The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Once more into the breech

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


“Welcome to yet another installment of ‘Technological Navel Gazing,’ with your host, Sean.”

What follows is my answer to Corsair's latest post where he takes me to task about the current theme running through my blog here the past two weeks, and correct a few misconceptions he has about what I'm trying to get across here.

The part of this debate that rubs me entirely the wrong way is this: for a person who works with technology, who makes his living manipulating it supporting those who also use it to make their living, Conman is decidedly anti-technology and has, over the years, has developed a singular distrust of it. Perhaps because he is so gifted at manipulating it he is keenly aware how easily it can be manipulated and perverted. I don't know.

The Corsair Journal

I'm not anti-technology. Heck, roughing it for me is a hotel room with luke-warm running water and no Wi-Fi. I'm grateful for technology and all the wonders it brings to us. Without the bathysphere we'd be unable to explore ocean deeps, or without spacesuits we'd be unable to survive on other planets.

My problem with technology isn't the technology itself (heck, even Microsoft has done us some good, if only to make PCs cheap enough to make them ubiquitous), but with the blind, non-thinking use of such. Garbage in, garbage out and all that.

And if you asked Conman, “What is your car: tool or crutch?” He would likely answer “crutch.” But when asked if he would ever give up his car, throw away the keys, and never drive it again, I'm sure the answer would be a firm and resounding “No.”

The Corsair Journal

The first answer, yes, I could see myself saying it's a “crutch.” The second answer isn't a firm and resounding “no” though. If I lived in a place like EPCOT, why even have a car? (Although I have doubts about the actual livability of such a planned community—Le Corbusier and his Ville Contemporaine come to mind, but that's beyond the scope of this discussion.) And I got along quite fine sans car the few times I've been in Boston (heck, the few times I was in a car I wished I wasn't, but that may have been the fault of the driver).

Without a car, Conman cannot earn his living without becoming a burden to others; his job requires that he be certain places at certain times and in reasonable shape to work. Walking everywhere, therefore, is no longer sufficient to live the lifestyle to which he has obligated himself, and therefore, I would argue that his Lumina is just as indispensable a tool to Conman as the hammer is to a carpenter.

The Corsair Journal

Actually, Corsair, I work from home. It's actually not uncommon for me to go an entire week without driving (and when I do have to drive, it's to The Weekly Meeting™ of The Company™ up in Wellington for a lunch meeting (more or less) across the street from your house [1]). I'm lucky in that regard. I'm also living within walking distance of the Tri-Rail.

There's also Wlofie, who not only lives here in Lower Sheol, but does so without a car. Yes, it's not easy for him, but he's doing it.

But “The Feeling of Power” does highlight one of Conman's greatest fears: that we as a society have grown so dependent upon the technology we have swaddled ourselves in that we would all wither and die if it were turned off this afternoon, never to be turned on again.

And I sincerely believe that this fear, more than anything else, is at the very heart of the “Tool vs. Crutch” debate. It can be the only explanation why Conman would journal about it for more entries than I've seen him journal about anything else. [Actually, control panels would be the topic that I tend to rant about the most in this journal, but since it's been over a longer period of time, it might be hard to see. — Sean]

Too late, Conman, we're already very heavily dependent upon our technology for a comfortable existence.

It's funny; I'm reminded of the terror sparked by the Y2K bug that the whole world would be thrown into chaos and anarchy on 1/1/2000. And let's say all things technological really did go to Hell in a hand-basket on 1/1/2000. Would it have been an uncomfortable shifting of humanity's priorities and comfort levels? Yes, definitely. Would we have all survived? I submit to you that despite being uncomfortable for a while, the vast majority of us would have.

The Corsair Journal

I'm not sure it's one of my greatest fears (hights and earthquakes are truely my greatest fears, irrational or not), but yes, it is a concern. Yes, I am concerned we might be a bit too reliant on our technological base. Back in 2005, parts of Lake Worth were without power for nine days (oh thank you Lake Worthless Utilties) but that was the exception—most people had power back within a day or so. Even if Florida as a whole was without power for nine days, it wouldn't be so bad. Well, Georgia and Alabama might not like the constant stream of refugees looking for food, fuel and air conditioning, but the situation wouldn't disolve into total anarchy, as long as parts aren't in anarchy.

But North America? (If you think this wouldn't affect Canada and Mexico, think again. There are three major grids between the US and Canada and Mexico has its own problems.) Power goes out. And because the power goes out, fuel reserves are practically useless because of electric pumps used to get the fuel out to where it's needed, so the fuel runs out in a few days or weeks. Once the fuel is gone, so is the food. And don't forget that at least here in the US, only 2% of the population are farmers. Do you know how to get food outside a restaurant or supermarket? Heck, do you know any farmers? I don't. And while I know how to make butter [2], I have no idea how heavy cream is made, much less the location of any nearby cows, assuming I knew how to make heavy cream from raw cow juice.

I think you're a bit more optimistic about survival in a total collapse of our civilization (and by that, I mean, the entire power infrastructure collapses).

Now, do I think we're headed towards such a apocalyptic collapse? No.

But I do worry about the ever growing population of people who take technology totally for granted and don't even bother to think anymore (and no, I didn't search that out to prove a point—it just magically appeared in email), because the computer does the thinking for them.

  1. Wellington is 30 miles away from Chez Boca. So why do I drive so far to attend a lunch meeting once a week? Because Wellington is the central point for everyone that works at The Company™—working from home has its benefits and drawbacks. [Back]
  2. Two cups heavy cream and a pinch of salt. In a food processor it's less than a minute away from buttery goodness; otherwise expect your arm to fall off as you try to whisk or churn your way to buttery goodness. [Back]

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