Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Siren Song

I’ll go out on a limb and assume I speak for more than myself when I say I’m connected. I’m plugged in. I’ve got 4Glte internet access at my fingertips 24/7. I’m inundated by information and I’m convinced that without the screens which deliver it to me I’m not being productive. If it’s not on my phone, it’s on my sexy tablet or sleek laptop. I’ll set down one screen only to pick up another. I wake up in the morning with a ritual that involves checking the news, checking email, checking social media before I stagger out of bed. Work involves a similar ritual, turning on the screens (two that is because I’m more productive with two). Then when I get home at night, sooner or later it’s back to the screen for responding to emails, checking in, updating status, tweeting, posting, and sharing. If I’m not updating content, editing photos, typing, or responding, I’m falling behind. I don’t dare take the challenge of turning the phone off or stepping too far away from it, for no good reason whatsoever. While this may come across as a complaint about technology, which is hypocritical of me considering the format of this platform (and counterproductive to my efforts of convincing you the reader to check back regularly), it is rather an observation of our decision making behavior.

Although I acknowledge the inherent drawbacks of being plugged in, I can't say I've mustered up the gumption to quit cold turkey. Throughout the day I'm faced with the choice of engaging social media and after years of repeating the same patterns it’s become a learned behavior. While I offer a critique of technology that's not necessarily the issue at hand because when it comes down to it I’d rather not have the choice all together. I can't help but envision what it would be like to not be constantly tempted by the allure of the screen or the audible notifications whose siren song instantly captivate my attention. What I long for is a place where it doesn't matter if I have the screens near or not, because they won’t work. I want to be someplace warm, under a sun soaked landscape in late summer where the grass crunches under my feet and big white clouds pass by effortlessly in the blue skies above. And of course, I want to look at my phone and see a little indicator flash telling me that I’m hopelessly out of service and the battery is out of juice.

So it is choice that presents a challenge, for when faced with it we see that were not always prone to making the “right” one. Choice demonstrates that for all our marvels, humanity as a whole remains fallible and susceptible to our lesser qualities like temptation and greed. Meanwhile my choice to remain connected leaves me feeling with a sense of disgust that’s similar to how one would feel if they got a whiff of hot air rising from sticky concrete littered with cigarettes behind a discount liquor store.

While my individual choice to remain connected presents a quandary, this only reflects the individual’s dilemma. Communities are faced with their own choices about what it is to which they will be connected. When it comes to modern development and reinvigorating the rural landscape it’s rare to find a story worth sharing. Many communities keep making the same choices which time and time again fail to meet our expectations. While small rural communities aren’t going to break ground on a tech incubator, all inclusive resort, or boutique shopping center, there has to be something better than solely relying on an fast food joints and road widening projects to bring about a new era of economic prosperity.

It’s ironic that development in small communities is often contradictory to the agrarian history and values many espouse. There is a need for something more permanent. Permanence has itself become commercialized. Under the guise of "vintage" and "rustic", advertisements tug at my heartstrings until I tug at my wallet. We make extraordinary efforts to create something cheaply that appears as if it's from another era where craftsmanship held some higher standing in the consumers hierarchy of needs. We’re left wanting something more but without the moral fortitude or economic develop guidelines for how to get there. It's worth pausing to consider that this one is on us. It's a choice communities have to make everyday that perhaps goes beyond a "buy local" campaign and has more to do with "living" than it does "consuming". It's not going to be easy and it’s likely that progress will require us, as members of the rural landscape to rethink what our obligations and responsibilities entail.

Obligations and responsibilities seem to run in contradiction to the trend of a modern economy, for they both imply some degree of commitment. Commitment is concept that is in sharp contrast to temporariness of plastic goods that line the shelves of bargain outlets and responsibility is all but foreign to the agribusiness corporations which continue to methodically extract value from the working lands. Rural communities have in large part lost the capacity to live locally, the last shreds of local independence having been traded for complete dependence on distant packaging and distribution centers. Obligations to community have been neatly packaged and marketed as easy choices, so as not to interfere with the busyness that has become so imperative we go about accomplishing. Rather than make a difficult choice, all we have to contemplate is that if we just spend 10% of our income at local stores the world will be a better place. This of course is a seemingly simple choice, but then again so is turning off the screen or crazier yet turning off the wireless router for an evening.

I can't say that I or anyone else has the answers. The constant inundation of facts, information, gossip, and other electronic dribble distracts me. It takes away from the time I might spend contemplating questions which I can't answer. It fills in those awkward silences where we don't know what to say. Is it ok to just "talk"? To wonder? To contemplate something other than what the market dictates I must want, crave, and pine for?

Whether it be a sense of nostalgia or a stubborn refusal to capitulate to the modern economy, some of us still care for, depend on, and remain connected to the working lands. Connectedness itself is not the dilemma we face. There are things worth being connected to, something better than the mindless dribble which spews forth from screens. There exists a place I’d like to be better connected and with it a group of people with whom I wish to share it.

In closing I offer some words from Wendell Berry.

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places. Stay away from screens.