October 14, 2008 – A lengthy, rambling, philosophical quest for balance between overcomplexity and primitiveness, overconsumption and asceticism, tyranny and freedom.
By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond
Modern Technology – Aargh!
From the time I was a child I’ve never much cared for our modern world. I was then and am today most comfortable in the wilderness – or at least as close to it as possible – depending on my own two legs for locomotion, with perhaps a small backpack containing tools and provisions slung over my shoulders. When I was a kid, my most enjoyable times were spent in the closest thing we had to a wilderness, the wild canyons around my neighborhood. We dug countless fossils from the dirt, chased down horned toad lizards or just hiked through the dense plant growth, careful to avoid falling onto a barrel cactus wielding sturdy, two-inch long needles.
Few people are more technologically literate than I am, but I truly dislike modern technology! Despite claims to the contrary, technology hasn’t really improved the quality of our lives. Technology has complicated our lives, undermined our interpersonal relationships, diluted our humanity, and promised to separate us from nature, as if that’s truly possible. I would happily trade our technological way of life for a restoration of genuine community, morality, humanity and oneness with nature. Even though I’m a technophile, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of doing things by hand and working with nature instead of against it, despite my joking complaints to the contrary in some of my writing. I’ve always admired the Amish for just these reasons and have often fantasized about somehow joining their community.
When I watch western movies and see the simple houses depicted, with their wood-burning stoves, wooden board walls, and simple handmade furnishings, I don’t recoil at their primitiveness. On the contrary, I relish their simplicity. If you want to cook some food or heat such a house, you simply start a fire in the wood-burning stove. You don’t have to rely on a finicky and complicated furnace, fueled by both gas and electricity, its tentacles of wiring, gas pipes and ductwork snaking throughout the walls. As I write this I’m baking a loaf of bread in the oven and picturing myself doing so in an old-fashioned wood-burning oven instead of my electric oven.
If you want water, you walk out to a well and pull up some water, or if you want to be really fancy, you exercise the handle of a simple pump to draw some water. You don’t have to worry about your water pipes leaking or bursting in the winter. If you want some eggs for breakfast, you walk out to the chicken enclosure and pick up some freshly laid eggs. If you want light, you just strike a match to a lantern or a candle. You don’t have to worry about the electrical wiring failing mysteriously or being chewed up by varmints inside the walls. And you never have to worry about having your utilities shut off for failing to promptly pay some faceless, unconcerned utility provider.
If you want to go somewhere, you simply walk, ride a bicycle or persuade a friendly horse to take you. So what if it takes days to go somewhere? That’s part of the fun, and if people weren’t so harried trying to keep their hamster wheels spinning, they might actually enjoy the time spent getting from here to there. I sometimes travel to California to spend the winter with my family, and the part I like best is the four or five days I spend getting there. Relying on your own propulsion or perhaps that of a kind horse means you never have to worry about changing the engine oil, making repairs, buying expensive tires or paying the exorbitant government-imposed tribute associated with owning and operating a car. Automobiles are really more of a liability than an asset, enabling the unsustainable developmental sprawl that we are starting to recognize and cope with today, substantially contributing to air pollution, squandering unfathomable sums of money on the manufacture of cars themselves and roads to carry them.
If you want to grow some crops you simply attach a plow to a horse and plow a field, drop some seeds in the soil, wait for the rain to come water the field, and soon enough you’ve got food to eat. Where I live I can closely observe the modern procedure for growing food, which involves huge mechanized equipment to plow the fields, more mechanized equipment to plant the seeds, immense quantities of fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on the fields, sometimes using airplanes, more huge mechanized equipment to harvest the crops, trucks to transport the grain to grain elevators, barges to transport the grain from the grain elevators down the river.
Certainly, the modern technique produces huge quantities of food, but it’s ultimately unsustainable and exacts a considerable toll from the environment and our relationship with nature. Moreover, this expensive technique for producing food takes it out of the hands of the common people. Only wealthy farmers and corporations can produce food this way. Food growing ought to be a basic skill, requiring nothing more than simple tools, and familiar to all. In the past it was just that way. Nowadays, people have no idea how to grow food, nor do they have any appreciation for the cycles of life, and instead consume factory-produced junk food that bears little resemblance to actual food.
