the trade

In 1970, Gary Snyder published a book of poems called Regarding Wave.  In it was “The Trade”:

I found myself inside a massive concrete shell
lit by glass tubes, with air pumped in, with
levels joined by moving stairs.

It was full of the things that were bought and made
in the twentieth century. Layed out in trays
or shelves.

The throngs of people of that century, in their style,
clinging garb made on machines,

Were trading all their precious time
for things.

Looking back, we were just getting started.  My generation spent like mad during the eighties and nineties.  As we age, we can look back at all of the things we bought along the way, no doubt regretting some of those transactions.

While consumerism is still the driving force of our economy, there are noticeable differences in the spending patterns of younger generations.  Less “stuff” and more experiences — and sizable expenses on technology and content in all of its forms.

They aren’t alone there.  Many of us geezers also are slaves to our devices and the constant flow of data in one form or another.  Thus, “the trade” of today is a bit different, and it has two parts.

The first is the trading off of our time and attention.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, since you’ve witnessed it firsthand.  We check our phones an astounding number of times per day and have a difficult time going without them.  In many cases, conversation has become stunted, solitude a forgotten joy, and the inspiration that often springs from sheer boredom doesn’t happen, because we need to check out the latest meme, gossip, or screed online.

I work on my own, with a bunch of screens that are used heavily most days.  Yet I’m never as creative as when I get away from them.  Thus, I’m always struggling to find a balance.  (I’ve been at the balancing act for awhile; nine years ago I wrote something about the relative benefits of the cave and the flow.)

From time immemorial, new technologies have been bemoaned as they challenged the old ways.  (It happened with the telegraph, for example.  And the protagonist in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf said that radio “would be of no more service to man than as an escape from himself and his true aims, and as a means of surrounding himself with an ever closer mesh of distractions and useless activities.”)  But, we’ve never before had anything as addictive, widespread, and always-on as the digital devices of today.

We’ve seen an increase in alienation and polarization during the smartphone era, and we’ve all seen people whose lives seem directed by their phone rather than by purpose or those around them.  (Of course, none of us fall into that category.)

But there is another part of the trade that is just as troubling, perhaps more so.

The saying goes that if a program you’re using is free, you are the product.  We are in an era of surveillance capitalism.  Our information is valuable and revealing, but we freely offer it through our phones, our computers, our TVs, our electronic personal assistants, our credit card purchases, etc.  It is being used to manipulate us to become ever more distracted and divided and primed for product pitches.

(By the way, our cell phone numbers, which we give out as part of our information for virtually all of the media mentioned above, have become de facto unique identifiers, allowing the data to be knitted together and providing an ever more nuanced picture of our activities and vulnerabilities.)

Our devices are wondrous tools that I wouldn’t want to give up.  But we haven’t figured out how to use them rather than having them use us.  It is time to think more deeply about the trade we are making.

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