These lines–Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind–should be familiar to any college student who had to read early American literature. These are lines that, when I first read them, I didn’t quite understand them. It was the late 1980s and while my husband and I were starting to tread carefully into personal computer ownership, we were still technologically young enough to be giddy over our remote controlled TV and new CD player. As the years passed and we accumulated more gadgets and at a faster rate than we could have anticipated, those lines of Emerson‘s spring to my mind more and more frequently.
In a society where consumerism is nearly a religion and oftentimes used to show “patriotism,” it’s difficult not to fall into a depression of sorts when the It of “is this it?” is not enough. You buy gadgets that reportedly will enhance your life, and six months later they are obsolete. So you purchase anew to feel purpose in life and the cycle continues. It’s not only a sad way to live, it’s unsustainable. Unless you’re incredibly wealthy, at some point you run of money to buy the things that you think will give your life meaning. Hence, the lottery. A quick fix. A desire to be wealthy without having to work for it (unless you consider standing in line work). When I’m in one of my Peggy Lee moods and start humming Is That All There Is?, I:
- go for a walk without my iPod so I’m not distracted from the song and flight of birds, the squirrels chasing each other up and down trees, the hum of insects;
- pick up a hardcover book and feel it’s weight in my hands and the dryness of paper as I flip through the pages;
- hug my husband;
- pet my cats;
- call a friend;
Granted, some of these things cost money: shoes for walking, books for reading, food for husband and cats, phone for calls, pen and paper for writing. But none of them requires a gadget, a technological device that has been partly designed to make me feel lost without it (even the phone mentioned is one that we’ve had for about 20 years). We are existential beings struggling to make sense of a world that often makes little sense. We are sold things with the promise that we can derive meaning for our lives through these things. But do we? How many of us, every so often, decide to go “off the grid” in a quest to find true meaning, sustainable meaning, meaning that will outlast every technological advance we embrace?
Recently, our DSL had an interruption in services for at least a day. I admit, when I realized that I could not connect to the Internet, that I could not check my blog or my favorite blogs, I panicked. I didn’t know why I couldn’t connect and the thought of being disconnected for unknown hours was chilling. It was early morning, before I had to leave for work and I was in a panic that I could not “log on” and get my blog fix before setting off for my day job. But, my husband was still there. In fact, he was oblivious to my panic because he was on the porch reading a book, his morning routine before setting out for work. My cats were still there and actually annoyed that I was in more of a tizzy over the loss of my Internet access than I ever am when it’s their feeding time. My books hadn’t disappeared, and I still had drawers of pens, pencils and paper to write on. I didn’t check my phone because I actually hate phones.
It was a wake-up call for me. Should I be so dependent on technology that I stop breathing when I open Firefox and get the message: “Error. Server unavailable”? Should I allow these things to ride me? Or should I embrace the sudden silence, the sense of time slowing, the drawn-out minutes when I can pick up an unread issue of the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or The New Yorker and feel reconnected to that time, 30-some years ago, when I read these periodicals as soon as they arrived in the mail?
I don’t want to go totally off-the-grid. I wouldn’t have a blog if I did, but I don’t like feeling controlled by technology, made to feel that every second I don’t own an iPhone is a second lost to me. [Disclaimer: I do own and love my iPad2, but note it is an iPad2, not the newest iPad and, like all my other gadgets, I’ll likely still be using it long past its obsolescence.] So, fellow bloggers, and any one else who stumbles across this post, are you in the saddle, or are things?