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If we’re saving all this time, where can we find it?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Modern Life – October 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE GOOD NEWS: It’s still harder to arrange an international conference than to get an American family with school age kids together to eat dinner. After all, a family dinner doesn’t usually require faxes, e-mails, fees, brochures, or a web site.

But even so, the everyday, ordinary family dinner just doesn’t seem to be all that everyday or ordinary any more. There are just so many things to juggle these days: dual jobs, cooking, housework, homework, after school activities, band practices, sports, home and yard maintenance, town meetings and civic obligations… The list goes on.

Thus, it’s not too surprising that the disintegration of the Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed Show family — which no doubt never really existed in the first place — has been the subject of so much talk in recent decades.

The truth: Families were probably never so organized, “interactive,” nor efficiently run as the fictional models would imply. Yet things have definitely changed; life does seem faster, fuller, and more complex these days.

Recently, though, I happened upon an Arts and Entertainment Network special that reflected a slightly different view of what may have gone wrong. Or perhaps — in lieu of some of the ideas presented in “The Future Just Happened” — our difficulties may actually be due to some of the things that went right.

As is typical in this over-rushed, over-amped modern age, I tuned into “The Future Just Happened” thirty or so minutes late, then I had to answer the phone a few times during the show, then I kept missing parts of it because I was simultaneously folding and putting away laundry, then I wasn’t able to catch the second night of the special at all. But it was interesting nonetheless.

When I tuned in, a man was claiming that people have it all wrong when they say that technology isn’t working. According to him, people think technology isn’t working because they feel more and more rushed. But technology is working, and that’s why we feel rushed. We really are more rushed because we have more and more opportunities and we are actually doing more and more.

And that does make some sense. If we didn’t have personal computers, the internet, VCRs, plus dozens and dozens of television stations, and a bunch of the other “opportunities” we’ve developed in the last few decades, we probably would have a lot more time.

That viewpoint, however, begs the question: Will we have too damned many opportunities someday? Will there come a time when we don’t have a spare minute left to spend with our kids, our spouses, or our friends?

Or is that question already obsolete? Have marriages, families, kids and friends already been tossed aside to make room for this brave new world?

Suffice it to say that many of the technology experts featured on the A&E special were not happy with how people are handling all of our new opportunities.

First off, there are the people my age, (the ones whose kids return home for family dinners only on holidays). Apparently, we are not handling new technology well at all. Although some people of greater vintage immerse themselves in new technology, even the computer experts have trouble keeping up with their youngsters.

There seems to be a curve. The very young and people over thirty just don’t like novelties. Both babes and old folk tend to balk a little (or a lot) when presented with new things — whether that be new tools, new food, new music, or new styles — whereas adolescents often crave the innovative, the novel, and the unknown. And curiously, this is true even for rats. When rats are running in mazes, if you keep changing the maze, only the juvenile rats will excel.

This phenomenon, of course, would imply that many of us aren’t overly fond of a lot of the things the information age has given us. Whether it be too many new things to learn, or more credit cards and television show choices than we can keep track of, or more telemarketing and sexy music videos and internet porn, many of us are apparently just too old, or too young, to appreciate modern realities. Instead, us over-the-hill types tend to feel trapped in this modern rat-race.

And even the techno wizards (many of them being well past their teens and twenties) worry about the consequences of adopting so much new technology.

Asked if there is an ideology to the information age, one silicone valley electronics expert answered, “Absolutely, there’s an ideology.” According to him, the supposition underlying our age is that faster is better, more is better, and the technologist has all the answers. “We tend to think the technologist knows what’s right.”

That expert, however, was clearly convinced that the experts don’t have the answers.

ANOTHER FEATURED computer guru, Danny Hillis, _thinks that we have to get beyond this faster, faster mentality and ask more questions about what all of this is for. When it comes to technology, we have to learn to ask, “what is it’s purpose?” Unlike many of the other experts, however, Hillis believes that he has at least one of the answers.

Hillis wants to develop a clock that can run thousands and thousands of years. Exactly how such a clock is supposed to help, I don’t know for sure, since at that point I was called away by one of those pesky telemarketers. Apparently, though, Hillis feels that there’s some kind of lesson in the continuity and stability of such a clock.

Yes, well…

Leave it to a technician to think that we should embrace a new invention to resolve the moral and ethical dilemmas of our times. Don’t get me wrong, though. Such a clock probably can’t hurt, and Hillis’s clock will no doubt be a technical marvel — so may his work progress.

But it would seem that we’ll need something more to resolve our difficulties.

In the September 2 Parade Magazine another sort of expert lamented modern technology. In an article about anger and anger management, Sybil Evans, a conflict-resolution expert, cites three culprits spurring the escalating rage in our culture: “time, technology and tension.”

In regard to technology she says, “The cell phones and pagers that were supposed to make our lives easier have put us on call 24/7/365. Since we’re always running, we’re tense and low on patience. And the less patience we have, the less we monitor what we say to people and how we treat them.”

Yep, and America’s anger toward modern technology also seems to be growing at a rapid clip.

YET I CAN’T HELP but wonder whether all of this frustration with the fruits of modern technology isn’t actually part of something bigger. In The Future Just Happened, the real quandary seemed to be about who’s in control of our destiny. And the answer appeared to be: no one.

Experts questioned whether our technology actually serves us. And, all in all, it does seem as if — rather than serving us — the new technologies may have actually seized control of our future. Our fear seems to be that our technology is driving us, making us rush around and live in ways that we don’t want to. In the future, new technology — whatever it may bring — may well determine where we are going and what we’ll be doing whether we want to be going there or doing that or not.

