just a thing people use

by j. zachary

Ours is a time of incredible technological advancement, the speed of which brings us to the point of redundancy almost instantaneously. This is most evident in mainstream consumer tech: phones no longer have headphone jacks; buttons are universally obsolete, even on the least sophisticated appliances like microwaves and washing machines; the list goes on.

At some point in the last few years—and I suspect the location of this point differs depending on who is asked—technology has stopped being truly innovative. None of the apps, gadgets, or machines made do anything new; they just change the manner in which they’re done. Smart watches do the same things as phones, which do the same things as computers, in addition to still being phones. I can get a smart watch that lets me read my texts, but in order to respond I still need to take my phone out; consequently, all I have done by purchasing a smart watch was buy a whole new item with the purpose of expediting one small part of an already fairly straightforward process.

Smart watches aren’t the only manifestation of this trend, and it’s already no longer cool to hate on them; they’ve changed from a scarlet letter of nerdery to just a thing people use. What they’re indicative of, though, is the way in which modern innovation has changed the way we perceive the how of things in everyday life. So much of what we use or look at during the day has been so digitized, shrunk, and sped up that finding a sense of place in the sequence of events that make up the day has become much more difficult.

We find our place in the everyday world through cycles: waking up for work; the morning rush; lunch; the leisurely and productive afternoon; the crowded ride home; dinner; and eventually, sleep. Whether these cycles are considered crushing drudgery or healthy routine, their progressions dictate our sense of place. Think of what happens when these cycles are disrupted: a loss of sleep makes waking up more difficult; a missed lunch makes the leisurely and productive afternoon angry and unfocused.  More simply, much of what differentiates a “good” from a “bad” or “just okay” day relates on how smoothly that day’s tasks went, or what shortened the unpleasant parts of it and extended the nice ones.

The point in which these technological developments and innovations have fundamentally restructured the day has passed. Now, the focus on streamlining the day has hindered our ability to comfortably work within a sensible system or cycle. Productivity in the modern workplace is characterized by  the speed and quantity of tangible results; we consequently use technology to help complete as many things as possible, as fast as we can. This obsession with immediacy doesn’t only affect how we communicate and how we accomplish tasks; it affects how we react to the world. It affects our senses.

Consider an old-fashioned, wooden roller coaster; by today’s standards, the thrill it provides pales in comparison to steel monstrosities such as Kingda Ka (at Six Flags in New Jersey) or Steel Force (at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania). It can only go a quarter of the speed, at its tallest just a fraction of the height, and perhaps most embarrassingly, has a significantly more lax “you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride” requirement.

What makes this rickety wooden coaster a joy to ride is the same thing that makes live music appealing and makes letters uniquely personal: the very tactile and very immediate understanding of how it works. The rider of this wooden coaster doesn’t need to be an engineer to understand it. The lattice of 2x4s and 2x6s, all straight lines and exposed joints, creaking and whining under the weight of each passing car, reveals the truth behind each bend, dip, and curve. How the structure went up—and more importantly—how it thrills its riders is immediately comprehensible, and how it allows spatial understanding of how it works without the aid of rigorous education makes it far less alien.

Even though the thrill provided by Kingda Ka or any of his other gargantuan steel brethren may be quantifiably “more”, it is also more foreign. The meticulous engineering, milled metal, and welded joints reveal nothing. No matter how intense or immediate the bodily experience of riding one of these coasters is, by the nature of its engineering and construction, it is also distinctly separate from any simple understanding. To the layman riding one of these coasters, every ride walked away from might as well be an act of God; in our secularized world, this ignorance can only manifest itself as alienation.

Technology has eliminated the need to actually work on projects and things at work; instead, it just makes it easier to get more things done. Modern leisure-time does not consist of any activities; it is a constant hunt to find the most immediate and direct way to deliver brain-rattling pleasure. Both Marx and the ancient Jews telling the story of the Book of Genesis rightly understood that there is something powerful and essential in humanity’s unique ability to create outside of itself through work. Both considered this the defining characteristic of humanity; Marx thought it degraded by the focus on (or, fetishization of) tangible commodities and quantifiable results that drives capitalism ever forward. A rightly ordered use of technology is possible, of course; but only as long as a few things are understood: the time mastery takes to develop is always worth it, and that who we are within ourselves, what we worship, and what we prioritize is essential and intrinsic to the way we contribute and change our world.

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