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Category Archives: Consumers

‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

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Bon Voyage, Tony

I enjoy cooking. I find it creative and practical, and I’m not bad it it. I used to joke that I wanted Anthony Bourdain’s job. Now I guess that’s more of a possibility.

His death Friday from apparent suicide hit me. He was my age. I have the usual thoughts and questions:

  • He had such a cool job
  • He had a girlfriend and a young daughter
  • He traveled all the world, talked to people, ate with them, got paid for it
  • He kicked heroin

What the hell?

As a survivor of someone who committed suicide, over the past year I’ve reached out to friends, family, strangers, professionals and colleagues. I sought comfort, peace and reconnection. With important exceptions what I encountered disappointed me. Our get-ahead go-ahead society turns our thoughts, feelings, need for intimacy, friends and acquaintances into commodities to be bought, sold and easily discarded. (And thanks for capitalizing on that Facebook.) Most people I tried to connect with did not have time or patience for the grief, loss, nagging thoughts and memories I experienced and am still experiencing. You may have spent a week with someone or a lifetime, known them casually or intimately, said hello at the office or woke up in the same bed, who was enmeshed in so much pain, confusion and despair in their head (or body) that they decided to leave this world. As you struggle to comprehend, to move on, people you’ve known for years throw a few clichés at you. They tell you to see a therapist, ask if you’re on meds, and are gone. No time for conversation, tears, laughter or reminiscences or even a meal together. And sure as hell not serious questions.

I don’t know why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We’ve created a world that pushes our buttons and makes us constantly doubt and feel afraid and anxious about whether we fit in and at the same time makes us feel isolated. That requires us to do crazy things and pretend to like it. Then, when we act out and feel bad, we sell ourselves services and products and meds and therapy. Nice little business you got going on there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

I was told that people often don’t know what to say. Certainly this life (and death) can leave us at a loss for words. But people know what to say about plenty of other things, like politics or their sex lives (or other people’s sex lives if they don’t have one). My expectations are not high. Maybe I’m idealizing here (Thank you Big Chill), but give it a shot. Knock on the door of someone who’s experienced a loss like I and millions of others have. Take five minutes to give them a call. Invite them them to lunch or to take a walk or have a beer, or take a bicycle ride. And for the sake of whatever belief system you have, mention the name of the person they lost instead of pretending they never existed. Even if you’re afraid it might upset them (um, what, more?). Grow an anatomically-correct pair of ovaries or testicles. Or a heart. Dare to be brave. Don’t make them do all the work themselves in isolation, which helped create the mess we’re in in the first place.

I don’t know whether Anthony Bourdain was depressed (as if that explains anything) or narcissistic or had a personality disorder. I’ll leave the armchair therapizing to the self-appointed experts. To me cooking and enjoying good food and traveling and telling stories and getting people to share their stories and recipes around the world and having an ego does not mean you have a personality disorder. It means you contributed just a tiny part of the solution in this crazy mixed up world.

In my mind I imagine me and Tony drinking mojitos in Cuba and arguing baseball. Or sitting down in Istanbul for shish kebab or in Barcelona for tapas.

My sense from watching is that he could be a cranky son-of-a-bitch: standoffish, opinionated and garrulous. He also appeared witty, wry and self- deprecating, generous and kind. And to genuinely savor life. We could use more of that in the human species.

So for me now keep your tributes, your marches, your causes, your ribbons, your 1-800 suicide hotlines, your therapists on the clock, your platitudes and statistics, your by-the-book support groups, your medications that distance those of us left behind from our anguish and questions so we can work and buy groceries and feed the cat and ourselves and maybe our kids. Don’t ask me for money, or to write my congress-person.

Show up.

And I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s job. I’ll skip the heroin, thanks. I think I would hate running a restaurant. But for a long while he seems to have recovered and turned it into a pretty good life and work. I want him back so i can continue watching him show us how it’s done.

Bon voyage, Tony. Buen provecho. – CDL

 

But Let’s Not

(Facebook Deletion Notice)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, what the hell —

An Apology for the Internet from the People Who Built It (Noah Kulwin, New York Magazine)

Shoshana Zuboff: No Escape from the Panopticon (Lance Farrell, Sciencenode)

–CDL

Speaking of Facebook…

Three recent articles on technology. One takes a ‘Don’t worry, trust us’ approach. The other two  are more critical:

Victor Frankenstein Is the Real Monster (Ronald Bailey, Reason)

Uber’s Fatal Crash Raises Big Questions About Self-Driving Cars (Video, Wired)

Does My Algorithm Have a Mental-Health Problem? (Thomas T Tills , Aeon)

And should I be worried about the elevator that keeps closing on me? — CDL

Detaching

— From a variety of things. Including soon, perhaps, Facebook. Bye fly, FB!

