I went out on my boat recently, for two nights, alone, away from the world of cars and computers. At anchor in the islands off Stonington, I watched Mars and Saturn brighten in the southern sky and the stars of Scorpio emerge behind them. I thought about the ancient technology of sailing, and the modern technology of instantaneous communication and mobility.
Cars and computers abound on the islands of Maine, of course. It’s a myth that islands are bubbles existing in another time. I left my laptop home by choice. I did take my cell phone, which doesn’t connect to the Internet. There’s a radio on board, but I only listened to snippets. Frankly, it was good to get away from the yammering.
I did catch Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention before I left, though. While it was a remarkable speech for several reasons, the most compelling thought for me was that the next president should be “someone who understands that the issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.”
I don’t do Twitter. As a writer, I admire brevity and the ability to hone a thought into a limited number of well-chosen words. But that takes skill and time. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for writing a long letter because he didn’t have the time to compose a short one. Every week, I struggle to keep this blog at around 750 words. The rough drafts are almost always longer.
But the explosion of social media has made it easy for people to blurt out unfiltered thoughts soon after they occur. Sending out a tweet is a little like jumping into the car to go to a store half a mile away for a loaf of bread. A walk might give you time to ponder a problem, get a little exercise, or simply appreciate your surroundings. But cars are so ubiquitous that we use them even when it’s not necessary.
I’m not opposed to technology. I teach on-line. I’m learning all I can about better ways to interact electronically with my students. I’m trying to promote this blog on Facebook.
But all the traffic gets annoying. There are times when I would rather engage with a piece of thoughtful writing, or take a walk – or go sailing.
An upside to computer technology is that it has reduced the need for driving. Many jobs that once required a physical presence at a job site can now be done on-line. I don’t do much on-line shopping, but I prefer it to driving to a mall – though a walk around a compact downtown business district is still better.
I guess what I’m lobbying for here is some sort of balance between the natural world and the one we are constantly remaking through our inventions. Growing up on the Maine Coast gave me a keen sense of the environment and the urgent need to protect it. One of the best things we could do, from an environmental standpoint, is to reduce the number of cars.
But responsible environmentalists aren’t Luddites. I’m a big booster, for example, of space exploration, by both machines and humans. I want to live long enough to see people walk on Mars, and I believe the eventual colonization of the Solar System is both necessary and inevitable.
These efforts require substantial amounts of industrialization. But as the science fiction writer David Brin, among others, has pointed out, most of the mass and energy used so far in space exploration has originated on Earth. We need to get that mass and energy from space – through the mining of nearby asteroids and the development of space-based energy sources.
Space exploration is an example of good use of technology. Cars, on the other hand, represent technological overkill. The sheer number of vehicles burning fossil fuels is stressing the planetary ecosystem and economy, and adversely affecting human health. The side effects of this proliferation include massive oil spills, suburban sprawl, loss of animal habitat, pollution from the disposal of dead vehicles and worn tires, and on and on.
We can’t un-invent cars, but we don’t need to use them to get a loaf bread from a store half a mile away, or to get to a job we can take a bus or a bicycle to, or in countless other careless ways we get behind the wheel without stopping to think about alternatives. Like social media, we can use them more conscientiously, and the world will be better for it.