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Authenticity Over Technology
New Novel Explores Youthful Rejection of Techno-Isolation and Techno-Snobbery
Berkeley, Calif. author Charles Smith owns neither a cell phone nor an iPod, and he believes he is not alone in rejecting an “electronic cocoon” of what he calls America’s “techno-isolation.” Instant messaging, email, cell phones, gaming, Blackberrys and iPod listening provide what he calls a “consumerist illusion” of connection, friendships and control to the detriment of actual engagement with an authentically “lived-in” world of lasting friendships and physical skills.
Rather than viewing a rejection of technological immersion as backward-looking Ludditism, Smith points to young people such as Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone of Santa Cruz, Calif., as leaders in a nascent youth movement of liberation from the consumerism fostered by electronic and entertainment interests.
In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, high school junior Loeffler-Gladstone noted that she did not own a cellphone or iPod and added, “I don’t know how many times I have tried to initiate a conversation with a schoolmate with a hood up, only to find he or she hasn’t heard a word I’ve said because he or she was listening to an iPod.”
Such a one-sided exchange is not just a side-effect of cool technology; as Loeffler-Gladstone observes, “The simplicity of completely tuning out frightens me, because I think that it magnifies a social pandemic in our country.”
Smith’s new novel I-State Lines follows the cross-country adventures of two just such “techno-liberated” young men, Daz and Alex. When their cell phone gets run over on their second day on the road, their concern is not the lost phone but their parents’ anger at the cavalier way in which they managed to destroy it.
Later in the book, the Hispanic-Anglo Daz issues a heartfelt rant against what he views as a profit-driven scheme to keep consumers endlessly buying the next gimmick and next toy, effectively distracting them from the core emptiness of their lives.
“I’ve seen the malls and videos and beer commercials and I can’t believe that’s it, that’s all there is, to get a job and get all this electronic crap,” he says.
When questioned why he hates consumer electronics, Daz replies, “Because they’re bubble gum for the brain.”
While a youthful rebellion against techno-isolation draws the most media attention, Smith also notes that older, more thoughtful critics are also questioning the consequences of the nation’s technological obsessions. San Francisco critic Steven Winn recently penned an article entitled, “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out.” Though the title echoes a counterculture slogan of the late 60s, Winn is referring to the social isolation of what he calls “proliferating bubbles of self-contained consciousness.” Winn draws upon Christine Rosen, author of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, who writes, “In thrall to our own little technologically constructed worlds, we are, ironically, finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate genuine individuality."
Smith sees the emergence of “Pod people” as the consumerization of private experience; rather than engage in authentic friendships, travels and skills, young people are “falling for a simulated reality which is analogous to marshmallow—an emptiness with a nutritional value of basically zero.”
“Young people who have dozens of internet contacts eventually realize that these friends are as ephemeral as the electrons glowing on their laptop screen,” he says. In contrast, the two buddies in his novel share all the adventures and travails of true friendship—conflicts over where to go and how to deal with girlfriends—but as a result they develop the kind of enduring trust which can only be gained by engaging the real world together.
Smith is no techno-phobe; he points out that he purchased one of the first Apple Macintoshes in 1984, and writes all the code for his own weblog and website. “There is a huge quantitative difference between getting real work done on a computer and spending all your free time gaming, messaging or listening to your iPod,” he says. “It’s part of a larger social trend which I call techno-snobbery, in which programming your iPod is seen as an actual skill rather than an isolating waste of time.”
As part of the consumerist marketing of technology, Smith believes young people are being taught that life in a corporate cubicle is superior to one spent learning and practicing a hands-on trade. Referring to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article titled, “Who Will Fill Baby Boomers' Big Work Boots? Blue-Collar Jobs Losing Popularity Despite Good Pay,” Smith notes that the salary, job security and job satisfaction can be far higher for skilled physical laborers than the prototypical “Dilbert” cubicle worker, whose ranks are rapidly being thinned by outsourcing and global competitive pressures.
Smith, who worked his way through the University of Hawaii as a carpenter, observes, “You can’t outsource a carpenter or a pipefitter. The U.S. stills needs people who can build and maintain the nation’s essential infrastructure.”
As an expression of the intrinsic value of hands-on skills, Smith has his two characters work their way across the country, assisting a crusty auto mechanic in Kansas City and a carpentry crew of Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans in Sacramento.
“It’s a great irony that while the counterculture of the 60s and 70s is commonly denigrated as a bunch of doped-out hippies, in actual fact we revered self-reliance,” he says. “We learned to fix our own cars, grow our own vegetables, cook our own meals and build our own homes—all the skills which young people today often lack.”
There is another, more profound benefit in learning hands-on skills, Smith says; the process of taking a variety of jobs and learning new practical skills is “an essential part of finding one’s identity in the complex, constantly evolving world we live in.” While playing with iPods and other electronic toys only isolates young people, he says, “working in the real world with your own hands not only rewards you with practical life skills, it also helps you find and forge your own individuality and identity.”
I-State Lines publication date: April 2006
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All content and coding copyright © 2006 by Charles Hugh Smith, all rights reserved. The right to reprint or adapt this feature story is expressly granted to professional journalists working in any media or language.
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