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

A Nation of Laws

‘Next!’ (Cartoon by Udo J. Keppler, Puck Magazine)

Who is left to uphold [the law]? The lawyers? Some of the best lawyers in this country are hired, not to go to court to defend cases, but to advise corporations and business firms how they can get around the law without too great a risk of punishment. The judges? Too many of them so respect the laws that for some ‘error’ or quibble they restore to office and liberty men convicted on evidence overwhelmingly convincing to common sense. The churches? We know of one…which had to be compelled by… a health officer to put its tenements in sanitary condition. The colleges? They do not understand. There is no one left; none but all of us.

Editorial by Samuel McClure, McClure’s Magazine, January 1903 (the same issue that published Ida Tarbell’s article on Standard Oil and Ray Stannard Baker’s exposé of union practices) — DA

Received Wisdom: Return to Sender

A few years ago I bought a bicycle carrier for the car. The carrier was made in Sweden and well-designed. The Swedish generally seem to know what they’re doing: See Volvo, Ikea, Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman.

I’m not an engineer, nor do I play one on TV. I’ve worked as a business analyst and technical writer. I’m pretty good at figuring out how at least most non-human things work. The carrier never seemed to fit quite right. The bike stayed on the car and didn’t end up under the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler or in a ditch. But it scraped paint off parts of the car and off parts of my psyche it shouldn’t have. I fussed with the straps and adjusted various angles. I read the instructions – both online and printed. Tears were shed. Curse words were said. I passed from denial through bargaining to acceptance. Bitching and moaning gave way to muttering under my breath. I used the rack only now and then, anyway. We rarely experience the ideal in life, and I had done the best I could. Still, I cringed every time I put the carrier on.

179013_sized_930x1400

in March of this year I joined the local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The group’s regional and international goals are to get water and other necessities of life to people who don’t have them. EWB projects are self-funded. Volunteer members work in partnership with domestic and overseas communities to dig holes, pour concrete and lay pipelines. Disciplines range from mechanical and civil to electrical, nuclear and software engineering. A fair number of women serve as members. Perhaps their estrogen-inspired desire to measure twice, cut once balances male members’ testosterone-fueled impulse to to ‘get ‘er done.’ But that’s a generalization. Since spending time with them, I’ve learned about elevations, hydraulic pressure (including ‘water hammer’), water treatment and local whiskey distilleries. The chapter holds periodic happy hours and fundraisers at local watering holes and other establishments.

Maybe some of that engineering expertise rubbed off on me. The next time I hauled out my bike carrier, I looked at it — I mean looked at it — and said, ‘Hold on, this just can’t be right. I’m going to find out what it is.

The cult of presumed expertise and received wisdom increasingly monopolizes our society: the notion that someone else always knows better than we do. I won’t say it’s making us stupid1, but the accoutrements we must master to live our lives grow daily more complicated (or so we tell ourselves). The sheer cognitive and emotional overhead of everything from keeping track of our ‘friends” exploits on Facebook to deciding what car to buy threatens to overwhelm us, resulting in a loss of confidence in ourselves and our abilities. This in turn undermines the self-reliance and individual liberty that democracy depends upon. There used to be a quaint expression called Yankee Ingenuity for taking the initiative and making things better ourselves rather than passively accepting the status quo or deferring to someone else. In the global marketplace this could now now just as easily include Southern Ingenuity, Goth Ingenuity, Muslim Ingenuity, LGBT Ingenuity or Indian Ingenuity.

When I took the dirty carrier off the car and laid it on the bedroom carpet (which I covered with newspapers), I found whoever assembled it at the factory or the store reversed two parts, putting them on opposite sides. I had simply accepted the state of affairs (or been too worn down to change it), assuming whoever put it together knew what they were doing. I scrounged for some metric wrenches. I disassembled the offending parts and carefully put them back together again (watching out for leftovers). This was no small task, and I shouldn’t have had to do it.2 But when I was done, the carrier fit properly on the car the way it should be.

What caused the ‘Hold on, here’, the ‘ah ha’ moment (which wasn’t that sudden, really) that caused me to go to the factory web site once more and compare what I saw to what was on the screen?

I like to think spending time with my engineering colleagues helped inspire me. Putting the carrier on the carpet allowed me to step back and reframe the problem (even if it left a smudge or two to clean up). Problem-solving is not (and cannot) simply be the domain of experts –- who themselves can get it wrong. We can all be victims of passivity or of received wisdom and arrogance: consequences simply of being human. When things don’t go according to plan, we must reserve the prerogative to try and figure out problems for ourselves. This realization can threaten the status quo and involves risk3, but can also empower us. — CDL

# # #

1Others do that. See recent references to Google, Wikipedia and other recent phenomena supposedly making us stupid. See also deskilling.
2Whatever sense of accomplishment I experienced was mitigated by frustration and the damage done to the car.
3Of failure, transgression and accountability.

