We rented a scooter, my sister and I, and decided to ride the damn thing all the way from Candidasa on one side of Bali to Ubud, almost all the way on the other. On the way my lower back began to ache and, to my eternal frustration, my sister was determined to knock her helmet against mine as frequently as possible.
So we took a lot of breaks. At one point, during an expanse of comfortable roadtrip silence, we both breathed in deeply. There is a smoky, bonfire-like smell to the developing world that has either been lost or covered up by modernity. It is the burned fields of farmers yet to discover genetic agriculture. It is burned trash. It is cooking fish fresh from the sea, cigarettes without filters, bon fires in rusted trash cans to stay warm. The smoke pervades everything: clothes, hair, the foggy dew of morning.
There is so much to write about and so little time to do so. I’m especially excited to announce a project that I’ve been working on for the past few months, but first need to finish up some final to-do’s so that it is ready for announcing.
Right now I’m back in Linz where a group of 40 or so geeky artists have spent our weekend judging thousands of entries for this year’s Prix Ars Electronica. I was lucky and spent most of my time in the digital communities session with Regine Debatty, Alessandro Ludovico, Haitao Huang, and Felix Stalder. Even more interesting than all the digital communities we reviewed were our more theoretical discussions about how digital communities have evolved (for better and worse) over the past five to ten years and what impact online society has had on offline society. Or is there even a real distinction any more?
The earliest adopters of new media tools – those of us who spent a good part of this decade writing pseudo-manifestos about the democratizing nature of new media – now seem to be on the frontline of a re-emerging movement of techno-skepticism. Meanwhile all those who asked me, time after time, ‘why would anyone want to know what I’m eating or when I go to the bathroom’ are tweeting their hearts out. Literally.
No one else writes as eloquently, in my opinion, about the good and bad of technology as Kevin Kelly. I can’t wait to read his upcoming book, The Technium, even if it is just a polished version of the blog. I read a recent post of his this morning that brought me back to Bali and its smoky, scooter-saturated highways twisting through brightly covered rice paddies. Some excerpts:
I remember the smoke the most. That pungent smell permeating the camps of tribal people. Everything they touch is infused with the lingering perfume of smoke — their food, shelter, tools, and art. Everything. Even the skin of the youngest tribal child emits smokiness when they pass by. I can hold a memento from my visits decades later and still get a whiff of that primeval scent. Anywhere in the world, no matter the tribe, steady wafts of smoke drift in from the central fire. If things are done properly, the flame never goes out. It smolders to roast bits of meat, and its embers warm bodies at night. The fire’s ever-billowing clouds of smoke dry out sleeping mats overhead, preserve hanging strips of meat, and drive away bugs at night. Fire is a universal tool, good for so many things, and it leaves an indelible mark of smoke on a society with scant other technology.
Living in a world without technology was a refreshing vacation, but the idea of spending my whole life there was, and is, unappealing. Like you, or almost anyone else with a job today, I could sell my car this morning and with the sale proceeds instantly buy a plane ticket to a remote point on earth in the afternoon. A string of very bumpy bus rides from the airport would take me to a drop-off where within a day or two of hiking I could settle in with a technologically simple tribe. I could choose a hundred sanctuaries of hunter-gatherer tribes that still quietly thrive all around the world. At first a visitor would be completely useless, but within three months even a novice could at least pull their own weight and survive. No electricity, no woven clothes, no money, no farm crops, no media of any type — only a handful of hand-made tools. Every adult living on earth today has the resources to relocate to such a world in less than 48 hours. But no one does. The gravity of technology holds us where we are. We accept our attachment.
We are not the same folks who marched out of Africa. Our genes have co-evolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. In the same period we domesticated the dog (all those breeds) from wolves, and cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors. We, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. Our teeth continue to shrink, our muscles thin out, our hair disappear, our molecular digestion adjust to new foods. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are co-evolving with our technology, so that we have become deeply co-dependent on it. Sapiens can no longer survive biologically without some kind of tools. Nor can our humanity continue without the technium.
I highly recommend the entire article.
While I’m sure this isn’t the point of the article, what hit me (based on the excerpt) was how little due Kelly gives to the technology of “technologically simple tribe[s].” I’m not saying that I am looking to give up all my technology to move back to the land, but the article definitely does come off as a bit belittling in the way it deals with people outside of the 2.0 world…as if they didn’t hold important knowledge that is beyond the ability of “even a novice” to grasp within “three months.” We are the ones who evolved from our simple African decedents while they languish on the perifery of (or surpassed by) evolution? Sounds pretty elitist (all that said without having taken the time to read the whole article).
