Monday, September 21, 2009


This article caught my attention yesterday - our hunger for electricity to power our "personal electronics" has grown so insatiable that very soon the United States will need to build "the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants," according to the International Energy Agency. Since 1980 - when, on average, there were three "personal electronic" devices per house, that number has grown to about 25. And - this one floored me - the amount of energy the nation uses to power "gaming systems" whose players are unwilling to turn them off at night (lest they "lose" the current game they are playing) is equivalent to the annual usage of the entire city of San Diego, the nation's ninth largest city.

The move to electricity was once hailed as a near-miraculous liberation from "drudgery." Freeing humans from the need any longer to do the basic chores of the household that once required muscle, endless vistas of newly-won leisure were upon us. We no longer had to cut our grass, mix the batter, sweep the floor, cut the turkey - any host of menial household tasks - using our muscles. No longer did we have to snap our wrists to produce a breeze from the fan, or wind a clock, or look in the back of a closet in the search for the elusive tie, with the creation of devices that relieved us at every turn of the drudgery of employing our muscles.

It was thought that this new era of liberation from drudgery would free us for new pursuits which our grandparents might only have imagined. Leisure to pursue crafts, hobbies, to read, write, learn, worship, spend ever better quality time with family and neighbors. Instead, we have seen the exponential rise of the use of electronics for the use of "personal entertainment" devices, ones that largely exist to distract us during the relatively more ample leisure time that we now enjoy as a result of our electronic liberation. The very source of our liberation - electricity - became the conduit for a kind of mindless servitude, the bread-and-circus programming intended to keep us occupied and distracted from anything resembling actual thought about the implications of what we were doing.

Those acts of drudgery that we overcame were inherently educative: they taught us about the natural rhythms of life and nature, the circularity of time and lifespan, the basic needs of life and their connections to all the matters of the created world. In tilling the soil and preparing our food, in working to preserve what was available now what we knew might not be present in the future, we learned virtues of thrift and foresight, prudence and moderation. Yes - we were taught in the first pages of the Bible that to work by the sweat of our brow was a consequence of the Fall, a burden that had been laid upon man for transgression in our first state. Yet, to recognize the fact of such work as a basic and inescapable condition of humanity was to reconcile ourselves to the conditions of the world, to make us prone to satisfaction with what is, rather than dissatisfied with what is not. It taught us to appreciate blessings small and large, a piece of ripe fruit, an evening of leisure in song and story, a small bed of flowers that pointed to our love of beauty that transcended mere utility.

Our liberation, and current forms leisure through electronic distraction and stimulation, also contains inherent lessons. Many of those forms of electronic distraction are meant solely to stimulate our senses, to offer an incessant cascade of colors and images and sounds that are intended to excite the basic hedonistic centers of our cortex. Further - in offering us an ever-escalating intensity of stimulation, this form of sensory distraction stimulates a kind of stimulation addiction. Like a heroin addict, we need ever more and purer highs to achieve the satiation that was once available to us with less. Not only do we now have over 20 new gadgets in our houses than thirty years ago, but hundreds of channels, countless games, ever-present tools of "communication." A colleague begins his course by accusing his students of addiction to their electronics. When they deny this is the case, he passes around a box and asks for volunteers to give up their cellphones for the semester. The box always returns empty.

Furthermore, our leisure is no longer leisured. Leisure at its best is a time and space apart from the world of necessity. Today, much of our electronically primed "leisure" is largely another opportunity for commerce, specifically advertising. In our "retreat" from drudgery we are inundated with images and sounds and temptations that urge us to want more, to crave more deeply, to ache more longingly for that possession that finally will fulfill us. Our leisure is a boot camp for consumerism, a training-ground for , an incitement to conditions of indebtedness and spendthriftiness. As the historian Lendol Carter has written (Jason Peters' colleague at Augustana), "The original promise of industrialism was that it bring people more time not for leisure, not more money for goods. Goods we now have, but little time for leisure.... To be sure, credit-driven consumerism offers moments of indulgence and excess. But the apparatus of credit ensures that consumerism is also a goad for more work. This has made American middle-class life today less a playground for hedonists than an extension of Max Weber's 'iron cage' of disciplined rationality."

What we learn in our leisure flows without obstacle into our political selves, manifested particularly in our dissatisfaction with current conditions and our expectation for constant "product improvement." So we find ourselves unjustly burdened and inconvenienced by any discomfort or obstacle to our happiness, and hold the government accountable for our dissatisfaction. We come to demand government activity in all spheres of life to relieve what might otherwise have been accepted as basic conditions of life (e.g., our right to constant MRIs), no matter the cost to future generations.