While television has much positive potential, that potential has been underutilized, and television today is more of a liability than an asset. While watching it one has to suffer idiotic and assaulting commercials. People tend to watch too much television, which detracts from the time they can spend engaging in productive pursuits and damages their ability to think. Reading a thought-provoking or enlightening book is a hundred times as beneficial as watching a television program. Books not only deliver more in-depth insight into topics than television or even online articles, but the lessons learned from books are more lasting. I remember far more knowledge absorbed from the books I’ve read than from the online articles I’ve read or the television shows I’ve watched.
For most people, computers are a troublesome appliance, one that’s more or less necessary in our modern, high-speed world, but difficult for the average person to maintain. In fact, many of our everyday technological marvels are double-edged in that way: they are extremely useful when they work properly, but tend to demand considerable effort to keep them in good working order, and few of us have the expertise to fix them ourselves; we are often dependent on others to make repairs to our technological toys. Computers have also contributed to environmental degradation. A great deal of pollution is created in their fabrication, the materials used are environmentally unfriendly, and their operation consumes large quantities of electricity and paper. I recall the early days of computers when people spoke optimistically of a “paperless” future. Well, guess what? Computers have caused an increase in paper consumption! That’s not surprising considering that one can print a hundred pages of useless drivel at the press of a button.
Communication technology has made communication more available and speedier, but is that necessarily better? Most of our communication – the billions of text messages and e-mails, the millions of cell phone calls to say “I’m walking in the door just now, sweetie,” and the millions of FAXed advertisements – could be done away with and not missed one bit. In fact, as recently as a few decades ago people did not “enjoy” these technological marvels and seemed to get along in life splendidly. In general, the more abundant something is the less valuable it is. I would say that our world is saturated with communiques, rendering most of them valueless. Wouldn’t a hand-written letter, sent on a distant, time-consuming trip through the mail convey more meaning and be more appreciated, if only because of its inherent rarity?
And consider the stress ensuing from being on call 24/7 when one carries a cell phone everywhere they travel, even to the bathroom; from yet another contract and yet another monthly bill for each communication tool, whether it be a cell phone or Internet service; from keeping everything in working order and updated to possess the latest features or security patches; from having your cell phone probed or confiscated when you cross an international border. When one considers the “costs’ associated with owning many such communication tools, they really seem like more of a liability than an asset. I have a prepaid cell phone that I never use and keep for emergencies when I drive my car, but I could live without it. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I drove my car “naked,” broke down from time to time, and somehow managed to get through each trial. My prepaid phone’s minutes indeed just “expired” (at a significant loss to me) but I feel no urge to “refill” it and drive “naked” all the time now. It’s very liberating!
Look at the maintenance that’s required to keep technology working properly: your computer, your cell phone, your car, your television equipment. Even something as low-tech as plumbing requires a surprising amount of maintenance. Every winter it seems I have to call the plumber to fix pipes that have frozen and burst. Often I think it would be a lot less stressful to simply walk into the backyard and drop a bucket down a well. A fireplace or wood-burning stove would be a lot less stressful than having to call someone to come repair the heater. In just the last year I’ve had the Internet, telephone, heater, electricity and water go out on me, each failure causing me stress. In the past year I’ve also had to repair my lawnmower, which, aside from the considerable expense, while it was out of commission, the weeds got out of control (they grew literally seven feet tall) and I had to hire someone to come and cut them down because I lack the tools. It would be a heck of a lot less stressful to simply have some goats or cows or horses to keep the grass mowed. From time to time a menacing “Service engine now!” (I guess the exclamation point is a German thing, as it’s a VW) warning appears on the dashboard of my car and antagonizes me until relent and take the car to the dealer. My computers are old and constantly in need of servicing: a newer USB interface card, replacing a dead clock battery, replacing a dead cooling fan, replacing a defective video card, etc. The more advanced the technology, it seems the more maintenance is required. I once read that our modern technological gadgets add considerable psychological stress and anxiety to our lives, precisely because of all the effort required to maintain them. I have always agreed with that assessment.
