Friday, April 22, 2005

Is That All There Is?

John Lienhard makes an excellent point here, one idea that prompts two others:

The 20th century has given me much, but it's taken as much away. I'd wondered just what [Jack] Thompson is conserving. Now I know. Book repairs are only the vehicle. What he really preserves is the one thing without which old books, and much more, will die off. He's conserving the very arts by which we lived our lives -- until just this century.

Two other thoughts, in two very different directions.

First, technology has certainly taken away as much as it has given. Or perhaps I should be more accurate: we have abandoned a great deal of true value, in pursuit of our shiny new toys. Traditions should be honored not just because they are traditional, not because "we've always done it this way," but because they were a source of life and value to countless generations. We have let technology abstract us from the material world, and called that an improvement on Platonic dualism. But we've misread Plato. Socrates, not unlike the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels, enjoyed eating and drinking and companionship. These things did not get in the way of his recollection (the way off the wheel of reincarnation), but in fact led to it. This world we once knew so intimately was not entirely at odds with us, and struggling with it and using the materials of it, taught us a great deal about our limitations, and the reach of our abilities. It's romanticizing to say it made us better persons; but it's over simplifying to say that all technological changes have only been for the better. We have, as Mr. Lienhard notes here, cut ourselves off from much knowledge and relationship that is good and true and worthwhile. Now, sadly, all we can seem to do is preserve it; we cannot even imagine living it, again. And this applies to spiritual existence as much as material. Once the two were not nearly so easily separated as they are for us today, and that separation is yet another loss.

That's one, this is the other. Technology has given us what seem like god-like powers, so much so that we don't even consider the source of what comes to us, the provenance or origin of the goods we enjoy, consume, use up, toss out, waste and heedlessly destroy. We think we have the power of creation, but we create nothing. We reshape raw materials, and that is all. Ink made from oak gall and linseed oil is a reshaping, too, but using materials that replenish themselves. Our technology has cut us off from the sources of our consumption, the raw materials, and now we imagine they appear from factories or warehouses or internet sites, with no connection to the material plane at all, except when they are in our hands. But we create nothing; we simply use and re-locate and manipulate what is already here.

Consider water: in Texas, one of the largest underground lakes in the world stretches from San Antonio, south of Austin, to West Texas, hundreds of miles away. Both farmers in West Texas, and homeowners in San Antonio, drink from the same source. And while we have the technology to raise thirsty grass in city plots, in Texas or Arizona or Southern California, or to raise thirsty crops in arid conditions, we don't have the technology to do one crucial thing: we can't create water. The Edwards Aquifer is drying up because of this simple reality. Yet we turn a tap, open a spigot, water gushes out: and do we ever think about where it comes from? The supply seems endless, and the water hose in the back yard seems to create it, so why wonder? Why not just enjoy?

But, as Ray Bradbury said once, it is good to wonder. He meant in a different way, and about the splendor of creation. Well, that's a starting point, too. Perhaps it is time to wonder. If our powers were truly god-like, wouldn't we have the power of creation, too? And since we don't, since everything we do, from our ideas to our language to our homes and cars and food and drink, have to come from some source first: shouldn't we stop and think about that source, consider where what is most precious to us came from, and what responsibility that imposes? Consumption, after all, is not about responsibility at all: it's simply about gratification. Is that all there is?

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