Friday, December 30, 2011

On the malaise of modernity

Perth, Australia, December 31, 2011

I recall with nostalgia, the days when I awaited with some anticipation the annual letters of distant friends that highlighted with wit and nostalgia events that transpired for them and their families, during the previous year. As this year is about the end, in contrast, its with some apprehension that I contemplate this blog, aware that many have asked if I will “blog” our travels to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan this year and deciding what it is that I really want to say. For now at least, since I am comfortably ensconced in Perth Australia, our second home, or perhaps more correctly our first and only home, since we have sold our house in Toronto and all of our earthly possessions, other than our touring bicycles and minimal amount of gear with which we travel now reside, in a 10’x 17’climate controlled storage unit in Toronto, in what was formerly a factory that manufactured widgets, I feel the onus of what to write about acutely, in our rapidly changing world.

I am much too aware, that in this age of desk top, lap top, note-book and net book computers, not to mention the pervasiveness of smart phones, tablets, and the advent of social media and countless apps, communication is increasing at an exponential rate and yet I find that most messages are correspondingly denuded of content. Devices as status symbols are becoming the message as witnessed by the little signature lines that proudly state that the message was brought to you courtesy of some i-phone, i-pad, berry or some variant of an android attesting to the smarts of the owner.

While not quite a Luddite, since I own a most basic cell phone, and travel with a netbook, I am aware that majority of people are content answering the most frequent of questions in their communication: “where are you”? and “what are you doing?” I have a need to express, if anyone cares, what I am thinking and feeling and of course long to hear from others beyond the simple indication of where they are located and what particular activity they are engaged in.

Travel has always been an eye opener for me, especially over the last nearly two decades, in the less economically developed parts of the world and the influence of technology on our behaviour and our values.

I recall being in Israel in the early 1970s, and people lamenting how prior to the prevalence of telephones, friends and family used to arrive unannounced and were entertained spontaneously. Today, I am told that in some contexts its considered impolite or intrusive to telephone someone without arranging for a telephone conference time by some other device.

I am also old enough to remember the great European tradition of coffee houses, where the cadre of intellectuals and the romantically inclined would while away hours discussing some important matter of state, possibly the next revolution or some revolutionary romance, as the case may be. Today, coffee houses are virtually devoid of any conversation as the focus is on the keyboard at hand, or perhaps on intrusive cell phone conversation.

I can also recall the days when going to a gym meant some interaction with people and when it was common practice to exchange greetings on the street. Now with i-tunes most people are plugged in and tuned out, oblivious to the world around them.

Another effect of technology is that we are googelized, and no longer experience the world directly, but filtered through some technology that allows us to live vicariously from second hand information that we can so readily collect from cyberspace. No need to experience the snow, sun, rain or humidity when the trusted device provides minute by minute updates. The world of opinion leaders and reviews can tell us what to eat, read, watch and consume, and if need be, most or all our needs can be delivered to the comfort of our homes. If we do venture out we can fully expect that peak, perfect experience we have had the opportunity of googelizing to a predictable pablum like pulp.

The advent of all enabling technologies also have social consequences that reinforce patterns of dependent behaviour. Cell phones initially were sold as communication devices to be used in cases of emergency. Now we have become so fearful of not being able to communicate where we are and what we are doing at all times, that even seven year old children must have the latest smart phones, so parents can helicopter over them and protect them from all manner of perceived evils that may befall them. Needless to say, with a heightened awareness of the dangers of the world, children no longer walk to school, take public transit, play on the streets but join their parents, safely cocooned indoors: kids glued to their video games and the parents to so called “reality” TV shows or spreading the latest disease of inane videos to go even more viral.

While travelling on two wheels on the back roads of south-east Asia is not a complete or by any means the only anti-dote to escaping the malaise of modernity, it is a step in the right direction. The world is a far safer, warmer, more welcoming and exciting place, than the dependency inducing self-indulging technologies would have one believe.

It is still possible to have unique, unanticipated “aha” experiences by leaving behind the creature comforts of our confines. However, time is running short. As we in the economically advanced world are quertying away much about nothing, oblivious to others around us, the planet is being blanketed by the same devices and there are no guarantees that our world will be a safer and happier place for it. Au contraire, given the recent experiences of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements demonstrate, anyone with or without a legitimate case can cause governments to topple or the rights of democratically elected peoples to be trampled upon. Worse, anyone can produce a device of mass destruction causing much more than minor social disruption. Do I hear the clarion of anarchists to unite? But that’s another story. Happy New Year.

1 comment:

agesnumbers said...

Hey Andy, so many good thoughts. Take good care and remember not to use your cell while riding those back roads in Asia. The Ontario Bylaw officers are watching tee hee. David