Modern technology has accelerated our lives, but a slower pace of life is not a bad thing. The quicker pace of life made possible by technology has not only made it possible to do some things, such as communicate, quicker, but our bosses expect us to do these things quicker, which leads to stress and overwork. I’ve spent a lifetime doing as little as possible, as slowly as possible! What do I have to show for it? A comfortable, leisurely lifestyle, low stress, inner tranquility, and a youthful demeanor.
Consider this article which says that medieval workers actually worked less than modern workers and took more time to enjoy life. In the 14th century workers toiled 1440 hours per year; in 1988 workers toiled 1856 hours per year. Is it a sign of progress that we work more today than we did seven hundred years ago?
Aside from the simplicity and lower stress of a less technological lifestyle, such a lifestyle also affords the benefit of being more sustainable. What people don’t realize is that there is tremendous hidden cost associated with technology, such as the pollution and environmental degradation that occurs “elsewhere.” True progress is not a fancier Internet-enabled cell phone, but finding a way to live harmoniously and sustainably on our finite little planet.
There’s a Star Trek episode I like, titled Errand of Mercy. In that episode the Enterprise comes to the “rescue” of a seemingly primitive people deemed to be under grave threat from the Klingons. It turns out, however, that these “primitive” people are neither primitive nor threatened by anyone. They have adopted their humble, simple appearance merely for the benefit of the visiting Earthlings and Klingons. In reality, the planet’s inhabitants are extremely advanced, evolved and wise. Why can’t we become similarly more “evolved” by adopting a simpler way of life in recognition that it’s the only model that’s truly sustainable?
We could combine the advanced knowledge we possess today with the simple lifestyle of hundreds of years ago and live far better than those people did, but in a sustainable, harmonious and ecologically friendly manner. We might even be able to sustain the human population that exists today if we live wisely enough. Of course, assuming we made an enlightened effort to educate well every human being on the planet, in all likelihood the human population would gradually diminish through attrition, making our existence here on Earth all the more sustainable.
Technology seems to be adopted first by militaries and governments and is thus almost always employed for malevolent purposes. The Internet started out as a communication network for military researchers. Airplanes were promptly turned into weapons of war and military aircraft are the first to employ technological improvements today. Genetic engineering technology is being used today to facilitate bacteriological warfare. Computers are being used to build advanced and comprehensive databases about each human being on the planet, and not for their benefit. These technologies are systematically being used directly against us. Is that progressive or regressive?
If modern technologies didn’t exist, if we lived as people did even as recently as the nineteenth century, governments could no longer attack us from the safe confines of air conditioned offices, comfortably seated behind computer screens. The only way government could harm us is by physically confronting us the “old school” way, making the prospect of confrontation a whole lot less palatable.
Some may point to modern medicine as an example of how technological advancement has produced genuine progress and improvement in our lives, but I disagree. Most of the increase in life span and decrease in disease has resulted from improvements in hygiene, sanitation, nutrition and a better understanding of disease transmission and pathogenesis. Medical miracles such as heart bypass operations, organ transplants and so forth, while extremely valued by their beneficiaries, have not had a huge impact on humanity as a whole. As for pharmaceutical drugs, many ancient cultures figured out the beneficial properties of certain herbs and foods without the help of pharmaceutical firms, and at far lower cost. Ironically, government and corporations are attempting to undermine our health by depriving us of the benefits of wholesome, natural foods, herbs and dietary supplements, in order to drive us toward the use of pharmaceutical drugs. They’re using the medical knowledge accumulated over the centuries, not to benefit us, but against us!
Now that we possess this medical knowledge, why can’t we retain it and make use of it while otherwise living simpler, more sustainable lives? For instance, I understand the benefits of eating well, exercise and rest. I’m aware of the ways to avoid coming into contact with microorganisms and of the need to practice simple hygiene, such as washing my hands. Awareness of these simple things has kept me healthy for many years and I expect it will continue to do so, without the assistance of additional medical technology.
Finally, isn’t it interesting that so many of our greatest philosophers and artists hail from eras long before advanced technology emerged? Could it be that the absence of distracting technology freed their minds to concentrate on philosophical and creative thought? I find that I do my best thinking well away from the computer, such as while out for a walk.
