Thursday, December 3, 2009

The mixed blessing of technology

We came across an interesting column the other day titled "If Odysseus Had GPS." Basically, the author (Daniel Akst) argued that while the astounding advances in communications technology have rendered the literary "tradition of the lost loved one" obsolete (think Robinson Crusoe), this has been an unalloyed good for humanity as a whole. He concludes thus:

"Think back to the aftermath of World War II, when millions of displaced persons in Europe struggled to find lost loved ones. Some searched for decades. Under similar circumstances today, the displaced would probably consult a searchable database on the World Wide Web, or perhaps set up a Google alert to notify them when a relative's name cropped up. Literature's loss, it seems, is humanity's gain. Not a bad trade, I think."

Reading the piece reminded us of a comment (from someone named Michael Gardiner) we once saw posted to a Pico Iyer column on the NY Times "Happy Days" blog:

"I ran away to sea with my wife at 30 in a sail boat, had kids in the Pacific Islands, and worked, in the Middle East mostly. Twenty-five years later we returned home and social pressures had receded - parents had died, siblings were distant and old friends had gone their way. We built a house, set up our kids, and enjoyed our own culture again for a few years - the food, wine, concerts, movies, books, new friends - but now stuff is starting to accumulate. It’s time to have a garage sale, rent out the house and go to sea - we kept the sail boat."

Now, the absurd viewpoint is that all experience is equivalent--none better or worse than another--so one could legitimately question the relevance of this discussion. (Which life is "better"? Neither! It is one's perspective that matters.) But a couple of things. First, not only are the two viewpoints diametrically opposed, there is a fundamental difference in what they are saying.

To wit: Akst argues specific friends and family are not only important, but perhaps necessary for one to be happy, while Gardiner argues such relationships are in fact an obstacle to a happy (or content) life. This is similar to the difference between "positive" and "negative" rights, with the former constituting things to which one is entitled (e.g. welfare) and the latter the "right" to be left alone (e.g., not be required to pay for someone else's food). In short, Akst is putting all his figurative eggs in one highly uncertain and unpredictable basket, while Gardiner is in essence saying "Just take away the basket and I'll be fine."

Further, while one could still make the argument (as above) that the two are equivalent, we have consistently tried to stress practical methods for living the absurd life in this blog. For example, consider a recent experience of ours, during which we found ourself outside at a community pool in the early evening, watching three or four people swim lazy laps. It was an incredibly calm and peaceful setting, and we felt very absurd, so much so that we began to postulate a blog post about the wonders of this feeling...and the difficulties of feeling this way in other settings.

Indeed, as if on cue our reverie was shattered during the chaotic 20 minutes spent driving our bickering children home. Thus, even though we knew during the car ride that we should not feel differently than we did at the pool, the fact was that we did. This, of course, is due to a variety of genetic and societal factors, but we cannot simply dismiss it as irrelevant. (There is, after all, a reason monks generally choose to meditate in monasteries rather than in the middle of Times Square.)

Similarly, then, we feel Gardiner's "recipe" for contentment to be far superior to Akst's. As we have argued in the past, when we rely on anything for contentment we are by definition ceding control over our happiness to that specific thing, or person, or "relationship." It is far different to "rely" on the absence of such things/people to smooth one's path to a content life.

That said, such a viewpoint is clearly in the minority nowadays. Isn't that what Facebook is all about?

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