(Previous Post: Why We Need A Good Design: Frostbitten Twice Shy Babe)
The Domesticated Human (or Sailing With Fritz):
When I was nineteen years old I went on a sailing trip with a couple of my friends across Lake Michigan. Visiting inlets and islands, We traveled along the coast for three weeks, trimmed the sails when we felt like it and charted our course only when we were lost. At times, the stars shot over our heads like popcorn dropping into some big, galactic bowl, and the wind and the waves tested their extremes, either barely moving us at all or else threatening to flip our small sailboat into the drink and make an end to this journey quick– once and forever.
Before I left on this trip, I visited a bookstore and bought a book that going forward has made a profound impact on my life and thoughts. It was a book on economics, written by a man named Ernest Friedrich Schumacher, or E.F. Schumacher. All his friends called him Fritz. In his book titled Small is Beautiful, Schumacher questioned the presuppositions of our modern economy that sees economics as simply the movement of goods, services, and monies in a system without subscribing to or formulating any underlying ethic.
Schumacher made the point in his book that the presupposition of modern economists is that our natural resources have no value until they are made into a commodity. A tree, for example, has no value in an economist’s mind until it is cut down and used for lumber. Perhaps this sounds like an obvious point but I think it has huge implications in the way we use and experience the wild places in which we live.
As Schumacher points out in one of the chapters of his book (find it here), you can change underlying presuppositions, values, and motives in a system and it will have a dramatic effect in that system. In other words, the values that people hold when they are participating in an economic system have just as much importance as the system itself. I believe that when we as an economy do not place any value on our natural resources, then what is created from these resources, our tools, our technologies, necessarily become the dominant part of our lives and threaten to encroach upon those natural resources and also upon our own human nature.
Here is a video on a fox domestication program that has been going on in Siberia for several years:
I read about this study in an National Geographic magazine a while back and was fascinated that not only did domestication change the foxes’ personalities (they became more friendly) but it also transformed them physically. They no longer looked like the foxes that they were derived from. Their colors changed and other physical features did as well. That is, there was a physical manifestation of domestication.
Foxes aren’t humans, I know. The genetics of dogs, foxes, and wolves as I understand it are able to morph much quicker than humans, but it is an interesting question to ask that as our society advances and creates more barriers to people and their outside world are we by default selecting for particular human traits, traits that may or may not be advantageous to survival within our natural environment?
Okay, so perhaps this dependence on technology isn’t mutating us genetically . . . perhaps :). But at the very least does the technologically-rampant environment in which we currently find ourselves train people to be less attuned to their basic senses? For example, is it a recent phenomenon that people living in this age of technological distractions have acquired problems like ADD and ADHD? Is this a modern problem or has this always been with us? And are we becoming people that have less empathy and even a fear towards the wilderness, because what we have known from birth is the control of wild places and our removal from them? Have we become too domesticated?
It’s not possible to go back, nor in many ways do I think that course is desirable. Go back to what? There is no perfect age. Technology is not evil. Medical technology helps save lives, and many other technologies make our lives easier. But there is a difference qualitatively I think with this sort of technology and the kind that is just technology for technology’s sake, a kind of gizmo/gadget world in which the engineered device is lauded over the natural object from which it was formed. There is difference when an age is entirely shaped by its technologies and where technology becomes the answer to all of lives problems.
Jacques Ellul, a notable French sociologist and theologian, calls this type of technological worship, “technique”, a process where all of culture becomes beholden to their tools and the tools become the central definition of a society. It’s not surprising that we define nations as first world or third world determinate upon the measure they have successfully become technological. The happiness of people, whether there is strong community bonds, health, and interaction with the natural world are not measured as factors that would put your nation into first world status. (Now I think they use the more p.c. terms of developed and developing, which is even more telling.) Everything is about technology.
An interesting (perhaps disturbing) off-shoot of this technological focus is the singularity, a movement informed by scholars like Ray Kurzweil that posit among other things a possible, inevitable merging with machines in the near future to “advance” humanity–to evolve the human species so that it can keep up with the rising tide of technological wonderment. As Wendell Berry once wrote, I do not know where the line is with technology but it seems somewhere one must exist.
We are currently in a place that we have never been before in the history of world. People are no longer interacting with the outdoors as they once did. Richard Louv in his excellent book, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, gives examples of places around the world where children instead of playing outside, making forts, fishing, hunting, exploring are now staying inside and are not formulating a good view or even an awareness of their natural world. In Japan knowledge of Pokemon has replaced common knowledge of plants and animals, for example, natural areas in urban centers in England are disappearing, and in America, kids aren’t outside building forts they’re playing video games.
Not that Pokemon and video games are bad in and of themselves but somehow I think we’ve gotten our values mixed up. The surreal, created world has replaced the natural world. Even now we have been usurped by our creations, there is a part of which the singularity exists even now, and what are the effects of a society that becomes the tools of its tools? No one really knows, no one has ever been here before.
Louv gives some possible outcomes backed by studies he cites in his book:A decrease in creative capital among children An increase in depression A know-it-all mentality that doesn’t stay true to the awe and wonder of life and all its varied forms A lacking sense of place A disregard for nature A lack of egalitarianism and community
Its something to think about going forward. Note that many of these could lead to problems not just in an individual’s life, but also in society as a whole. Just as technology is all encompassing these days, so are its effects on our collective life.
I am also mindful that I am writing this on a computer, perhaps the golden calf of the technological age, (ah, the irony) but as Ellul wrote people who critique society’s excesses many times are like doctors diagnosing a condition that they also have. Technology is here, like it or not (I’m not against it), but possibly the greater point is how can we as humanity cure some of the more damaging effects of its advancement and dominance over every part of our lives? How can we learn to be wild once again and regain some of the advantages of an age that was not so centered around its tools while still also using the good tools that have come out of this age of the gadget?
(Up Next: Why We Need A Good Design: