The book In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, by Jerry Mander, is packed full of valuable information and insight that everyone in technological cultures can benefit from. Two main topics are discussed in depth: the downside of technology, and the issues and effects of technology on aboriginal peoples.
I picked up this 400-page book at a thrift store because of both topics. I am always interested in the native people of North America, whom I have admired my whole life because of their traditional closeness to nature. I think I’ve always felt that the closer we are to nature, the more we are able to just “be”, and return to our spiritual connection. Not that it’s at all wrong to live in cities, but we forget some of the essentials of living, and lose peace of mind, the more we stay away from natural places. I am also increasingly suspicious toward technology that takes us away from nature and our relationships, and seems to have such a hypnotic, obsessive effect on so many. I want to understand how this happens.
The first part of the book that really caught my attention was an interesting scientific explanation of how we become mentally passive, even zoned-out, as we watch television. (You can read this here.) This is in contrast, the author says, to going to films at a theatre, listening to radio and reading books, all of which stimulate the imagination.
To set up the next discussion, the author describes in detail his own after-school boredom in a TV-less household. Boredom in this case is presented as a positive state, by the way, leading to creativity and valuable interactions with other people. His was similar in many ways to my own experiences growing up, and after reading his comments, I understand more why I feel a determination to return to that relatively unplugged lifestyle. In fact, I have a theory that some of the most creative artists, writers and musicians were born from the pre-TV age.
Mander’s comparison between our interactions with television and computers, and those with people and nature, is fascinating. He begins with a discussion in which he states that if TV-watching is a drug, we would think that it would be comparable to valium, but in actually, it is like speed. (The bulk of these discussions are here:1st page, 2nd page, 3rd page.)
Here are parts of his explanation of how we develop a kind of chronic mental hyperactivity—which is a reaction of boredom to the slow pace of real life—caused by the unnaturally fast mental processes of technology:
When watching television, the viewer is moved into a perceptual universe that is much, much faster than ordinary life. …You move from landscape, to sky, to humans in rapid succession. Young people are running toward you—Cut. Now they are on a beach—Cut. Now you are watching beer poured into a glass—Cut. Now music is playing—Cut. An announcer speaks from somewhere. Now you are in Europe. Now in Asia. There is a war, there is a commercial … All of this is jammed together in a steady stream of imagery, fracturing your attention while condensing time and mixing categories of reality, nonreality, and semireality.
This hyperactivated imagery continues for as long as a viewer is watching the screen. …Finally, the set goes off. The viewers are back in their rooms. Nothing is moving. The room does not rise up or whirl around. People do not suddenly flash on and off in front of them. It doesn’t become tomorrow or Yesterday in a flash. Actually, nothing at all is happening. There is simply the same room as before: walls, windows, furniture. Ordinary life and ordinary feelings and thoughts. Very slow, by comparison. Too slow. Anxiety sets in.
Having lived in the amazingly rapid world of television imagery, ordinary life is dull by comparison, and far too slow. But consider how it affects one’s ability to be in nature. The natural world is really slow. Save for the waving of trees in the wind, or the occasional animal movement, things barely happen at all. To experience nature, to feel its subtleties, requires human perceptual ability that is capable of slowness. It requires that human beings approach the experience with patience and calm.
Life in the modern world does not encourage that; it encourages the opposite. Cars, planes, video games, faxes, Walkmans, television, computers, working and traveling on schedules dictated by assembly lines and offices—we in the Western world have attuned ourselves to rhythms that are outside of nature.
We are trained to seek satisfaction in the packaging that technology provides. Big “hits.” We live in a world of constant catharsis, constant change, constant unrest. While out in the real world, in nature, we become anxious and uncomfortable. We desire to get back indoors, to get that TV set back on, to get “up to speed.”…We are all being sped up. The natural world has retreated beyond our awareness. We hear people say that nature is boring, and it is clear why they say this. We don’t know how to be with it. We are not slow enough.
This fascinates me, because I have long wondered why all of a sudden there are so many hyperactive kids (and adults), and I suspect that it isn’t a coincidence that this started at about the same time as television watching became the norm and the use of personal computers rose drastically.
What I find so sad is the overnight changes in the native people that are relayed in the latter part of the book (a small part of that discussion is here: 1st page, 2nd page).
When I look at the fact that this book was published 22 years ago in 1991, I cringe to think that if things were like this in 1991, how much worse must they be now. I don’t think we realize what we are missing by spending so much time on technological activities (many of which are pointless), because many have not known anything different. But I hope and pray that we will open our eyes as individuals, parents, families and society, and do two things: turn these technologies into tools that truly serve us and benefit the human race, and unplug more so we can get outside more. Maybe this book and others like it can be a starting point.