Thursday, August 02, 2007

How a sprain leads to useless ponderings on technology

Being laid up here for the past few days has allowed me to ruminate a bit. Part of those ruminations have been fueled by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can't believe that I haven't read this book up till now, considering my formal training is in English and philosophy; this book is essentially the modern day meeting of literature and philosophy, though more focused on the latter than the former. But I don't intend to review the book in this here post, or dwell on literature or philosophy.

Instead, I want to talk, I think, about plain old technology, a concept central to the book and something I've thought deeply about often. The last few days I've been sitting around a lot, generally recuperating my wrist, reading, clicking away with my left hand on the computer, and watching a bit of baseball, all the while with a fan blasting me--because it's been farking hot. And it occurs to me in this very situation that I hate technology and love it at the very same time.

I pretty much hate modern dwellings. My apartment sucks. It's almost prison-like in the way it separates you from the outside world--and most abodes I've experienced are the same way. But that's the way it is I suppose: modern housing does a good job of protecting us from the elements. And yet, that protection seems detrimental in some aspects, as if the my body requires at least a bit of the elements I'm not getting inside my place. I'd like to think that we could do a better job designing these places we spend so much time in.

Now, you're probably shaking your fist at the screen saying, Just go outside, crapface! I know. You're right. But, as I said, it's been so hot, and my wrist has crippled my ability to walk around pain free without wearing a big brace or some Ace bandages. And so I decide to stay mostly inside. And sulk a bit.

And inside lives the remarkable invention known as the fan. It moves the air and dries my sweat, leading to some cooling of my body and a slight bit of satisfaction. Just a bit. But it's nice. What if there were no fans? Well, I'd get by, probably with a couple of fanning slaves from the neighboring tribe, but you can't really beat fans for efficient cooling (and their relative lowness on the cruelty scale): for pocket change and a few units of renewable energy I can stay fairly cool all day long and rest my wrist.

In contrast, my new neighbors feel they have to run their air conditioner all day long, every day. Now, I don't wanna be a snooty asshole about this; I've contemplated using the A/C a couple times over the past few days, and we've even kicked it on once this year (it's a-nice), but air conditioning has to go in the category Inventions--Fairly Bad. Not only is it a wasteful power sucker (and consequently a major polluter) but it's also loud and expels additional hot air into the already hot air outside. You know about urban heat islands? Well, I have to imagine that A/C units contribute a bit to that phenomenon. How does that saying go? It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul ... or some such ridiculous thing. Stupid technology, unless it is required for health purposes.

Anyway, I'm conflicted. I'm not really a luddite (well, kind of). Nor am I by any means a tech junkie. Generally, I'm just a practical fellow who tries to get by with the minimum. And I've always wanted to make a list of what I consider the most essential and useful forms of modern technology (that is, technologies that require electricity or its equivalent) for no other reason than to amuse myself. So, here we go:

  • Refrigeration -- This will always be at the top of my list. Refrigeration, as well as its cousin, freezing, is one of those things that make life a whole lot better for humanity in general. Being able to preserve food makes things substantially easier. Of course, I could rely on spring houses, cellars, and caves, but then I'd have to worry about snakes and bears and security and ease of access. Refrigeration is a major improvement.
  • Computers -- What a tool for democratization, connectivity, and problem solving. We don't even know the potential yet. Also, as a form of entertainment, the interactivity of computers is a giant improvement over TV.
  • Powered transportation -- God, don't make me say cars, because that's not really what I mean. What I mean is powered vehicles make the world more accessible to the individual (and simultaneously limit our reliance on animal labor). And this desire to explore, I think, is somehow encoded in our DNA. The current transportation paradigm is way fucked up, but we have to start somewhere I guess.
  • A/V recording and preservation -- How fucking sweet is it that I can hear Tuvan throat singing in my own house? Or throw on something that was recorded in the early 20th century? Future generations will be overwhelmed by such direct, multifaceted access to their ancestors' world.
  • Indoor plumbing and sanitation -- This kind of stretches the definition of the list, but it's one of the big, important technologies of our time.
Hmmm. I'm out of time and ideas. Dinner must be made. In an oven. With electricity. I'd use wood or solar if I could though.