I think we were a better species several hundred years ago, when we lived more simply, crafted things from hand and weren’t so buried under an overabundance of needless crap.
In my travels, whenever I’ve visited ancient sites in Greece or Rome, or more modern antiquities like the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, or the even more modern Beaux-Arts buildings in Paris, I’ve felt more at home in those places than in my own time and place. If I believed in reincarnation I’d say I lived past lives in those places because they seem so familiar to me. Every time I see a picture of the Taj Mahal (even though it was originally a private monument) I swoon with desire to visit it in person, like a moth drawn to a beckoning light, yet I feel no such attraction to any of our modern edifices, not even the awesomely tall Burj Khalifa tower.
An interesting observation I’ve made recently is that ancient buildings were meant to be appealing to people inside them, whereas modern skyscrapers can only be appreciated when viewed from a great distance, as demonstrated in the examples above. What is the implicit message there, to stay away?
If one compares the magnificent human creations of the past with the creations of the present, there is no comparison. The Burj Khalifa tower, the newest tallest building in the world, is impressive, but it strikes me as soulless and sterile. What are they going to use the building for? Offices for financial service companies? Compare that to the Parthenon, which has stood as a powerful, recognizable symbol of an era for over 2,000 years! Or consider St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, where hand-carved stone hangs like draped fabric. Or the awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals that dot Europe. Or even the Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the castles of Europe. I reluctantly mention these latter monuments because they were not created to serve the public, but were testaments to private greed and grotesque displays of wealth. Nevertheless, they are still beautiful, inspiring and culturally significant. One noteworthy characteristic of all these ancient monuments is that they were built without modern technology.
The fact that some of these creations took a hundred years or more to build is of little consequence. These projects afforded countless craftspeople with meaningful employment that they could take pride in. Can people working for some nondescript corporation, pushing papers, designing web pages, answering the telephone or manipulating financial figures claim the same pride and satisfaction in their work? Who takes more pride in, and derives more satisfaction from their work, the typesetter of two hundred years ago or today’s web site designer?
While buildings harbor much psychological significance for humans, this essay is not just about buildings. Today we’ve managed to reduce everything in our modern world – our buildings, art, food, entertainment, education, even life itself – to the cold, hard calculus of dollars and cents, profit and loss, cost/benefit analysis. In a way, that banal reductionism mimics the arithmetic of natural selection, so it might seem appropriate and justifiable. But human beings, more than any other animal, are capable of rising above the preprogrammed constraints of genetics and natural selection. Human beings can feel passion and inspiration and beauty, and even more importantly, we are capable of responding to these emotions with constructive, lasting endeavor.
For much of human history, until perhaps the dawn of the twentieth century, we permitted our passions to enrich our everyday existence. We built inspiring buildings, created inspiring works of art, wrote inspiring words, ruminated on inspiring philosophical thoughts. Today, however, passion and inspiration are nowhere to be found, not among the masses and certainly not among the leaders.
When visiting the historical sites mentioned above I always feel a sense of awe and inspiration, especially in the old Gothic cathedrals – and I’m not even religious! By contrast I’m never similarly moved when visiting any place built after about the beginning of the twentieth century. I recall living in San Francisco and having a post office box in the main post office downtown, and what a delight it was to go there to pick up my mail. (If memory serves, the building served as a temporary city hall after the 1906 earthquake.) The building was beautiful, probably dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and it felt good to be inside it. Then we had the 1989 earthquake and the building was closed, supposedly out of safety concerns, but was then renovated and reopened as a government building, no longer accessible to the general public. Meanwhile, us poor peons had our post office boxes relocated to an ugly modern building that was no longer a pleasure to visit, and I closed my post office box shortly afterward. Such is the difference between ancient buildings and modern ones: ancient buildings are inviting; modern ones are off-putting. Walk into an ancient building and what do you see? Beautiful stonework and woodwork; beautiful artwork; warm, inviting lighting; a cozy, quiet interior. You can feel the pride of workmanship emanating from such buildings. Walk into a modern building and what do you see? Cold, sterile, boring finishes; overly bright fluorescent lighting; echoing noise; soulless ambiance. Can you even tell that you’re in the lobby of the world’s tallest building? No. The only way you can tell that the building you’re in is different from any of a hundred other similar buildings is by exiting it and walking a half-mile away so you can take in the skyline! By contrast, when you’re inside a Gothic cathedral you know it: the beautiful stained glass windows, the soaring vaulted ceilings, the beautiful carved stonework, the serene ambiance. In fact, just a few days ago I attended a church service in a beautiful old church that looked like it belonged in an ancient German village rather than Kentucky, and it was a pleasure to be in that building, with its soaring interior, beautiful stained glass windows, warm woodwork and its serene, comforting ambiance. I can imagine how people must have felt to attend services in those Gothic cathedrals hundreds of years ago. (I repeat, I’m not religious and have only attended church services twice in my life. This latter occasion was at the invitation of friends.)