Noah, to your point, I’m reading about the Harlem Children’s Zone right now, and in the book the author cites a study that looked at the skills fostered by parents in their children in working-class vs. middle-class families. The middle-class kids were treated much more as equals and “were encouraged to ask questions and challenge assumptions and negotiate rules” which “taught them how to navigate institutions” and manage relationships with professionals. The working-class kids had much more autonomy to play on their own, less interaction with adults, and the interaction they had was of a very formal authoritative nature.
Each group of children learned the values that were important in their class culture, it just turns out that the values learned in the middle-class families are more highly prized by our economic structure, which helps to perpetuate class divisions. The author uses the example of a person with a working-class background having trouble making eye contact in a job interview. In an environment where you don’t talk back to authority figures, this deference would be normal behavior. In a white-collar job interview, you’d likely be looked at as “shifty.”
Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I see parallels here with your critique of this article. Like the skills imparted to middle-class kids, the 2.0 tools happen to be the tools that drive the world economy, therefore we tend to see more “value” in them. In school, we test for those skills (not for working-class skills) and determine that kids are successful or not based on the results. Seems like Kelly is making the same sort of value judgment here. (And I’m pretty sure it’d take me longer than three months to pick up the skills required to survive without my favorite technologies (supermarket anyone?)).
Yea that type of study is a constant topic in discussing the educational gap between low income students and better off students. Although I do take argument with the freedom to play part…it definitely goes both ways…a lot of kids who live in the ghetto (for whatever that means) are in situations where they’re discouraged from playing on the street because it isn’t safe. Contrast that with my upbringing in suburban Davis or rural Tennessee where I had hella freedom partially because I was a latch-key kid and partially because it wasn’t perceived that there were malignant threats of the same nature (although the reality was much more nuanced). I see a lot of my students stuck inside playing video games when I would have been out exploring with my friends.
That said, I agree that we definitely put a prize on elitist knowledge at the expense of recognizing the validity and intracacies of other types of knowledge (if you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a college education to gain it or at least to prove that you’ve gained it, it’s not deemed important)…something that whether you like it or not leaves those who poses that elitist knowledge at a definite advantage in our society.
Still haven’t had time to read the whole article though….too much of my time already spent skirting my lesson-planning responsibilities.
Don’t tell me that suburban Davis is where you started saying hella?
Are you sure the scooter wasn’t emitting all the smoke you were smelling? Snark.
Why would I want to live in a world where hand-made tools are all I need? Why would I want to live without mp3, my digital SLR, podcasts, tweetdeck and pitchfork? I’m not sure I’ve come to a point where I’m jaded by all things technology…yet. And only the most jaded would book for the tropical wonderlands of Brazil, methinks.
Also, I suck at climbing, so if there’s hiking involved anywhere, then I’m fucked. But ask me to climb something akin to technology’s Everest and I’ll do so with overwhelming determination.
I wasn’t arguing for dropping our technology (my macbook is still too goddamn sexy for me to do that at the moment) and moving to the jungle (although I do admit that the idea does appeal to me at times). I was simply pointing out what I saw to be a very 2.0-centric view of knowledge and technology (whether or not it was rightly attributed to the author).
It’s a bit like the intellectual property debates around genetically modified crops (a somewhat cliche argument by now I realize, but never the less serves to illustrate a point here). Not until some white-lab-coat-wearing guy comes along from a recognized institution or private company do we recognize innovation, completely disregarding the fact that the very seeds this guy was playing with were products of ages of innovation and invention by people who lived and worked with these plants.
I mean when you think about it, the technology we so prize (and I include myself in this) is in a lot of ways uniquely a product of a larger system that has also brought with it arguably intensely increased levels of inequalities and poverty. Don’t get me wrong, I also see the huge benefits in quality of life measures that it has brought for at least a privileged class of society, but I think in the end, it’s an important question to contemplate, whether or not our society is really more humane and free than another form of living that may not have created the technology we have.
Would you give up your computer if that were the case? If not, how much is your computer worth to you and why (besides it just being hella sexy)? It’s not something that I necessarily believe, but I think it’s important to be open to.