Of course, this last is the ultimate lesson of our electronic binge: for, at its root, it is a power that has been given to us by geologic time, the inheritance of ages that preceded us in the millions of years. In the burning of coal, the firing of natural gas, the half-lives of uranium, we use this inheritance constantly without replenishment, claiming for ours what no generation can truly own, but which our generation has usurped without permission. We draw down this eon-old inheritance in the belief that we alone are entitled (first) to liberation from drudgery, and (second) to a right to distraction from attentiveness. Ours is a right to sloth, paid for by debts to be paid by our children and theirs. For, certainly, eventually we will build those 560 coal powered plants or 230 nuclear power stations, because to do otherwise would be to deprive ourselves of the right to press a button and have our will be done. Wendell Berry has written that if we could invent a steam shovel to pick up a dime we had dropped on the street, we would do it. What we are doing is inventing an endless string of devices to obscure from ourselves the viciousness of our actions. The first thing we'll do when the power goes off is to blame the government at the same time we demand it fix the problem. We are truly, in every sense of the word, a nation of addicts.


Beowulf said...

This post reminds me of Ivan Illich book "Energy and Equity", where he clarifies from the very beginning that, contrary to the common belief, "high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu".

He stated long ago that "Participatory democracy postulates low-energy technology. ", so it works the other way round, increases in energy consumption can be a way to sort out lack of democracy and concentration of power.

Kane said...

Standard fare, in which you notice that agrarians engaged in agrarian recreation that reinforced agrarian culture, and from this extrapolate that postindustrialists should be engaged in agrarian recreation that reinforces agrarian culture.

The patterns of video gaming are perfectly compatible and complimentary with the time-cycles of modern life: quick, basic browser flash games to fill the 3-30 minute gaps common to office work where you're waiting for something else to happen (and the newer wave, tuned to keep people coming back and looking at ads every day, are fundamentally middle management-style task management and finite resource distribution, under some metaphor and some graphics); then 6pm to midnight is for high-fidelity online gaming, sessions that are easily as social, if less physical, than any barn-raising or bowling league.

Plus, like movies and novels before them, video games teach the modern lesson that you are the protagonist and all else disposable background; but with the game over/continue framework, they go further in establishing that your attempts at a goal that fall short are illegitimate and do not count, and the obstacle is to be repeatedly reassaulted until the proper outcome - your triumph - results. (Amirite?)

The Eastvold Blog said...

I do find it necessary to point out that the advent of electronics has liberated women to a much greater extent than men, since it has most often been women who have done the more lightweight but also more constant labor of cooking and cleaning. When you write of the past enjoyment of "an evening of story and song" before the electronic age, you most likely refer to a type of leisure made possible by women who were in the background preparing the meal (and cleaning up after it) and probably not having time to participate much in the "story and song." Where there are no electronic labor-saving devices, the "Mary-Martha problem" (as I would call it) always looms: women must choose between thought and contemplation and worship (except inasmuch as work itself is an act of worship), and completing the tasks that sustain the community.

So, as much as I agree with you about video games and other forms of "personal entertainment," I am loathe to condemn mixers, vacuum cleaners, and the like because I worry that without them, women would lose much of the ground they have gained in the last century in terms of showing that they are the intellectual equals of men, when given the opportunity. Unless, of course, men are willing to share equally in the menial household tasks...


Patrick Deneen said...

Katherine (Eastvold),
You should read Christopher Lasch's first-rate essay "The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs" in his edited book _Women and the Common Life_. In that essay he revisits Betty Friedan's _The Feminine Mystique_, arguing that women's discontent with life in the home was born in large measure because of the rise of household time-savers, and - relatedly - the alienation of the suburbs. He further argues that the discontent with and abandonment of this alienated life in the household brimming with modern conveniences led to a decline of women's previously (unpaid) participation in civic life, a rich form of meaning that has since been overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, since such activity resulted in no direct contribution to the GDP. (In this latter regard, see Neil Gilbert's terrific book "A Woman's Work.")

Your argument would be more persuasive if it could be shown that women's liberation from the household led to their "emancipation." However - as Wendell Berry has argued forcefully in his essay on "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," women were "liberated" to be able to join their male counterparts as wage or salaried laborers for businesses over which they exercised little actual control or could steer their destinies. The net result of this "emancipation" was to take people out of their homes - where once they governed their own affairs - and put them all collectively in the service of the economic system.

The conceit of your comment suggests that prior to electricity, women were drudges and men were liberated. Of course, everyone in the household was responsible for hard work - men, women, children - in that estate. If I offered a picture of pre-electric leisure, it was a leisure that was occasional and hard-won by everyone in the household. And even then, women might be knitting, men might be whittling, and children might be rubbing some callouses. While we shouldn't romanticize those harder times, nor should we condemn them as nothing more than prisons for women (or men). Everyone had work to do in and around the household, and people did them with a stoic sense of duty and even - on occasion at least - good cheer.