I’m going to tell you something few people know about me: I have a mechanical engineering degree. You know, with that little secret out you would think that I am a huge tech fan, but it’s quite the opposite! I used to be one of those tech nerds that loved every new gizmo and technology that came out on the market. But, now that I am older and wiser, I have come to the realization that most of our technology is not only costly but also highly unsustainable for the future. So, if it isn’t costing you, it will probably end up costing your children and subsequent generations.
This is not to depress you, but to make you more aware. When I see things like this article on “The 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering,” I have to scoff. The idea behind this is to pick the technological advances that can help us survive on the planet in the future much better. If you really want my opinion, we need less technology and more common sense.
We Live in an Unsustainable Culture
The idea that technology is going to save us from the very survival crisis it has created is ludicrous. Why do we have global warming? Is it because the sun got hotter or because there are more fossil fuels being used on the planet? When we run out of water in our cities is it because of drought or poor water management and over-development? When our farmers don’t produce crops anymore because the government would prefer to pay them not to farm, then how is technology going to resolve a food crisis? If the technology we use for our cars, cell phones, computers, inkjet printers, and more end up in our landfills poisoning our environment, how is more technology supposed to save us?
Why Simplification is the Answer
Yesterday my daughter saw the most useless piece of technology for sale at the supermarket: a device to pull the tabs off the soda cans to open them. I’m surprised it didn’t come battery-operated. My daughter’s comment: You have to be really lazy to use one of those! But, daily we use devices that are supposed to make our lives easier or more exciting: electric toothbrushes, door bells, GPS devices, electric coffeepots, microwave ovens – you name it! These are not really even necessary devices, they tend to break easily and end up in some poor third world countries’ landfills, like China, who didn’t even have the benefit of enjoying them while they were working. The American consumer culture is completely unsustainable and it’s an embarrassment when we use our technology addiction to justify the slow poisoning of our environment, if not our neighbors’ environments. Yes, technology is the gift that keeps on giving – environmental nightmares, that is.
Is it Even Convenient?
The big story line we are handed when one of these devices or technologies comes on the market is that it’ll make our lives easier. And we usually buy it: hook, line, and sinker. As an example, a friend of mine was extolling the virtues of her GPS system to me until she actually had to use it to visit me from Georgia to North Carolina. She spent two hours trying to find my house using the GPS system (once she was actually within my city limits) because she apparently wasn’t able to read a map any longer. The reason for this waste of time? The GPS system can’t tell when two streets that are close together don’t actually meet so all the little “short-cuts” it suggested ended up being dead-ends. Sounds kind of like a metaphor for our ideas about technology. We are so intent on getting to the short-cut we waste tons of time actually getting anything good done. In the end, it’s not a convenience, it’s a distraction. And, really, that’s what all good technology is really meant to do. It’s meant to distract you from the actual condition of your life so you don’t sit up and wonder: Hey? How come my air is dirtier? Why is my city water running out? Why is my food poisoned? Do I actually need to be paying $80/month on cable? Wouldn’t I be happier with less? Couldn’t I simplify my life and do more for my community? Wouldn’t it be great if I spent that money to find some sustainable way to enhance my community instead?
The Digital Picture Frame
If you still don’t believe that technology is going to cost you in the end, think about the newest addition to our air-head technology improvements: The digital picture frame. Now, instead of taking the trouble to change out your paper pictures, you can buy a digital picture frame and download images to it and have it go through them automatically. I think that’s the gist of this newest toy. At any rate, the cost of this baby? You can expect to pay $60 to $100 dollars to buy a picture frame – one picture frame. A picture frame that you could take used popsicle sticks and make one for nothing with more charm. But, that’s not the point. The point is that now you can get multiple digital picture frames and when they fizz out, like all good electronics with limited lifespans do (so you can be sure to go out and buy another), then we can give them to China to make a bigger mess as a show of international camaraderie. I say, just don’t buy one. Make sure the manufacturers of these techno-horrors get the message: We don’t want your techno-trash. Not us. Not our neighbors. Not our children.
*Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons license by CP