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2007-05-19

Misanthropic musings on technology and its discontents

On a message board I frequent, one poster was commenting on the increasing isolation he feels in his small town due to technology, or rather, his failure to participate in the broader culture because he and his family don't watch television. Being not much of a "joiner", I could sympathize, but I don't necessarily buy into the vaguely Luddite sentiments expressed.

It's not so much the tools as the toolmakers, or probably the job site. The creation of post-war suburbia, and the cessation of walking most places, has fostered this sort of isolation. I live in the middle of a large city, and I don't own a car. I have a TV, but it has "rabbit ears" (I used to be a TV critic, so I do know what I'm missing, if missing is the right word). I have purposely limited the normative exposure to certain technologies (car, cable TV) in favour of different choices. While this was once driven by sheer financial strictures, now it's primarily a straight-ahead decision not to participate in "car" or "TV" culture.

These decisions can easily lead to both social isolation and smug bastardry, I will freely admit. I bicycle or walk or take the streetcar (trolley to some) that stops outside of my house. I work alone from home, so I try to chat with people if only to get out of my own head occasionally. In fact, my wife calls me one of the friendlier misanthropes she's ever met, not that one gets to meet many misanthropes, I suppose. But I like people one-on-one, but I tend to want to avoid "humanity", particularly the band leaders in the parade of stupidity, ignorance and factionalism that constitutes a lot of what we laughingly call public life in North America.

But it's an effort for me, although I doubt that would be obvious if you met me in person. And I think it's an effort for a lot of people, because (and this may seem a strange observation) of the decline of formality in social interaction in the last 100 years. I'm all for a blurring of the social distinctions that used to see poor people "tipping the hat" to their "social betters", but these days everyone is on a first-name basis and one is expected to immediately go to an informal mode of speech and to pretend that strangers are in fact dear old friends. The use of "Mr." and "Mrs./Ms." to refer to business acquaintances, one's childrens' teachers, service people and social contacts is nearly extinct, except with health professionals and in law courts, and I think this paradoxically isolates people by forcing an artificial intimacy at times.

I would argue that technology, on the other hand, when actively and creatively used, is a great tool for communication. I have, for instance, filed copy to magazines and newspapers for nearly 20 years now, and done so from home since 1990. It's been a very productive choice for me to work from home, because working in an office can be a bit of a waste of time. Frequently, I find time at the oddest spots in the day (I am writing this at 0600 hours on a Saturday morning), and am able to knock off in two hours the work that would take me a full day in a noisy office. And if we factor in the cars I haven't bought, and the gas I didn't burn running them, I feel better about the occasional motorsail with the 50 HP diesel!

I used to be a letter-writer, as in pen to paper. Now I use e-mail and I've started this blog to keep track of my progress on getting our boat ready for long-term cruising. While it may serve only as a warning to others, the fact is that I've read so much useful information online from other cruisers, either preparing to go, underway, or recalling their adventures, that I felt obliged to "give back a bit". Also, the proper use of communications technology will allow me immense latitude while on board to receive helpful information, such as GRIB weather files, chartplotting information, e-mails, educational materials or "distance learning" for my child, and to stay in touch with my rather modest family "back home". It will also facilitate making a living while underway, as well as the usual financial transactions that are hard to imagine doing via stamps and paper these days.

I would say, therefore, that the technology is not at fault so much as our inability to edit the gush of information those technologies bring. Choosing active (like message boards, web pages and e-mail) over passive forms (TV, movies) helps, as does a willingness to "turn things off" and an ongoing engagement with the natural world around one. As another poster pointed out, achieving a balance is the goal, and although this balance point will vary from person to person, it's pretty clear when it's been reached.

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