Notes from Windward: #68
by Peter Crabb
"As a consequence of the ascendancy of technology, humans have become
demeaned and powerless -- second-class citizens in their own societies."
In public debates about the issues of our time -- climate change, peak
oil, economic collapse, and militarism -- there is an elephant in the room
that no one seems to want to acknowledge. Perhaps that is because the
elephant is not an elephant at all. It's the disastrous technological way
of life humans have been pursuing since at least the dawn of agriculture
13,000 years ago.
We won't hear it from the mainstream media, but the technologies we have
come to depend on are actively distorting our sense of reality and are
rapidly rendering the planet unlivable. Contrary to the portrayal of HAL,
the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the situation is much
more subtle and insidious than evil machines running amok. What is
happening is that every day we humans freely choose to use technological
devices that make us feel good when in fact these devices are not good for
us or the planet at all.
In our blind pursuit of immediate gratifications from our countless
gadgets, we have run headlong into a number of "technology traps" that are
destroying human potential and the prospects for sustainable cultures.
Children are put under the spell of technology shortly after birth. They
are taught that sitting in front of screens for hours on end is legitimate
human activity. No value is assigned to exercising the body or going
outside and immersing oneself in the natural world. The comfort of tv,
video games, computers, and cell phones shields kids from any contact with
the real world of wind and sun and plants and animals. Most kids who have
grown up in this world of technological distraction probably wouldn't know
a bird from a bee, let alone that humans share an essential interest with
other life-forms in preserving the planetary ecosystem. They certainly
have no reason to care about the planet if the most rewarding thing in
their lives has always been to turn on a screen and slip into a trance.
Daily use of technologies that focus attention on "me" and "my feelings"
and "my needs" continues into adulthood and distorts the development of
personality. Cell phones, text messaging, and iPods conspire to
infantilize adults. Those technologies of comfort are no different from
the baby's cherished blanket, bottle, or thumb. "MySpace" is an ironic
icon of our time because, while the focus appears to be on "me," the
reality is that it isn't my space at all, but rather a corporate trap that
saps people's time and cognitive energies. With the emphasis on "me," it
seems unlikely that people will be of a mind to take effective action to
solve problems out there in the real world that threaten their own
Given all of that daily technological activity, how useful are the
skills people must learn to operate those gadgets? What passes for
competence has been degraded to the most superficial recipe knowledge
about pushing buttons in the right sequence on devices contrived by
engineers in corporate R&D labs. Education and business have uncritically
adopted the model of the student, the worker, and the consumer as
button-pushing drones. Witness the impact of the microwave oven on
Americans' ideas about what is acceptable food and how food should be
prepared. People no longer own authentic, useful skills, and they do not
even understand how the technologies they depend on work. How will they
fare when the electricity goes out?
With the help of human enthusiasts and enablers, technology creates its
own self-affirming ideology. It is widely believed that technology is
infallible. Technology must not be questioned or criticized. Human needs
are subordinate to the needs of devices and systems. If something goes
wrong, it must be due to "human error." The solution to technology-induced
problems is always more and better technology. In fact, every arena of
human activity is always improved when the latest, most complex
technologies are applied. As a consequence of the ascendancy of
technology, humans have become demeaned and powerless--second-class
citizens in their own societies.
In the natural world, Darwinian natural selection would weed out
tendencies for an organism to be destructive of itself and its habitat.
But the technological way of life has uncoupled human behavior from
natural selection pressures. The harms that result when we use destructive
technologies are dispersed in space and time and are difficult to detect.
The air pollution and petroleum depletion caused by driving a car don't
immediately feed back to the driver and make her question her use of her
car, just as a drink from a plastic bottle of spring water flown in daily
from the South Pacific gives no clues about the many harms caused by the
bottled water industry. Our present-focused brains just don't get the
harmful consequences of our technological activities.
There is no easy way out of these kinds of traps. Even when people
recognize that technology can be problematic, most do not have the luxury
of just saying "no." Some people do without tv or cars or cell phones or
the Internet, but the impact of a few conscientious objectors is probably
negligible. What is needed is a wholesale ratcheting-down of culture to
small, low-tech communities that live harmoniously and respectfully in
local ecosystems. Unless the human species can find the courage and wisdom
to reshape the ways we harness finite resources to solve the basic
problems of survival, we will continue down the road to certain disaster.
Peter Crabb is Associate Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State
University-Hazleton . He is a social psychologist whose research looks at
the impact of technologies on social behavior and personality. He lives a
low-tech, low-impact way of life in rural eastern Pennsylvania.
[Walt: In response to a request for permission to reprint his thoughts on technology, Professor Crabb graciously wrote, "I wholeheartedly support your work and would be pleased to have you post my article on your web site."]
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 68