Monday, April 8, 2013

Technology and the free market

I recently read this excellent article by a fellow Christendomite.  I really agree with everything he said, but I want to focus this time on a brief point he made about technology:

All technology has an inner logic that defies our initial expectations, which, as Jerry Mander observes in his so-far excellent In the Absence of the Sacred (yes, on top of this I read books), are invariably positive. The automobile began as an exceptional freedom for the few. Its promulgation, however, rewrote the norms of place, of transit, and of life. It undid public transportation in many parts of the country, left travel an isolated and isolating experience, allowed home and work to be farther apart than they ever have been, divorced man’s social life from his local community, originated the very idea of rush hour, radically increased the loneliness of modern man and the breakdown of social integrity, which in its way doubtlessly contributed to the need that Facebook fills in so many lives.

Would men and women who lived in satisfying local communities really feel any desire to network in such an arcane way? Or would they rather be spending time with their friends and family, doing useful work around the village, and enjoying recreation and the other joys of life in common, a life in common that facilitates true friendship (koina ta twn philwn)? Wouldn’t they have smashed the first car to pieces if they had known what it would have done to their way of life?

John disagreed with this.  He likes cars.  You can go places in them.  And I have to admit, you can get to the hospital in quite a hurry if you have a car.  You can visit family who live far away.  You can hold down a city job without having to actually live in a crowded, dirty city.  Cars are handy.

But how did we go from having a car to drive to church on Sundays or drive our neighbors to the hospital to spending half our lives in the darn contraption?  I can see the use of cars, but sometimes I feel like most people spend all their time leaping from one place to another, stressing themselves out and wearing themselves out, just because they're convinced they have to.

Personally, I find leaving the house to be exhausting.  A day on which I get in a car and go someplace is usually a day on which I do nothing else.  Since Marko was born, I've had so much energy and been much happier.  Sure, my diet has been better and I like having him around.  But I think a lot of it is that I don't have to jet off far from home to spend all my energy on something that doesn't fulfill me.  I used to worry that I was agoraphobic.  But then I thought maybe it's the rest of the world that's weird.  Most of us are trained from an early age to leave the house every day for school.  Maybe they're so used to it that they don't get tired when they have to go to work every day.  On the other hand, maybe it's still taking its toll and they just don't realize it.  After all, many of our forebears stayed on their own property the majority of the time -- if they left to go to town or to church or visiting, it was a bigger deal and not something they would want to do every day.

And that's just how exhausting it is to me.  Kids, being prehistoric creatures, handle it even worse.  Some scream the entirety of every car ride.  Others, like mine, nod off to sleep almost instantly and then think that five-minute nap is all they need.  Older kids are famous for fighting in the car.  And then they spend all their time at the final destination getting more and more tired and overstimulated until you tell them it's time to go home and they fall to pieces.

There is a fantastic description of the "family day out" in The Idle Parent, but it's too long to quote in full.  Let me pull a few bits:

There can be no more absurd invention of modern industrial society than the family day out.  All week you have been stressed out at work, as you have tried to conform to someone else's idea of who you should be.  You are tired, grumpy, and guilty because you have hardly seen your children.  It's time, you reflect, to give the kids a treat, do something together.  I know!  Let's pile everyone into the car and join all the other desperate families at the local theme park!  We can spend a pile of cash there and everything will be all right again ....

The trouble starts with the inexpressible headache of getting everybody out of the house.  Before children, I used to just stroll out of the house.  Now this process cannot be achieved without an hour of screaming, searching for lost socks and shoes, huffing, puffing, shouting, cursing Britax and their cruel inventions in the name of child safety. . . . Then the real hell begins.  The three children, tightly bound in the back of the car, start lashing out at each other.  Each child has perfected their own uniquely irritating crying noise. Both mother and father now start shouting. . . .

Soon you arrive at the theme park, and a sense of being conned overwhelms you.  You are being ripped off, commodified, victimized, your weakness profited from . . . The theme park is a strangely lonely place.  Hundreds mill past each other but rarely speak, like mute zombie families. . . . The children constantly demand more rides.  At the end of the day you go to the gift shop, cunningly placed at the exit, and you say "no" a thousand times.  The child is full of frustration because he has glimpsed forbidden delights: imagine what his parents could have bought him if they weren't so mean or poor.

