Rebecca Solnit has a diary in a recent LRB in which she reflects on the shift in the texture of time that has taken place since the mid-90s. It would be easy to read this piece and start debating some of the generalizations she makes, though I think she steers clear of Luddite cliches. Yet for me the most salient point is that no one actively decided that our new technological era was desirable or beneficial. Or to be more precise: we all just rushed to adopt new technologies basically because they were new technologies, because they sounded cool.
I have long shared Solnit’s view on the destruction wrought by cell phones. I used to enjoy talking on the phone — in high school, I would do it for hours. On the cell phone, however, the shitty signal quality and the perpetual risk of being cut off make the whole thing feel much more tenuous. We all adopted cell phones because they were cool — and they really are cool! — and then we gradually abandoned land lines because there was no sense in paying for both… And then it turns out that we have really cool phones that barely work indoors. It’s almost as though cell phones are loading up with extra features to make up for the fact that they suck so much as, you know, actual phones.
And what have we really gained? What benefit is there to being reachable at all times? One often hears about the benefits of being reachable during an emergency, but how much is really gained even here? How long are any of us going to go between visits to regular haunts (home, work, a favorite bar) where someone can leave a message? Anecdotally, it seems like the majority of cell phone calls are expressions of impatience — where are you, why are you taking so long, etc. — which probably slow down the process and even put others in danger when the late person answers their phone in the car. This is not to say that there are no benefits related to safety — it’s great that we can call 911 at any time — but that no one really counted the cost of the safety benefits.
It’s similar with constant news updates: how is it beneficial or desirable to get up to the minute breaking news? How does it help me to be constantly receiving detailed information about events that I can’t control and that don’t affect any actual decisions I’m making in my life? In practice, it seems to produce a state of constant distraction and low-level anxiety. Now sometimes you really want to be “in it” and experience that kind of anxiety, for instance in a close presidential election where you feel like a lot is at stake. Just going to bed and reading about the winner in the morning feels somehow inadequate. But we don’t get to make that choice, or at least not easily — every news event is treated that way.
Of course, the biggest example is the automobile — a technology that was undeniably super-cool. Instead of thinking through the appropriate uses for this technology and the likely consequences of its large-scale adoption, America just collectively dove right in, building whole new types of communities centered around cars, undertaking the biggest infrastructure projects in human history to accomodate them, and literally tearing out the train lines that had previously connected our cities. The results have been catastrophic for the environment, for our urban centers, and for our social fabric as a whole. It’s not to say that there have been no benefits — it’s great that the interstate highway system connects relatively isolated places that couldn’t be effectively served by trains, and it’s great that rural people have greater mobility — but reshaping our entire society around them could only have been the product of willful blindness.
The car example also shows why it’s not just a matter of opting out if you don’t like it — the number of places where a car-free existence is halfway plausible in the US is extremely limited. It’s not as extreme with the other technologies, but I can see the possibility, for example, that someone who isn’t reachable by cell phone at all times would find that no one wants to bother reaching them. Plus one must reckon with the rarity of pay phones in the cell phone era, etc., etc.
These technologies have profound social consequences, and yet no one is really involved in making socially responsible decisions about them. It just happens as though everything is on auto-pilot: once a new technology comes along, it’s just inevitable that it will spread. It’s hard to even imagine what it would look like to do things differently — the only concrete example I can think of is the Amish, who are, to put it lightly, a little over-cautious in adopting new technologies.
Hence the need for full communism is all the more urgent.