look upon agriculture and herding as the beginning of the end, when agriculture can do so much to improve nature itself by making the land and even waters ever more fertile and able to support human as well as animal life? Our parks and ancient hunting grounds and royal forest preserves have done so much to preserve the biome, haven’t they! I too really appreciate the wild spirit in its virile and majestic power and glory. But doesn’t the mission of Noah and his descendants as faithful stewards of the planet’s life, animal, domestic and wild, as well as human, still live on, despite the many failures? Look how much we have been able to clean up the environment, at the same time as accommodating human increase! Personally, I’ve been regularly barefoot and swimming in the Hudson, here in so-called “polluted” Manhattan. I take pride in my miniscule carbon footprint due to my modest apartment and lack of a car, aside from other efficiencies which city life enables, such as the abundance of free food for the taking which others throw out. I don’t wish to offend those who have seen so much rampant technologically-empowered destruction, of humans as well as other species. But I should think that there remains much to bolster the ancient faith in Man who is central enough to be Partner in God’s Creation, and through whose stewardship and efforts helps both human and animal life to be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.
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Ira, as always so nice to hear from you, and thank you for the thoughtful comment. I don’t disagree with your view at all. Just feel that it is incumbent on thoughtful people like you and I to hold ourselves accountable. Remain vigilant. Challenge our assumptions. Take nothing for granted. Think through the implications of our choices and decide accordingly, the way a Partner should.
Wow, Ken. This has gotten me thinking on this dark grey morning and I need some time to process this. BTW, I went barefoot hiking yesterday here along the CT coast.
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OMG Tony – the craziness is spreading. Don’t step on a 🦀!
I didn’t step on any 🦀s and I chose this trail because it is mostly sand, with pine needles and a lot of granite boulders. I’d like to get my feet back to the condition they were during the summers of my youth on the Jersey Shore.
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That sounds like a nice trail, Tony, and such simple fun to move along — I look forward to hearing more about your adventures
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