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Better Off Chapter One
Seeds of Discontent
I used to be as optimistic as anyone about technology. Once asked in grade school to draw a picture of what my home would look like when I grew up, I sketched, in crayon, a transparent hemisphere resting on a single pole and a little flying saucer containing me, my wife, and our many kids about to dock at it. There were exactly eight little heads (besides mine and my wife's) peeking over the rim of the craft, all identical and propagated with the help of a fertility drug.
When I reached my early teens, I never failed to watch an episode of Star Trek, and I read almost every piece of science fiction Isaac Asimov wrote. On our family's first cross-country trip, I became ecstatic when we got caught in a traffic jam on the Oakland Bay Bridge. To a midwestern boy, traffic jams were exotic events in which only special people living in modernistic cities took part.
There was always an undertow to my technological infatuation, however, which at first I was loath to acknowledge. On that trip out west, I spent most of the time carsick. A few years later, after returning to the lazy metropolis of Topeka, Kansas, I began to notice anomalies in the mechanical utopia of our modernized household. After we got an automatic dishwasher, the size of the pile of dirty plates on the countertop didn't decrease at all. If anything, it increased. My dad bought one of the first word processors ever made in the hopes of easing the time and effort of writing. He spent so much time with that machine, I almost never saw him again.
In my grade-school years, the neighborhood seemed alive with children out in the street playing stickball and hide-and-seek. But the older I grew, the more deserted the street became except for the cars, of course, which had multiplied over time and made playing out-of-doors more perilous. After supper even the cars went into hibernation; the only signs of life were the faint glows cast by cathode ray tubes on living-room blinds.
I had always been on the bashful side, so I went more or less the way of the trend, retreating as determinedly as everyone else to the altar of TV. But lest I surrender utterly to The Void, I applied myself diligently at the piano, practicing several hours a day. To survive socially in a place dominated by the automobile, of course, you had to drive; so I also made an attempt to earn money to buy a car by working at McDonald's. But soon I saw the futility and the irony: in a town whose borders motor vehicles had pushed to the horizons (with a population of 120,000, Topeka covered 50 square miles), the only sensible way to get to my job was by automobile. Until I could afford one, I had to bike the six-mile round trip on busy roads with no shoulders or sidewalks, and I arrived dripping wet. Had I stayed on, I calculated that, like the other workers, I would be working mostly in order to pay for my transportation to work.
What had begun as car sickness in boyhood had developed, by adolescence, into a deeper case of cultural indigestion. It was only when I got to college that I began the attempt to put a name to this, but already the symptoms of the malady burdensome material inconvenience and social isolation had become too acute to ignore.
Luckily, my musical diligence paid off, and I got into a good university. There it was exciting to meet other people of similar interests who lived within walking distance. I threw out the sheet music and threw myself into the life of the campus. I joined debating groups. I took up rowing. I made new friends. I dabbled in religion. And in my academic pursuits, I tried to gain some understanding of what was going wrong in Oz.
On a hunch, I signed up for a course in the history of technology. It was an eye-opener. The young professor, Eda Kranakis, capably surveyed the development of wind- and water mills, steam engines, and railroads, and tossed in a graphic description of the inhuman working conditions in nineteenth century factories. She related the tragic tale of the British land enclosure movement, inspired by "scientific farming," which uprooted countless laborers from their hereditary commons in the country and flung them into the cities, where they formed an easily exploited labor pool.
As illuminating as the class was, though, it raised more questions than it answered. Hadn't American society moved beyond the barbarities of Dickensian England (or at least hadn't it subcontracted the dirty work to countries like Mexico)? What was technology's role in the present age? Problems hadn't disappeared; they were just different. But the exponents of public policy remained about as starry-eyed as I had been in grade school. Even the leaders of my elite university accorded every latest gizmo a virtual hero's welcome. Appalled by this mindlessness, I engaged in many heated discussions with classmates. And I wrote an extended research paper for Kranakis, describing the unhealthy side effects associated with sedentary stress and the use of ordinary automated devices. Kranakis liked the paper and encouraged me to develop my ideas.
The conviction was growing in me that the besetting problem was our culture's blindness to the distinction between the tool and the automatic machine. Everyone tended to treat them alike, as neutral agents of human intention. But machines clearly were not neutral or inert objects. They were complex fuel-consuming entities with certain definite proclivities and needs. Besides often depriving their users of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands for fuel, space, money, and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic ...Better Off. Copyright © by Eric Brende. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.