Tech Encounters – Oct 11th

Today’s technology: the automobile.

This may seem to have little application to the classroom, but to me it stand as a good example for how a technology, when it becomes ubiquitous, can alter the structure of our lives.  One hundred years ago, before cars ruled the world, what people considered to be their “home area” was quite a bit smaller than today.  The idea of commuting 30 miles each way to work would have been impossible.  While people still got around quite a bit, it was much less frequent than today, when I might think nothing of hopping in the car to pop over for dinner at a friend’s house 100 miles away.  That cars (and things like buses and high speed trains) are available virtually anywhere means that people have access to a level of freedom they didn’t before.  But there are a couple of interesting things about this that I’ve been thinking about lately.

First, I would assume that the ease with which we can travel would mean that we would be more apt to do it.  As I didn’t live 100 years ago I can’t directly compare, but I noticed during our class discussion last week that it seemed many people had little idea of what their own country was like outside of the 40-50 or so mile radius that makes up the Pacific Northwest’s urban/suburban area.  Even places as close as Yakima and and Walla Walla could be visited in a day, and would help people understand that not even all Washingtonians share the usual Seattle area’s liberal views.  Go some place like Shell, WY or Louisville, KY, and you might as well be in another country.  The values are very different.

Second, owning a car requires a financial commitment, and so in some ways is actually limiting.  Perhaps this is why people travel so little.  Although it’s actually cheaper to drive most places than fly, it still takes time.  It also takes time to work to make enough money to pay for insurance and maintenance, and of course the gas used to drive to that job that enables you to make that money in the first place.  So it seems like owning a car can start you on a cycle that limits as much as it frees people.

I read about a similar cycle in a book called Better Off by Eric Brende.  He lived for a year in an Amish-like community.  Some of the farmers there used horses, some did not.  What he observed was that although the farmers using horses could produce more, they were required to produce more in order to be able to maintain the horses.  In the end, they didn’t really come out ahead.  They really just worked a lot harder to wind up with the same things he had.

I wonder the same thing about technology in general: yes, it sometimes seems like a magical, amazing thing.  But how often does the new technology (which requires at the least an investment of time to learn to use) really add to our lives?  Do we come out ahead?  Do I gain enough from using Twitter, for example, to justify the time I spend on it?  How about facebook or email?  Sometimes I think the answer is no.

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2 Comments

  1. October 14, 2009 at 11:05 am

    […] the lines of yesterday’s post, I find myself questioning the usefulness of the cell phone.  I realize that some people think of […]

    • Robin said,

      October 26, 2009 at 9:44 pm

      All depends on how it is used, what it is used for and why you are doing it. For example, if I have a butter churn and spend lots of time churning butter, but am a vegan, it kind of is a pointless endeavor right? ANYTHING has a similar example. It isn’t the technology, it is US and what our objective is. That is the whole point.


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