Such glowing descriptions do not apply merely to religious buildings, however. The same terms can be used to describe more commercial venues, such as the Opéra Garnier in Paris, wherein one will find beautiful stonework and metal fixtures, including whimsical little metal lizards adorning the interior. It’s such a pleasure to be inside such buildings.
Another difference between ancient and modern buildings is their anticipated duration. Ancient buildings were often designed to last, well, forever, and sometimes took more than a century just to build! Modern buildings are designed to last a few decades. Look at the World Trade Center in New York. They were the world’s tallest buildings when they were completed, but stood a mere 30 years. (Even had they not been destroyed, by all accounts the buildings were obsolete.) By comparison, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has stood for some 700 years!
Hundreds of years ago a musical performance was an event, one that not only inspired people, but left them with a memorable feeling of fulfillment. I once enjoyed listening to pair of male and female opera singers perform in a small hall in an old opera building, their voices alone, and it was one of the most moving musical experiences I ever enjoyed, a massage for the ears. Even to this day, a decade later, I can vividly recall the experience. Today music has largely been reduced to a manufactured commodity, packaged like potato chips and electronically downloadable for 99 cents. Similarly, instead of today’s commoditized recorded movies, people went to see live theater. Hearing a live symphony or seeing an opera or a musical or a play in person is far more moving, stimulating and lasting than any movie I’ve ever seen, and I say that as one who loves movies!
Paintings once captured memorable scenes and cherished visages in an artistic and lasting manner. Such paintings beautified homes and lifted the spirits of its inhabitants every time they walked past. Such paintings have endured for hundreds of years, providing us modern folks with a window to the past. I especially love the Dutch and Flemish paintings because they are so photorealistic that you feel like you are back in time, observing a bygone scene in person. Today we snap a billion cruddy digital photographs a day. How many of those will be around even a hundred years from now?
People used to write letters, thoughtfully composed and scribed in their own handsome personal handwriting, letters that that were eagerly anticipated by their recipients. Many such letters written by famous people and some not so famous people have been a treasure trove of insight into the past. By comparison, today “communication” has been reduced to pecking out a billion cryptic text messages a day on the diminutive keypads of our cell phones, or sending a billion unnecessary, poorly written e-mails a day. Will any of these communiques be around a hundred years from now? Heck, even the President of the United States cannot manage to retain his e-mails for a mere couple of years.
Hand-published newspapers and newsletters were the “Internet” of ancient times. People spent hours or days methodically laying out type, taking pride in their printed artistry that often traversed many hands. Hand-printed, hand-illustrated books have survived centuries and enriched many lives. I still recall seeing a 1,000 year old, hand-written, hand-illustrated book in a monastery in Greece. Wow, how that moved me! Imagine how many hands cradled that book, how many minds absorbed its contents. Today we dash off hundreds of times as much paper on our laser printers, but the enormous volume of paper spewed out is devoid of meaning or enlightenment. Splattered with all manner of useless drivel, this paper is good for little more than filling up landfills.
