Lessons from a Roofer


I am often taken to task over my assertion that technology tends to push our humanness into the background, and interfere, as well, with our relationships with others. I rarely see this in action in specific cases, unlike my more academic analyses. Goerge Packer, telling a story about the travails of a roofer in this current crunch, has a perfect example of what I labor to describe.

“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They [his customers] don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug”—he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me—“and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said—“the more educated, the worse.” His poorer black customers in Bedford-Stuyvesant had no such problem, and he was much happier working on their roofs, but the recession had slowed things down there and these days he was forced to deal almost entirely with the cognitively damaged educated and professional classes.

It was a new group who had moved from Manhattan in the past few years, and who could not detach themselves from their communications devices long enough to look someone in the eye or notice the source of a leak. This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions—had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

Case closed or certainly more likely to bring a guilty verdict. Many others now becoming detached from their technological support systems are likely to show the same symptoms the roofer describes. The article ends with his claim that these folks will soon be calling for socialism because the government is the only source they recognize that can help. What all (and Packer) miss is that help is contained within themselves, but needs to be released and tuned up through reflection and acknowledgment of their over-reliance on all that technology.