Some call me a Luddite… but there are times when I think technology is a curse… and the enclosure of our minds reminds me of what Oliver Goldsmith wrote in the 18th Century about the Enclosure Acts in England (known as “Congregación” in the Spanish-Speaking world…) about “Where wealth accumulates and men decay.”
Oddly enough, I think that from the advent of electric lights and the telephone, we all became slaves to technology (not to mention the illusions of luxurious wealth it creates). Hand held telephones with computer capabilities are indeed distracting and quite possibly, literally, “mind blowing” (which is to say—independent memory substituting and hence erasing, creativity disabling… all, but eliminating…)
Where now is the time to set outside under the stars and use our individual imaginations to generate stories and explanations, to compare them and develop them under the tropical or temperate skies?
Think of the Maya and Mesopotamian Calculation of the eclipse tables, of the accumulated memory needed to produce them, at first passed on merely from generation to generation who gazed at the night sky in lieu of sleeping. What did it take to construct the Maya Calendar, or invent hieroglyphs or cuneiform writing? It took imagination coupled with expressive time.
There is no doubt that our individual lives are longer now. But is it the flood of information that lengthens them? No, it is the oldest “lowest tech” of all luxuries—running water inside and the better use of plants and minerals as drugs or medicines, combined with antiseptics and habits of cleanliness which were not beyond the imagination or insights of the authors of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, although many of their actual taboos seem pointless to us now.
The times in my life when I have thought most deeply are those when I am completely or very nearly completely cut off from the modern world. That was the power and majesty of anthropological and archaeological fieldwork in my life, to bring me to places where I got Time Magazine and a good Newspaper at most once every week, and the rest of the time I lived in isolation with the Maya or Central American peasants who had never seen a television, although they had heard of them, and most of whom had never even once spoken on a telephone. I was privileged in catching a brief glimpse of that world in the 1970s-1980s before it vanished, swept away in the flood of new technology in the 1990s.
But in those days, I acquired insight into the world as it once was, and learned why even our highly luxurious camping trips (with all our needs pre-planned and arranged) are so very valuable these days—to get us away from the city lights and to sever our ties to the electronic instruments of entertainment and torture which consume our lives in the “Brave New World” of brightly lit cities.
Even in my all too brief sojourns into Eastern Europe in 1989-1991 I was privileged, again, to see vast cities like Budapest and Bucharest with so few lights that, even from the edge of the Danube at the heart of the city in the Capital of Hungary, we could look up at the stars and count them just as well as I could in my “ex-urban” home in Lago Vista in Northwest Travis County in the 1970s-1980s, or from small Mexican towns like Izamal or Cansahcab in those decades.
Now lights are everywhere and so are computers of every size and shape—and these nearly infinitely multifunctional devices occupy all our attention, even mine right now.
I had another privileged moment last weekend when we went to Yosemite last weekend—escaping for a few hours the Hell which is Fresno in the Central Valley. By day we walked along the touristic photo-spots where competing with 20-200 other camera bearing tourists was the best introduction I could give to Peyton, who had never been there before. I recall my first visit to Yosemite and Sequoia with my grandparents when I was 6, and we had many of these same spots all to ourselves.
But my grandparents had taught me something else—the light of the day is a distinctly one-dimensional view of nature, and how much better it is to have the full panoply of available views that are available only to those who do not fear the dark.
So we had our dinner at the old Ahwahnee Hotel—and it was a delightful Saturday evening surrounded by an American clientele so homogeneous I felt transported in time and space away from modern California of 2012—but then we went on a walk among the giant Sequoias of the Mariposa grove under a quarter moon sky to gaze at the largest living things on earth alone and without sunshine.
City-boy Peyton, never explored Quintana Roo before Cancun or visited anyplace like rural Eastern Europe just after the fall of Communism. In fact, he so disliked the dark that hadn’t even liked walking around the rocky windblown salt-water splashed cliffs at the perimeter of intensely civilized Stanley Park in Vancouver at night, so at first he was a little bit freaked out by the complete absence of “street lights” and the absence of any other human beings, supplemented with an abundance of night sounds. And it always takes a while for ones eyes to adjust to an existence without even the tiniest glimmer of artificial light.
But our eyes did adjust, and Peyton managed to stop jumping at every night-time sound, so just for a while he and I were there with the grove to ourselves at night, walking over the shallow roots of these amazing trees. And there we could imagine what it would have been like to have approached these trees for the first time as a White explorer in the 19th Century, or even from time forgotten as a Native American walking up and feeling in the presence of the gods. Feeling the bark of those trees, noting the tiny scale of the human body impaired by nighttime sight, compared to those trees which are just as tall and strong at all times, and thus forcibly accepting one’s own puny insignificance—with a lifetime of little more than a hundred years at the outside, around those 2000-4000 year old trees–at night is a very humbling experience, and it enriches the soul to remember that we think we know so much, and yet we have forgotten what it is to explore in the dark, and only imagine the explanation for what we discover or think that we have perceived….
My dear old friend Barbaratzin inspired my commentary when she wrote me earlier this evening, quoting Albert Einstein as having written, “I fear the day when our technology overtakes our humanity, the world will have only a generation of idiots.” In a sense Einstein’s alleged quote, which I have not verified, portrays an emigration of integrity from the human soul not too far from Oliver Goldsmith’s lament in “The Deserted Village” recounting the depredations of the enclosure acts on 18th Century England:
Far, far away, thy children leave the land. 50
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.
A time there was, ere England's griefs began,
When every rood of ground maintained its man;
For him light labour spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more: 60
His best companions, innocence and health;
And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.
But times are altered; trade's unfeeling train
Usurp the land and dispossess the swain;
Along the lawn, where scattered hamlets rose,
Unwieldy wealth and cumbrous pomp repose;
And every want to opulence allied,
And every pang that folly pays to pride.
These gentle hours that plenty bade to bloom,
Those calm desires that asked but little room, 70
Those healthful sports that graced the peaceful scene,
Lived in each look and brightened all the green;
These far departing, seek a kinder shore,
And rural mirth and manners are no more.