But that doesn’t seem too much different than the role of real estate development in Colorado. We talk about controlling it. We zone to control it; we develop city and county plans to control it; we consider state-wide referendums to control it. But in the end, growth controls us.

As Colorado communities grow we need new roads, infrastructure, and personnel, then we need to grow more to pay for them.

By the time we suffer the consequences of growth, however, solutions may be onerous. Last month, Hal Walter wrote about how our problems with bears this summer seem pretty inevitable in retrospect — since people have been moving wholesale into the bears’ habitat. Hal feels such problems may well get worse, and his sentiments echo that of many of the wildlife biologists who have been quoted extensively this summer — as more and more bears wander into suburbs, cities and campgrounds (thus far biting sleeping campers near Poncha Springs, Gardner, Westcliffe and Frisco).

Whether recent bear behavior is merely a temporary problem due to this spring’s late frost, or whether bear and people populations have reached some sort of critical mass that guarantees many, many more close encounters of an unpleasant kind, remains to be seen. But already, our solutions seem limited, ineffective, and downright sad: More bear relocations and exterminations, more closed campgrounds, more limits on outdoor cooking and barbecuing, more wariness when camping and hiking, more expensive bear-proofed dumpsters in towns and cities.

It seems like it would have been simpler not to have built so many homes on the gentle slopes of mountains where oak brush, raspberries and strawberries grow in abundance. It seems like it would have been better if the bears hadn’t grown so accustomed to humans that they started hanging out in people’s yards and inviting themselves over for dinner.

But let’s face it. People want to live in the foothills and on the sunny forested slopes of scenic mountains and that pretty much guarantees that some of their neighbors are going to be bears. In this case, however, integration may prove disastrous.

Yet to say that people shouldn’t live in such terrain and that therefore we won’t let them live there? Well, that seems awful, too. On the other hand, to say that the people who already live in such places can stay, but newcomers can’t move in? Well, that also sounds pretty unfair. And to make matters more difficult, whenever people talk about moratoriums on new buildings in certain biologic zones, or slowing real estate development, or discouraging subdivisions, just the discussion increases the need for anger management classes a hundred-fold.

SOLUTIONS TO OUR PREDICAMENTS elude us. Although most people would probably agree that it would be best to keep bears out of city parks and camping tents, and that we should make technology serve us (rather than lead us astray), it’s not at all clear how we should do that.

On the contrary, we seem to be losing control of both technology and growth. Despite all of Governor Romer’s ideas about smart growth, and despite all of those seminars where communities tried to establish plans and goals — and regardless of all of our talk and referendums and plans — growth directs (or misdirects) Colorado’s economy, and our economy encourages (or discourages) growth. And with the current escalation in bear attacks, suburban sprawl, and housing prices, our smart growth attempts aren’t looking very successful right now.

As for modern technology, what can we do? To even imply that we should limit or slow invention… Well, we don’t want to be a bunch of Luddites do we?

And since we presumably believe in freedom and democracy, shouldn’t we let people decide for themselves what “opportunities,” and inventions they want to embrace?

BUT UNFORTUNATELY, growth and technology aren’t the only conundrums. We don’t really seem to be in control of our economy or our education system either — or our children, marriages, careers, or lives.

If you’re expecting me to propose solutions to such problems, however, — problems like rage, family breakdowns, feeling rushed, failing schools, rampant growth, environmental degradation — well, think again. At my age, my ideas are no doubt rustier than guillotine nails.

Besides, these are not problems that lend themselves to simple solutions. On the contrary, these seem to be the problems that turn us into audacious hypocrites.

We want the freedom to read, write and look at whatever we please, be it on paper or on the net, but we’d like someone to do something about all of those distasteful movies, music videos, television programs, and websites.

We want to be able to do whatever we like in the woods — be that walk, ride, snowshoe, or drive — without being disturbed or crowded by other people doing what they like. (And two things that you’d better not like are solitude and silence — because just as vociferously as we demand our right to be left alone, we also demand our right to disturb others).

We want the right to smoke, drink, ski, and sky-dive if we like, but we reserve the right to sue and hold someone else accountable if it doesn’t work out.

We want to hike, ski, snowmobile, and build our dream homes in the wilderness while simultaneously preserving the wilderness (which I think is pretty much the same hypocrisy folks warned us about in that old maxim: You can’t have your cake and eat it too).

In short, for the most part, we seem to want the impossible. And in doing so, we appear to be losing control of the situation, and then blaming one another for the mess we’re in.

In the United States, we can’t seem to provide health care that anyone can afford. A lot of people can’t afford insurance; other people can’t count on insurance to cover what they get, and really sick people can’t get insurance that covers what they have.

We can’t agree on what our schools should teach, and apparently our schools can’t teach the majority of students how to read, write and cipher with basic proficiency. But on the other hand, we can’t agree on how to tell whether our students can read, write and cipher proficiently, either — since we can’t even agree on a test.

Our computers hang, our tires explode, and our pharmaceuticals kill, and we can’t seem to fix anything because it’s more important to prove that someone else is to blame.

Presumably these are resolvable problems, since they are pretty much man-made and not natural catastrophes. Yet we don’t have control over our machines, our schedules, or our lives.

It’s enough to make you believe in a conspiracy theory. We can’t fix anything — because aliens invented all of it. Televisions, computers, middle schools, HMOs: They’re all extraterrestrial products. Or maybe it’s not the technology that’s messed up; maybe it’s us.

Yep, it’s enough to make a person happy that she’s just too old to understand this modern age.

–Martha Quillen