Friday, May 27, 2011

The Bucket List In The Age Of Technology

We are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us.
John Kenneth Galbraith

It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome. 
T.S. Eliot, about radio

We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.
Mark Twain

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it.
The Bucket List: Almost everyone today has one, in hard form or in memory, a list of things to do before one "kicks the bucket," an American euphemism for dying.
Credit: © Mike Gruhn, WebDonuts

If you search online or read popular consumer magazines or books, writing a bucket list is considered somewhat of a priority. For those who don't know what a bucket list is, and I had to look it up, it is a list of must-do things before you "kick the bucket," an American euphemism for death. The list comes from the 2007 movie of the same name, which I have not seen.

Consistent with all such lists are a large number of things one dreams of doing, aided by these same consumer books and magazines, numbering between 50 and 100 items. For the list-obsessed and detail-oriented, it gives life a new meaning, in the pursuit of experiences. The bucket list, like all such endeavours coming from Hollywood's unreal world, such pop-culture ideals are directed chiefly at middle- to upper middle-class persons. The poor have other things on their mind: survival; and the wealthy are, for the most part, doing what they want.

As much as the idea behind the bucket list is a topic in itself, this is not the intent of this essay. What the need for a bucket list speaks about is that people are not happy living life as they are living it in the here and now.  The progress of our lives, and we have progressed, is now at a point where people speak about anti-progress ideas and pursuits. That in part explains the ecological green movement, the alternative energy and lifestyle movements, and the back-to-nature and the desire to eat organic products grown in zero-pesticide small farm. For some, it's a pursuit of primitivism.

Yes, there is some degree of guilt in the western developed nations for consuming much, but there's more to such passionate choices than many care to readily admit. (In some cases, it's a replacement for a religious need.)

The thinking is that our progress has taken us into a detour that we didn't anticipate. For example, with all the social-networking technologies at our disposable, we are hardly more social. An argument can be made that we are less so. The technological progress, in particular, has not been enough to ease our anxiety. In some cases, it has added to it. So, we are easing away from it, and in some cases returning to the comforts of the old, the tried and true.

For example, the book in paper form will likely be with us for a long while. In an article in The Vancouver Sun, "The book will survive," Andrew Irvine, who teaches at University of British Columbia, says that electronic-reading devices will not replace the book for a number of reasons. Irvine writes:
Reading is a skill that develops in parallel to learning. It shouldn't be rushed and can't be cursory. It requires attention and focus in a way that surfing the web does not. As former Booker Prize chair and English professor John Sutherland tells us, reading "is not a spectator sport but a participatory activity. Done well, a good reading is as creditable as a 10-scoring high dive. It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well. Which is greater, Henry James the critic or Henry James the novelist?"

If Sutherland is right, learning to read well involves more than just discovering the meanings of words or looking up a fact on Wikipedia. It means discovering connections between ideas and evaluating an author's thoughts. It means learning to retrieve meanings that time and distance have made obscure. It means climbing inside someone else's head, not inside someone else's hard drive.
One of the unsaid purpose for the new electronic reading devices, as is the case for all new technologies is to get consumers hooked on it. Such explains the hard push among advertisers to sell newer versions of an older existing technology (e.g., a cell-phone is still only a cell-phone, no matter how it looks; and an older version of a computer software does essentially the same as one that is a newer release.)

It's not the technology that's the problem, since it's really only a machine, a tool, an appliance, if you will that you can shut on or off. Or not purchase at all. Technology companies, with the help of a a hyped-up media, make it sound as if technology has a life of its own. As if technology itself is the reason for our existence rather than a useful mechanism to help us. Its purpose ought to always be for the betterment of humanity. Or at least for our benefit. (That how I view technology, as a helpful implement, no matter how sophisticated it might be.)

But it can also alienate. And that explains to a great degree why the progress through technology argument fails to satisfy. It's the unsaid promises of technology that have promised much and delivered little that really matters. For the most, the  promises of a better future have remain unfulfilled. Not for many, if not most persons.

That why you're unlikely to see a new technological item, a tech gadget, on anyone's bucket list. People yearn for real contact. Real intimacy. Real Conversation. That might come somewhat from social-networking sites, but they are not built for such purposes. They are built to form some sort of weak connection, a point that social commentator, Malcolm Gladwell made in a New Yorker article, "Small Change" (Oct 4, 2010):
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
Strong real and lasting connections take face-to-face meetings of a sustained level. It's hard to sustain more than a handful of real enduring friendships. Doing so means shutting off the phone, computer and all electronic devices that distract us from the reason why we yearn to make contact in the first place. And getting out on the street to make strong long-lasting connections.

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