Pumping Irony: Technology and Disconnectivity

December 20th, 2008 | Category: Essays, Videos

Since I started riding a fixed-gear bicycle, people often ask me why? What’s the appeal? Well, one of the reasons that fixed-gears are so seductive is the direct connection one has to the distance traveled and the control of the motion. No matter the terrain or conditions, your body is always at work negotiating the ride. You are directly connected to your environment.

Walking to class the other day, I realized that I had the option of taking the elevator to class on the seventh floor and then going to the climbing gym to climb afterward. It struck me as odd that the two actions were completely disconnected. Getting to a higher floor in one building and the act of climbing up the wall in another were totally disassociated, even though they were essentially the same act.

Rebecca Solnit addresses a similar disconnection in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001), writing,

What exactly is the nature of the transformation in which machines now pump our water but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology? Has something been lost when the relationship between our muscles and our world vanishes, when the water is managed by one machine and the muscles by another in two unconnected processes? (p.263)

We drive cars to the gym to run miles on a treadmill. Inclement weather notwithstanding, why don’t we just run down the street? The activities are disconnected. If our culture is essentially technology-driven — or even a “decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology,” as Rem Koolhaas contends — then what kind of culture emerges from such disconnections between our physical goals and our technologically enabled activities?

Technology curates culture. So much of the alienation we feel from our technologically mediated “all-at-once-ness” (as McLuhan called it) comes from a disconnection between physical goals and technology’s “help” in easing our workload.

“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” Alice Kahn once quipped, “please press three.” As I hope is obvious (by the subject matter of much of this site), I’m not anti-technology, but I have been trying to grasp what exactly what our devices are doing to us, as well as the relationship between technology, culture, and people. Our devices are often divisive.

In a talk about his book 2012: The Return of Queetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006), Daniel Pinchbeck evokes Carl Jung’s idea of the “shadow” of the psyche, saying that a lot of what we’re seeing in the negative aspects and uses of technology is the projection of the shadow that we’ve failed to integrate into our collective psyche. He goes on to say that if this projection is resolved, technology could aid in the transformation of global consciousness, a shift from Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” to Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere,” wherein everyone online merges into one collective consciousness.

With that said, there are two types of dis/connection at work here: one between ourselves and our environment (e.g., pumping water vs. pumping iron) and one between ourselves and each other (e.g., individual distraction vs. global connection) with technology wedged in between in both cases.

Resolving these dangling disconnections is not a one-shot state of being but an ongoing process, one that will play out until the earth no longer supports us, and one that might not end up with all of our minds magically melded into one. Thankfully we have choices. We can take the stairs, run outside, talk to someone new. We can do the opposite of what we would normally do. Find the balance to corrupt the balance to find the limits. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Proceed.

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Here’s the aforementioned clip of Daniel Pinchbeck speaking in New York’s East Village in late 2007. [runtime: 4:44]:

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