In many ways, the gross overabundance of everything under which we’re being crushed today cheapens our existence. We appreciate things, especially life’s simple pleasures, far less than our ancestors did centuries ago. In a sense, even the value of life itself has been diminished by an “overabundance” of human beings. Could the excessive number of human beings on the planet today account for why we seem to have so little regard for life, human or otherwise? I don’t mean to denigrate people. What I mean is that in ancient times nearly everybody possessed a specialized skill that enabled them to play an important role in society. Today the labor of people has largely been replaced by that of machines, and expertise that used to be distributed among many has largely become concentrated in large organizations, such as corporations, universities and government. Thus the masses must be put to work in nonessential, meaningless jobs that require little in the way of labor or expertise, such as in government bureaucracies, if only to keep them off the streets. Hence, the value of human lives engaged in such worthless pursuits has correspondingly diminished. Do most people take satisfaction in their jobs today? I think the answer is a resounding “NO!” Consider homebuilding. In the old days one had to line up various tradespeople: carpenters, stone workers, window glaziers, bricklayers, roofers, etc. Each one of these tradespeople were probably highly skilled, having been apprentices to expert mentors. Today the modular components of a house are fabricated as inexpensively as possible in some distant factory, shipped to the construction site and slapped together by a handful of marginally skilled laborers. All pride of workmanship or expertise in homebuilding has been removed from the workers and consolidated among the owners of the housing development firms and the factories that manufacture the components. The same can be said of every other industry in the world.
Our mass-produced, technologicized, commoditized, slickly marketed world has denuded us of our humanity, dignity, skills and the value of our existence. Is it any wonder our culture has turned to television, consumption, drugs and sex in a quest to feel fulfilled? Were we to move away from mass production and globalization and go back to distributed, local production, people could reacquire valuable skills, dignity, worth and probably their humanity. The myth perpetually proffered by “capitalists” is that capitalism and globalization have been good for us, that they have produced massive efficiencies and economies of scale. The only efficiency I see is that of channeling wealth, knowledge and skill from the masses to the elites.
It seems that there was much more meaning behind everything people created and every activity they engaged in long ago. For one thing, lifespans were shorter, making life inherently more precious. Ancient people lived. Modern people waste their lives worrying about their retirement plans, their health insurance plans, paying their bills, what schools their kids attend, complying with every capricious new regulation thrown at them by the government and coping with rapid technological changes.
Paralleling – more likely, causing – the demise of individuality, passion, artistry, inspiration and innovation is the steady rise of the government-corporate colossus, often referred to today as the fascist state. What it’s called is not nearly as important as what it’s done to us.
Government demands taxes on our incomes, our property, our automobiles, miscellaneous “luxury” items and most everything we purchase. We must obtain government permission to drive a car, board a plane, a train or a ship, or to cross a border, as if humans have the right to carve the Earth up into discrete territories. Government demands we purchase automobile and health insurance under duress, submit our car to various government inspections and send our children to government reeducation camps – oops, I mean, public schools – to learn obeisance to the state (never mind that in some public school districts 60% of the students drop out of high school or that in some cities 30% of the people are functionally illiterate). The purpose of government-run public schools is to strip students of their individuality and inculcate them to being obedient gears in the fascist machinery.
One-half of the product of our labor is spent by government. We’re running so rapidly on the hamster wheel to pay for our bloated government that it’s no wonder we have so little energy or money left to devote to creative enterprise, pondering philosophical questions or producing inspiring works of art, unlike our ancestors in the 14th century!
The government takes our money at gunpoint and then uses it to oppress us and wage wars that most of us don’t want! There’s something wrong with this picture!
The twin evils of government and corporations have crushed innovation. Even today, corporations are attempting to patent everyday, long known ideas as their own. I guess they figure, “Hey, if the Patent Office is so stupid as to grant us a patent, what have we got to lose by applying for one?” But if they are successful, their newly acquired patents will deprive people of common knowledge. The more minds thinking about solving problems, the more solutions will arise. By concentrating all solutions in a handful of corporate or government organizations, little innovation can occur. In fact, innovation arising from the masses is generally perceived by government and corporations as a threat that must be neutralized immediately. What few consider is that concentration works both ways: it can concentrate benefits, such as the enforcement of a constitution; it can also concentrate negatives, such as inefficiency and incompetence.
Part and parcel of the government-corporate alliance is the alienation of individuals from one another. The fascist model has sought to instill fear in individuals about other individuals and redirect the fealty of individuals toward the fascist state. Naturally, government has exploited these contrived social divisions, systematically attacking one group at a time, just as Pastor Martin Niemöller lamented. It’s also no coincidence that as the government-corporate alliance has grown in strength, so too have the scale and frequency of wars.