It goes on and on, and it's all so true.  Leaving the house with kids is exhausting.  And there's always this feeling that you are being changed from a human being into a consumer.

That's the worst of it, the constant advertising, the marketing, the capitalism.  There, I said it: I hate capitalism.  In theory, a free market is supposed to mean that anyone can buy what they want from whom they want, and anyone can make a living selling what people want.  But instead it's become this vast science where people spend their entire lives trying to get people to want more things.

Every blessing of the modern world is a mixed blessing.  Cars get you where you want to go faster and with less effort . . . but they can bring us so far from home we don't even know where we are anymore.  They certainly have emptied my own neighborhood; it's a wasteland during the day, no one is there at all.  Modern medicine saves lives, but every drug comes with a side effect -- and a price.  We're spending all of our money on pills, and it seems to be impossible to tell which pills are curing us and which are making us sicker or just making a buck for a pharmaceutical company.  And the internet . . . it lets me Skype with my mother in Korea, but it also sucks up my time, makes me irritable and distracted, fills me with so many ideas I never have time to reflect on, keeps me from actually interacting with the real people I meet.

But with respect to cars, as with internet or modern medicine or any other invention, we do have a choice.  That is the blessing of the free market, we don't have to partake.  But we have to be conscious.  In our current market-driven world, we can't just drift along and do what everyone else does.  We'll just end up broke, in debt, and unfulfilled.  There is a great deal of pressure to just keep buying, but in most cases, there's no actual force.  You can opt out.

The temptation is always there to opt out completely; to live in the woods and never buy a thing, never use anything I didn't build with my own hands.  But there are reasons not to.  There's the human desire for community, and it turns out it can get lonely in the woods.  There are student loans and no money to buy the farm of one's dreams.  There are building codes that mean the sort of wattle-and-daub house I dream of would be illegal to live in.  And of course there is the man I married, who makes his living with a computer and is happy with that.  I'd rather have him than anything else.

My solution has been to try to be intentional.  About everything.  Should I buy this thing, or should I make it?  Should I have a baby in the hospital, or find another way?  Should I drive, or can I walk it?  We are both extremely intentional about leaving the house.  Since we are both introverts, we don't go out unless it is either unavoidable or something we really want to do.  I don't see us every growing into the sort of family that struggles to preserve a family dinner every night -- we don't like going out every evening; that's miserable.

Some people think it's silly to be this hesitant.  Why bother growing tomatoes?  They're only a couple of bucks, why go to all that work?  Why buy used when you can buy new?  Why walk when you can drive?  And why the heck would you have a baby in your dirty old bedroom when you can do it in a gleaming white operating room?

The answers are varied.  But the short answer is that every time-saving invention that takes drudgery away takes something else away too.  It takes a little independence away, and the satisfaction of a job well done.  It takes away your freedom to have exactly what you want, and you have to settle for what's on the rack instead.  It takes away your freedom to work less, to take an unpaid day off, to pass up the chance for overtime, because there are so many things that have to be paid for.  (I dream of a day when we can choose to earn less!  But we work toward that by choosing to buy less and pay debt.)


And then there are ethical questions: was this shirt made by wage slaves?  Was this tomato grown by depleting the water table in California and poisoning lakes with pesticide?  I just finished Empires of Food, a book which got me quite convinced that our current food system is poised for catastrophe.  Wouldn't the smart thing to be to make careful choices about what kind of agriculture I'm supporting?  Every time I make something myself, I control the labor and the resources; I know for sure I'm not exploiting anyone, and I can't know that very easily when I'm shopping at Walmart.

Basically, if I make a choice to use a new technology or obtain something from the market, I want it to be a conscious decision, not something I do by default.  Nowadays you can outsource just about anything.  You can hire a party planner or a personal shopper.  You can hire a nanny or even a baby-naming consultant.  But surely everyone has some things that are too important to outsource, that they want just so and therefore they will do them themselves.

I just have a lot of things like that.  I'm not a Luddite.  I just am very aware that when I get a machine to do something for me or buy a product to enjoy, that I have to be careful that it's me who's the master, and not the machine.  I have a fear of turning out like the people in WALL-E, pure consumer, while missing out on all the best things that make us human.

I just hope that I can strike that balance.

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