Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life in A Bowl of Cherries

When I wrote a few weeks ago about Judith Shulevitz’ book, The Sabbath World, I mentioned in passing an off-hand comment she makes there regarding the degree to which our lives—and especially the lives of people just my age—have been characterized by an endless parade of technological innovations and inventions touted as labor-saving devices designed to make our lives more pleasant by making them more efficient. This is hardly her discovery, but just lately I’ve been thinking more and more about its implications for our lives into the future…and also for the way we live our lives neither in the past nor in the future but in the present as it actually exists, as we have allowed it to come into existence.

It’s certainly true, at least in a certain sense, that the machines I have in mind have at least theoretically served the cause of efficiency well. I have in my library, for example, examples of Biblical concordances—books that list the words of the Bible in strict alphabetical order so that one can look up a specific word and know how many times it appears in Scripture and where those instances occur—that must have taken their authors years and years to produce, yet which could be computer-generated today with no errors at all and published, at least without presenting their data beyond its most raw state, almost instantly. I myself can hardly imagine writing without an on-line computer, let alone without a computer at all. I think of that as I work often, by the way, imagining myself having to waste half a day driving to a library to look up some piece of information that is now available to me on my desktop in a matter of seconds. Nor is this an exercise in what-if fantasy for me—I am a semi-proud member of the very last generation of doctoral students who prepared their dissertations without computers. When I think of the tens of thousands of index cards I scribbled on in an attempt to organize the data I eventually turned into my thesis and then match that memory to my recollection of the clunky IBM Selectric typewriter my parents bought me (for twice the price of your average laptop computer today) and on which I typed all 1,100 pages of my dissertation before turning it over to a professional typist who, for a dime per page, typed the other four copies I was obliged to submit, I can hardly believe I’m only my real age and not a century older. (For reasons never revealed, photocopies and carbon copies were not permitted so all five copies had to be typed separately.) Later, when my dissertation was accepted for publication in two parts by two different publishers, I typed both manuscripts myself. And since electric typewriters were by nature uni-directional, I typed all the Hebrew pages backwards. And, no, I did not enjoy the experience, nor did I learn much from it other than how much I hate typing backwards.

But computers are only part of it. E-mail is more efficient than snail mail because it too is almost instant. Like almost all of you, I’m sure, I remember waiting weeks for answers to letters to arrive in the mail whereas now the replies to at least some of my letters appear in my in-box not within weeks or days but within minutes. And if e-mail wasn’t going to be quite quick enough, perhaps because the person I’m e-mailing might possibly not be sitting at his or her computer, there was always text messaging. But even texting did not prove to be quite efficient enough, so now I own a smart phone on which I can actually read my e-mail without having to be anywhere near a computer. And I can answer it too! Of course, I could upgrade to an even fancier phone with even more features and an even faster internet connection. But, really, who needs to be that efficient? Surely there must be a point of diminishing returns!

The real point I want to discuss doesn’t have to do with the machines themselves, however, but rather with the philosophy behind their use. The notion of efficiency, after all, by definition supposes a finite amount of work in need of doing and suggests that it could be done faster by making this or that innovation in the way the work is done or the tools with which it is done. And, of course, that really does work when you have a lawn to mow and someone points out a way to get it mown in less time than you were going to have to spend absent the helpful information now provided. But that does not seem at all to be the right model in terms of the way our lives actually function because the work in my life—in all our lives—is not finite at all but rather more than capable of being endlessly expanded to fill up the space allotted to it. And so, like all of you, I spend far more time dealing with correspondence now than I did before the age of e-mail. I used to read one newspaper every day, whereas now I feel vaguely failed if I haven’t at least perused four or five, not to mention the various news apps that I myself have perversely installed on my phone presumably to make me feel even more guilty for not having the time to get to them all. And whatever time I do save by working at a computer hooked up to the internet instead of at a typewriter hooked up by a street or a parkway to a library I have failed utterly to convert into the kind of leisure time we insist we crave but seem only to drive further from our grasp with each successive wave of technological advance. Indeed, even the notion that I should be enjoying all my newly created leisure time by going for a walk or having a nap instead of simply recalibrating my expectations and demanding that much more of myself sounds more ridiculous than actually upsetting. Who buys an even more powerful laptop than the one he or she already owns with an eye to having more time for catnapping?

The world’s libraries are filled with books written by authors who worked before the advent of personal computers, yet why is it I imagine their lives were less hectic and far less harried than the lives all of us live today? Many of you know of my personal predilection for the books of Henry David Thoreau, one of the greatest American authors and thinkers of the nineteenth century, but not everyone realizes that his original impetus to flee to Walden Pond was not rooted in some utopian vision he had previously developed of life in the wilderness but was far more prosaically a function of the fact that Thoreau found daily life in Concord too frenzied and distracting to bear. (This is life in Concord, Mass., in the 1840s that we’re talking about too, so I can only imagine what Thoreau would have made of life there today.) And that seems to me to constitute an interesting challenge for all modern types who would profitably ponder his flight to Walden today. (Do kids today still read Walden in high school? It was my favorite book!) Here, after all, was a man who, when faced with a world that was too busy and too bewildering, did not set himself to simplifying things by buying or inventing bigger and better machines but by consciously choosing to divest, to simplify, to do more—in that famously thorovian way—by doing less. It all sounds so appealing—the simpler, less harried life part, not the living in an unheated, un-insulated hut by myself part—and yet all I seem to do when I feel stressed to the max by my own, mostly self-generated, to-do list is to figure out how to acquire an even more powerful machine that will make me feel even more guilty for not doing in hours what people just a century ago took weeks or even months to accomplish. Am I the only person whom it strikes as ominous that Apple took 600,000 first-day orders for the iPhone 4 before the system crashed under the weight of consumers’ desire to own a slightly more powerful version of the same machine most of them I’m guessing already owned?

I close with a vignette for my readers to ponder. To celebrate their sixty-second anniversary last week, my parents-in-law shared a bowl of cherries in their Toronto backyard. It’s a good time for cherries, of course. And Ontario cherries are, it’s always seemed to me, exceptionally juicy and sweet. But what made a real impression on me was not specifically the cherries, but the larger picture of two people whose idea of enhancing what might have otherwise been “ordinary” time involved sitting quietly in the same space, eating something delicious, feeling grateful and happy to have an anniversary to celebrate and someone to celebrate it with and a quiet, verdant place to celebrate it with that person in…without a machine, labor-saving or otherwise, in sight. Maybe I’m reading too much into the whole thing, but the whole picture seems so dramatically at odds with the quest for endless technological innovation in the pursuit of more efficient lives that never actually seem to include any real leisure in them that it seems worth pausing just for a moment to contemplate the fact that there can be pleasure and leisure in life that requires no more money than it costs to buy a pound of cherries, no machines designed to improve the experience by making it more efficient or more cost-effective, and, in fact, no technological enhancement of the base experience of any sort. If Thoreau were alive, he’d be 192 years old. (He died in 1862 at age forty-four.) What he would make of e-mail and smart phones, I can only imagine. But I think he’d have enjoyed those cherries in my parents’-in-law backyard…and understood perfectly well why they failed to take fifteen pictures of them with their smart phones and then e-mail them around the world so that the experience, otherwise doomed to be shared just by two, could be improved and made that much more efficient through the use of technology.

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