And consider the sameness throughout the United States, or even the world: the same monikers, logos, building designs, advertising, foods and clothing. The reason for this sameness is that the same corporations have set up shop everywhere, resulting in a uniform landscape where there was once an appealing diversity of cultures and customs. Aside from hearing a different language or seeing different architecture (only among the older buildings), there’s little reason to visit other countries as a tourist anymore. It’s worth noting that uniformity is the opposite of innovation.
Government and corporations have succeeded in convincing us that we should be the same, in thought, in behavior and in appearance. Any deviance from the “norm” is deemed inappropriate today and is often treated with mind-altering pharmaceutical drugs. It’s no wonder we have burgeoning weight loss and plastic surgery businesses today to satisfy all those people aspiring to assume the ideal of perfection established by society. If everyone is successful in this quest, we’re all going to end up looking the same! People were more tolerant in the old days: people accepted each other as they were. Fat or skinny, short or tall, clean or smelly, intelligent or dumb; those were simply differentiating traits and not anything to be ashamed of, unlike today. Look at how much scrutiny people get when their behavior is slightly out of the ordinary, as if any one of us doesn’t harbor any behavioral quirks. Of course, we feel the need to conceal such aberrations because our society doesn’t tolerate anyone deviating from the norm. So when somebody does exhibit “deviant” behavior, it’s not so much the behavior that’s offensive to society but that the perpetrator dared to be different! Mimicking the government and corporations, people have now become oppressors of their own individuality. Ironically, our propaganda-programmed quest to be the same only highlights differences between ourselves and others, making the task of demonizing target groups easier for those in power.
I’m not so much of a Luddite that I would discard every technological innovation we’ve created. I would keep the following (there are probably more I haven’t thought of):
While this lengthy essay may seem to be about the evils of modern technology, I originally set out to discuss where and when I’d rather live.
Classical Greece is often regarded as a historical high point of human culture, society, philosophy and architecture, albeit marred by frequent wars. Wars aside, I’ve always felt a strong affinity for Classical Greece, with its magnificent, inspiring architecture and open air amphitheaters. Even today one feels a sense of awe when standing in these amphitheaters, such as the one at Delphi, where presumably performances of timeless plays like Oedipus Rex were once enacted.
Athens, Greece, Parthenon, 488 BC
Late nineteenth century Paris represents an era of novel ideas, enlightenment, experimentation and freedom, Drug use, such as of alcohol and absinthe, while carried to debauched extremes, was seen as lubricating of new ideas, including the novel and beautiful painting technique of impressionism. Then there were the writers, people such as Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein, the latter two among the many famous people buried today at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Paris was such a focus of avant guard artistic culture that even in the early twentieth century artists such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali flocked to the city.
Paris, France, Opéra Garnier, 1875
Late nineteenth century Paris also witnessed architectural triumphs such as the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, and cultural masterpieces like the Opéra Garnier, built in 1875. I have never seen a performance in this theater, but I’m sure the beautiful setting would enhance any performance, just as eating off fine china enhances the taste of food.
As I’ve indicated in a previous post titled My Favorite Western Movies, the American west holds a special appeal for me, what with its (then) unspoiled mountains, deserts, forests and rivers, few people, and most of all, little to no government. It must have been so free. Dangerous, perhaps, but free.
Yet the west offered more than primitiveness; some of its cities, such as San Francisco, offered world class amenities. So one could enjoy the best of both worlds: the freedom of the undeveloped wilderness and the modernity of the city. Besides some handsome public architecture, such as that of the old mint building shown below, this was also the era of the beautiful Victorian houses, many of which remain standing today.
San Francisco, USA, San Francisco Mint, 1874
One of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, lived in San Francisco during this era. A favorite quote attributed to him goes something like, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I first read that quote when I was about twenty-one and have never forgotten it.
If I had to choose a time and place, I guess it would be the American west, as I described it above. I was born and raised in the west and will always be a westerner at heart. While the other times and places I mentioned are also highly appealing, the American west offered an unrivaled balance between freedom and modernity, during the most exciting epoch in our nation’s history.