 

Tendency of the Times

From THE INTERNATIONAL RAILWAY JOURNAL
(A MAGAZINE DEVOTED TO THE INTERESTS OF RAILROADS, STEAMSHIP LINES AND THE TRAVELING PUBLIC)

May, 1903

‘What is the tendency of the times? It is to cease less effort. It is to over-work, over-application, under-enjoyment, under-thinking. The tendency is to make ourselves the machines of business and trade, to always, subordinate our higher capacities and talents to the main purpose of living.

‘A great deal could be said along this line of thought. Every man knows he is a slave — a slave of circumstances, a slave of environments, a slave to ambition, and a slave to the highest inspiration within him. Everywhere is effort unremitting, ceaseless, unsatisfactory. We work every day in the year in a sense, we work while we rest, we work at rest.  Our rest is a mere form of work; it is a delusion; we imagine we are resting when we are simply deceiving ourselves; we make a toil of rest. Our whole civilization is built on one strain to accomplish, to do, to progress, to make the most.

‘But, after all, are we not losing sight of any chance? Our railroad trains run every day in the year, our ticket offices are open from morning to night, our mills, shops and factories run from early Monday morning until Saturday, and merely rest long enough to permit the heat of friction to evaporate. Our stores are crowded, our business offices are open early and late, telephonic and telegraphic wires are kept hot with the babel and gabble of trade, our streets are crowded with rushing pedestrians, our street cars are crowded to suffocation with anxious travelers, our theatres are jammed and packed with excited spectators, who imagine they are enjoying a relaxation. Excursion trains are flying, Sundays and Satur days, to afford people an opportunity to take their eyes away from desks, counters, kitchens, ceilings and floors and from trade and commerce, and from all the pesky and demoralizing influences that go to fill lip our lives.

‘Everything is strenuous. We are tearing our lives to pieces, straining our bodies, thinking of nothing but what pertains to the immediate present, grasping and struggling like idiots, and complimenting ourselves that we live in the greatest country in the world and in the greatest age. We imagine we are scientific, progressive, enlightened, and are doing everything just right. We are tearing through life as though death was something to be reached as soon as possible. Fortunately, however, religion and custom and necessity have made it necessary to slow down once in seven days. But that slowing down is hypocriti cal. We slow down in order that we may start up again with renewed energy, and we tear through each successive week as though life was made up of struggle, and as if there was no room for anything else. We work and we worry and we strain and stretch and imagine that by taking one day of rest we are doing our whole duty to ourselves.

‘Perhaps we are right, but it does seem to the quiet observer that a great deal of this strenuous life is strenuous nonsense. We are forgetting humanity and the purpose of living; we are putting too much ammunition in our gun. In some respects the tramp has more sense. While this example cannot be com mended, yet we might learn a valuable lesson from him. From his standpoint, he gets more out of life than a good many of the rest of us. Where is it to end? For what purpose all this rush ? Why this ceaseless struggle ? These are hard questions to answer.

‘We are told that machinery is increasing the production of things in general; but the more machinery, mills and factories that we build the harder we seem to have to work to get our pound of butter, our loaf of bread, our coat and hat and our street-car fare. When the register of wills makes note of our purse, the amount he finds does not seem to warrant the 30, 40 or 50 years’ struggle to leave it. What we need to learn is to learn how to live, without sacrificing all that is noble and great within us. It is a truth that we subordinate our higher selves to our lower selves. We subordinate the end to the means. We think more of the going than the getting there. We forget that the real purpose of life is development and not dollars.’ — DA (Courtesy of Google Books)

 

Only Connect

I walked through one of our city’s urban wild spaces several weeks ago instead of participating in something quaintly referred to as an active shooter drill. The phrase reminds me of playing army in our backyard when I was a boy. (Bang! You’re dead: now fall down.) That used to be a thing children did innocently when such a thing was possible.

20160427_093104I felt the need to disconnect from the alienating hive mentality we seem to live in increasingly these days. In an attempt to find myself, I had to lose myself high above the madding, maddening, crowd. I walked across a bridge and up a hill in one of Pittsburgh’s historic districts a mile or so from downtown and found a path. I followed it – drawn to greenness and space.

While my colleagues practiced hiding under their desks in the new workplace normal, I came upon a community garden waiting for the first shovel of earth to turned over for planting. My schedule is too fraught with change and busyness to take on a new project, but I thought I could stop by later in the season and offer to weed and hoe someone’s plot in exchange for a few tomatoes.

