Plugging In to the Right Socket

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Finding that life doesn’t hang on some piece of consumer electronics is a rare event in today’s busy world. But some do manage to discover the satisfaction available from engaging directly in the world without the filters that gadgets place in front of you. Bella English has an article titled, ‘Young and Unplugged,’ in the daily magazine section of the Boston Globe. She pictures a young couple living without constantly “plugging” into TV, iPods, mobile phones, etc. They are among a small cohort of their age group that lives without such devices.

“Worshiping at the church of the pixel comes at the expense of real-life experience,” says Alan, who teaches biology at Lexington Christian Academy. His students are aghast at the fact that he doesn’t watch TV. But by limiting their use of technology, they have freed up time for activities they love. She works on craft projects. He restores old jukeboxes, pinball machines, and furniture… [T]he couple listens to music and radio shows. They read a lot. They’re involved in church activities. They cook from scratch and have friends over for dinner. They love board games. They play music: Cara the guitar, Alan piano, organ, and Dobro.

This is a real-life example of one of my central arguments in tracing the root causes of our current state of unsustainability: that the ubiquitous use and presence of technology has diminished our sense of what life is all about for human beings. And having lost something essential, we look to consumption as the source of meaning. Note the direct engagement—playing games with each other (not with a computer), playing an instrument (not listening on an MP3 player), or cooking (not dining on fast food or prepared meals).

Dr Peter Whybrow, whom I quote on my book, explains.

Whybrow, head of the Department of Psychiatric and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA’s School of Medicine, says the preoccupation with high-tech tools is understandable. “By nature we are curious creatures and we love trinkets and novelties,” he says. But the fast pace of technology has created a glut of gadgets - and a slight backlash.

“A small group of people are reacting to what is overload,” Whybrow says. “They are fascinated by this initially … but after a while, they find it erodes time as opposed to saving time, and time is the only thing we’ve really got that is our own. If you become consumed by new technology and forget you are fundamentally creatures of the natural world, you do end up diminishing your life.”

Perhaps a bright side of the loss of employment and the resources it provides is the discovery, as with the case of this couple, that real meaning comes not from the gadgets, large and small, but from one’s relationships with others and through engaging authentically and deeply in even what appear to be mundane activities. Engagement comes with caring, not needing, and is an indicator of Being. It is our caring for self, others, and the world that is at the heart of our Being as opposed to existing merely as biological creatures. Technology makes it all too easy to pass caring off to some gadget. At a deeper level, when caring begins to show up as a norm in the culture, the possibility that sustainability will emerge looms larger.

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