Sunday, November 20, 2011

Living on the Dole

Neil Postman.  Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.  New York: Vintage, 1992.  ISBN: 0679745408.

Berndt Heinrich.  A Year in the Maine Woods.  Da Capo, 1995.  ISBN: 0201489392.

Postman writes about the demise of old human culture (the art of living well), and the rise of a new one (the art of manipulating hyper-specialized tools in exchange for increasingly complex goods and services from other tool-users, goods and services so complex that no individual can provide them for himself).  Heinrich offers an interesting paradox: a new man (the hyper-specialized professor of biology) who nevertheless manages to live well in the old style, largely because he lives simply.

In his book, Heinrich tells how he went out into the Maine woods, built a log cabin, and managed to thrive without regular access to many of the amenities of Postman's technopoly (amenities like running water, the indoor toilet, and the refrigerator).  The modern Thoreau did not cut himself off entirely from society: he installed a phone in a friend's outhouse, and he made regular visits to less technologically unburdened people around him, but his experiment is still impressive.  He made his own food, keeping an eternal stew on the stove: as long as he boiled it once each day, bacteria never ruined it, and thus he required no refrigerator.  He gathered water each day from a spring nearby.  (In modern communities suffering from water shortage, e.g. Western cities like Las Vegas, he recommends cutting off easy individual access to water, requiring people to travel and get their own: the farther they travel, the less extra, unnecessary water they will be willing to bring back.)  His daily entertainment came from cutting wood (for the stove), running, visiting neighbors (or receiving visits from family members and students), and (especially) watching native wildlife (which he describes in great detail throughout the book, as you expect a good biologist to do).  He did not have a television or Internet.  He conducted numerous experiments, some personal (like his attempt to calculate the moon's orbit, a quantity known to science but unknown to him personally) and some professional (his original excuse for this excursion was a desire to see how ravens behave in the wild: he published his findings for scientists).  He was never afraid to get dirty--trapping rodents (which he then fed to ravens or cooked and consumed himself), tasting insects (which were always invading his little home: the strangest invaders were so-called "cluster flies," giant black flies that gathered in the crevices of the cabin over winter and came out in hordes every time it got warm), and mucking around in the outdoors (where he regularly collected roadkill and dead farm animals to feed his ravens).

Reading Heinrich's experience reminded me of Postman, largely because Heinrich strikes me as one of those happy moderns least affected by the diseases of modern civilization that Postman talks about.  At the end of the day, Heinrich knows how to take care of himself better than most people.  He has practical know-how that is increasingly rare in modern life, which is supposed to work better the less each individual knows about doing for himself, and the more he knows about serving society (with increasingly hyper-specialized skills).  Heinrich also has remarkable psychological contentment--though he alludes offhand to his ex-wife (who presumably wasn't down with moving off into the wilderness), and wood-madness (what happens when you live too long as a forest hermit away from other people).  Unlike many people, he is not worried about business or politics: Wall Street and Washington are far from his consciousness, whether as sources of goodies to harvest or sins to protest (chief among these the withholding of goodies).  If the economy tanks, his woodland home will still be there, and he will still be able to live in it.  He is not "on the dole" with the rest of modern civilization, sucking the teat of the giant behemoth that is Society (supply-and-demand, proletariat and bourgeois, presided over by the divine Hand of Adam Smith or the corporate Consciousness of Karl Marx).

It strikes me that much of modern society lives "on the dole."  Employed or not, all of us depend on others to do for us in really basic ways (e.g. providing access to food, shelter, and clean clothing).  Increasingly, this dependence is not a luxury (the way it often has been throughout history), but an expectation: we even get some people talking about it as a "right" (which seems idiotic to me).  Confronted with problems, we demand that specialists come in and save us from life (whether unpredictable forces of nature, our own incompetence, or the incompetence of someone else near us).  We throw tantrums (occupying Wall Street, joining the Tea Party) instead of fixing the root of the problem (our individual attitude and aptitude).  Our established organizations of social control (government, schools, churches, businesses) play to our infantilism, cultivating citizens who vote for suck-ups (who in turn promise them the world on a silver platter), students who care more about getting ahead temporarily than actually learning anything about real life (that might be hard, not to mention pay small short-term dividends), worshipers who think that piety is doing whatever some guru (or book written by gurus) says, and customers who are supposed to sit back and be "needy" (since Keynesians value consumption over production).  The result is that we are always feeling helpless, frustrated, and worried.  No one likes living on the dole, whether that means being a wage-slave (some of whom make millions) or a homeless bum.  Better to live in a wilderness with no amenities.

A final thought.  Heinrich is just like us modern civilized folk in many respects: he uses a lot of the same technology, and relies on other people to help him with things he cannot provide.  The difference, as I see it, is that he engages his own life much more continuously and thoughtfully than we do.  He asks for help with problems that he has already attempted to solve on his own, problems that many of us would never recognize because we have already called specialists in to take care of everything without doing our own diagnosis.  We sit around passively, waiting for life to happen to us (and complaining when it happens badly).  Heinrich goes out to meet it.  We never know what we are capable of, and we feel frustrated, alienated from ourselves (and one another), and helpless.  Heinrich sees what he can do every day, and is empowered even by failure (which for someone like him is a kind of learning).  We are helpless in the hands of our tools, which have created a culture that controls us.  Heinrich is the master of his tools, which he uses to make culture.

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