20160427_101444I helped in our garden as a kid. There’s something about turning over fresh soil, kneeling down and feeling the clots of dirt and clay crumble in our fingers that recalls some essential part of us.

We spend our time lately connected with people virtually near and far. Our conversations, if I can dignify these  stunted exchanges with that word, are severely attenuated. We decipher the texts and e-mails, codes of our existence, like entrails for portents of hope and meaning, anger and desire, interest or indifference. 19th-Century correspondents sent telegrams shorn of definite articles and prepositions to save money.  (Arriving 8 AM train. Hope see you. Stop. ) We do it today because we’re impatient or lazy. (LOL CU L8R.) We shout our urgencies and frustrations standing in vacant lobbies or on crowded buses among strangers over medical tests, jail sentences, kids to pick up and dogs to walk. More often, we settle for garbled, aphasic voice messages left over a bad connection.

On my sojourn I encountered a young woman walking a large shepherd -mix dog. We exchanged greetings and walked on – having observed the social niceties. I guess I didn’t look too threatening: a skinny guy on the downward slope of my fifties with gray in my beard. It was a refreshing change from days with colleagues in cubes barely acknowledging each other. At the start of work I encountered a colleague I think of as a friend. She has a small dog, a husband who recently had his hip replaced, and a singing voice that could make angels weep. She also has a chronic illness she’s afraid to tell her employer about. Her reply when I wished her a brief good morning was ‘I don’t have time to talk.

20160427_093018At the top of the hill I turned looked out over a view once obscured by smoke and flame from Satanic steel mills. The mills provided the blessings of livelihood to the people who worked in them.

The smoke and flame are long gone, banished by the demise of the steel industry and the ‘Burgh’s urban gentrification. Instead, further on, I came upon a small crab apple tree  starting to bloom pink and white.

20160427_095831Apples trees carry a Medieval symbolism related to the Fall and the gift of redemption. I saw a source of beauty and shade this summer that will allow me to sit in quiet and peace (not silence – that would be too much) away from cell phones and conference calls and a thousand voices calling out our urgencies and hopes together.

When I first encountered Tony Judt’s phrase connected Isolation1, I took it as a judgement of the many ways we have to communicate, share, like and stay in touch contrasted with the emptiness of the messages  transmitted and received. In our search for comfort and assurance, we seek to distract ourselves from the triviality, vanity and chaos around us. The messages we receive from corporate, governmental and media sources around us usually emphasize a lack within ourselves to be fixed, improved or soothed by being a better consumer – as though all can be made well by purchasing the right service, product, therapy or medication. When these fail, as they always seem to, we buy more, or different or turn up the volume. And still we still live in fear and confusion, hiding under our desks.

Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and transact some private business. That business was himself. For someone so antisocial, Thoreau wrote a lot about society. Walden2 contains references to traveling on the Fitchburg Railway, of going into town and meeting with friends and family. Contrary to his popular role (I will not say brand) as a prophet of bucolic solitude,3 Thoreau advocated for a human and collective relationship with nature. For him nature was not something to be walled off and kept segregated from human beings and the civilized world, but a place we could retreat to and connect with a wild part of ourselves. Today Thoreau might text from his cabin, keep a Walden blog and tweet about hoeing beans in his garden. Some folks argue that he was a poseur. I think he was human. Although Life Without Principle contains snarky comments about someone in town hiring a laborer to move a stone from one location to another, throughout Thoreau’s work is a craving for company; whether of birds and squirrels or his human neighbors.

20160427_100308My solitary walk connected me to myself and the earth: the leaves on the trees, the insects on the ground – even the trash or leaves bagged up. The detritus we leave behind is not bad, but part of who we are. We live on this earth, all six billion-plus of us. We occupy space and affect the ground we walk on. How can we presume to stop global warming, reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet when we can’t save what some of us call our souls? For that we have to let go of our urge to control the world and connect periodically with that part of ourselves not for sale – talked about, squawked about, tweeted, branded, scrutinized weighed and displayed in the marketplace like melons in a grocery store.

20160427_100725Doing so requires practicing a radicalism that is actually not so radical, but part of our DNA as humans. It requires us to withstand all the slings and arrows that our society, despite our claims to embrace diversity and individual liberty, throws at its members who dare to step to their own drummer and dance to their own beat. It requires us to risk being called egocentric, self-centered and antisocial. But when we are alone with ourselves away from the noise, we can connect with who we are and decide where to put our time, energy and talent toward being part of something more. — CDL

‘Only Connect’ is a quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

2 Life Without Principle is Thoreau’s strident argument against, among other things, his fellow-citizen’s complicity in the war against Mexico

3And proto-environmentalist and naturalist, according to author Stephen Railton

 

 

 

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