It would seem as if there is an electrical outlet for everything from one’s toothbrush to their car now. Society is in continuous technological progress. Advances in scientific and technical knowledge have extended and improved our lives. Most of us live in comfort only afforded to kings a few centuries ago and with capabilities they could not have imagined. And with all the new technology come new skill sets, new job prospects, and exciting opportunities. We now have the freedom to work from home or from anywhere in the world, as long as we have a computer and a good internet connection. We can run a business online. We can shop online. We can keep in touch with people from thousands of miles away and deliver messages that reach them in seconds. Everything seems to herald in an exciting future.
At the same time, one maintains the hope that the drive towards technological progress does not automatically mean forgetting tradition, culture, and knowledge of old. In order for any potential future to be balanced and safe for humanity, the wisdom of the ages must be preserved and passed on to every new generation. Skills and the knowhow our predecessors had which have brought the past to this future must be guaranteed a place in the centuries to come. There are many reasons for which this must be done. But let us look at a few of them.
Firstly, as modern science increasingly points out, it is important for one to know their history not simply for reasons of psychological comfort and cultural identity, but for reasons pertaining to health. More and more people are, for instance, getting genetic tests done to find out where they come from not just out of curiosity but also to understand what their biological background puts them at risk of in terms of diseases. As well, we hear a lot about research on the importance of having a diet and activity level similar to that of our ancestors. Just think of how wonderful it might be if science and past knowledge found a way to collaborate and learn from each other. There are now studies linking a person’s birth month to the potential for certain diseases, allergies, and even to longevity. But there are also observations linking birth month to certain types of personalities, diseases, and general tendencies, which go back thousands of years. We are already witnessing science starting to follow leads of olden wisdom in its endeavors. This is encouraging.
Secondly, as we move further away from the simplicity and genius of historic wisdom, we need more expense and complexity to give us the balance which was once came naturally. In other words, the more we pay the less we have. Let me give an example of what I mean. In the countryside in Romania, houses used to be made of mud, brick, straw and additional natural materials. The doors were a certain distance from the ground, they were not airtight when closed. This provided ventilation. A house made of mud is therefore cool in the summer, so cool in fact that in my own experience I remember the middle of a scorching summer having to sleep with a big and heavy comforter in order to keep warm at night. The house also keeps warm in the winter. In addition, the fire wood stoves raise the temperature immensely. This is one of the reasons non-airtight doors are a good idea, as in a very warm house in the winter there is still some cool ventilation coming from the under the doors. There are many elements of these old houses which made them veritable wonders of natural comfort. Nowadays they are also pretty cheap to build. However, in a conversation I had with one of my Western friends, I remember they liked the idea of a fire place in the winter but did not understand how a house could keep cool in the summer without air conditioning. You see, they had never lived in such a house. They did not know its complex simplicity. The more time one spends in the West the more they realize such knowledge can in fact be lost if there is no one who has enough of an incentive to preserve it. Before one knows it, they find themselves in a modern house, built out of thin wooden planks, where everything is connected to some form of energy or another, without a well, with a gas fireplace and air-conditioned heating. They would soon realize that if, at any moment, someone were to ‘pull the plug on it’, they would not be able to survive. The fire place, not being real, would not allow one to burn wood. The heater would not work without electricity. And if the heater did work it would dry the air so much that one would need to buy a humidifier in order to prevent bloody noses and extremely dry skin and mouth (no natural ventilation and humidification here). Having no well, they would have to buy bottled water from the store but, if the weather turns bad and the power is out, the store will probably be already out of water as people would have rushed in to stock up on it. The wind would blow but a little and one would hear the building not creek but move with it. All the money spent on the modern home could not buy the balance of old houses. There is not much security and one feels that it is not truly a house but a simulacrum, an image of what used to be real, sometime before everything succumbed to dependency.
What should happen if one day in the perhaps improbable but nevertheless possible future, society is ‘unplugged’? No more electricity, no more internet, no more phones…nothing but silence. People in the US imagine such scenarios in the wake of a deliberate EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack. But it could happen as a result of a natural disaster or a war. There is an entire genre of literature devoted to societies faced with sudden technological collapse and having to survive and rediscover old skills. Or, one could simply be in a situation with no access to any of these conveniences. One may just want to save money, or feel closer to nature, or not take medicine every time they have a headache or backpain. The reasons why we would need skills and knowledge which function outside of the “plugged society” are numerous.
How many of us would know about the benefits of charcoal in helping fight off stomach issues? What about the fact that clay helps replenish electrolytes when they are dehydrated and helps the body detoxify? How many would know how to fix the cracks in the mud house in the country side, let alone build one? Would they ever think of mixing horse dung with mud and sand to do that? How many would know that honey and garlic have antibacterial properties? How many would be able to build a carriage or tame a horse? And the list goes on. This is not to say that the ways of old did not have their faults and problems. Far from it. However, without the ability to ‘manually override technology’, we cannot be free. The more dependent on technology we are, the more vulnerable is our society. But we are only dependent on technology if we cannot do without it. It is not a bad thing to indulge in the comforts of the 21st century. Yet, with a world of knowledge ready to be shared with us both in real life and through virtual means, to reach a point where we do not know how to live without these comforts is nothing short of a crime
It is difficult enough living alongside computers and machines without losing our sense of reality and motivation. It is up to us to make sure future generations are not handicapped by the inability to function outside a controlled hi-tech environment. We must be keepers of the past as well as innovators of the future. We have to find a way to bring the two together if we want to have a prosperous, safe, future. Indeed, there may never be a time in human history more perilous for humanity than that during which it forgets how to live without the crutches of technology. Such a society might not survive past its machines’ expiration dates. And, in the meantime, it would be a sad existence only slightly resembling that of a life lived.
This article was originally published in The Market for Ideas No. 7-8, Sep.-Dec. 2017