Wanted: a vacation from innovation

I woke up this morning to the sound of an electric alarm. The first thing I did was turn on my radio. After shaving with an electric shaver, I quickly got dressed and checked my personal organizer. Minutes later, after zipping my magnetized student ID card through the “checker,” I was granted access to the cafeteria for breakfast. Currently, as I write my column, I am sitting in a quiet room full of people staring at computer screens in absolute silence. Rip van Winkle better not wake up in today’s world; he might suffer a fatal heart attack.
We live in an age of paradoxes. Technology has become one of our proudest accomplishments. Thanks to our intelligence, we have designed machines to make our lives more manageable. However, in doing so, we have complicated our lives to the extent that we feel inadequate, almost incomplete without our gadgets. Thus, the great irony of the modern age is born: We create wonderful machines thinking they will lead us toward happiness, but instead we feel them pushing us further and further into a strange unease.
We tout this age as one based on information. But despite our ability to gather vast amounts of data, we have a lingering doubt about our ability to handle it. Our telephones, modems and fax machines have given us unimaginable ease in gathering information, but we feel less and less able to deal with it. Telephones made it possible for people to interact at great distances. Then came cellular phones, which further tied us down. Finally, pagers came to permanently make sure we are never very far away from the action. We are captives of our own inventions.
There are times in our lives when we wonder if modern life is a convenience or a futile exercise in escapism. What would we do if our computer screens went blank, our phone lines went dead and our television sets became inoperable? The sad truth is we would have little use for our lives. Without our lifeless creations, we are incomplete.
Even then, the romantic in each one of us finds it irresistible to undertake some foolishly impossible journeys into the world of imagination. Every once in a while we close our eyes and imagine sitting in a place where alarms are quiet and telephones don’t ring. It is our perfect world, where time moves with our discretion, rather than the other way around. This is why we create a thing called “vacation” and spend huge sums of money to go to a different country so we can “get away from it all.”
It is this feeling that has lodged at the bottom of our souls like a dull ache, a yearning of sorts. Our imagination of this perfect world contrasts sharply with the imperfection of the world in which we live. Every morning we repeat a well-rehearsed routine of our mad-rush, everyday lives. It seems we never have enough time for all the things that need to be accomplished.
Sometimes one wonders if we have made our lives too complicated. In our quest for material pursuits we have forgotten humans are not the parents of machines, but merely their creators. Our computers have gotten faster and faster, and in the process we have painfully realized we are unable to keep up with them.
For example, I want to buy a computer but hesitate because I fear it will be outdated in six months. No matter how hard I try, I always risk running late. And yet, I have to keep up with the competition; I cannot afford to do otherwise. My inner clock tells me to slow down, to take a deep breath and relax. But everything seems to rush past me; it is as if life is a movie I happen to be watching in fast forward.
It has become painfully clear how well we have reacted to this pressure: Rates of depression in industrial countries have doubled every ten years. Suicide is, after car accidents and homicides, the third most common cause of death in North American young adults. Fifteen percent of Americans have had a clinical emotional disorder. We are paying a price for our wonderful technology; it is time that our computers flash the following message: “You are only human.”
The cardinal principle of the electronic revolution is the individual. Personal interdependence has eroded over time. Television is perhaps the best example of a superb isolationist technology. The average American spends 28 hours a week sitting in front of a television set — that is 28 hours spent cut off from the world. All this when we have “too little” time.
Let us just accept that humans are not designed for modern life. For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved under the pressure of Darwinian forces in an environment that favored groups over individuals. That was an age when interdependence was the most successful strategy. But today, we are trying to delete from our genes eons worth of instinct in a matter of decades. How can such invasive surgery of the psyche not be painful?
The only conclusion that can be reached is this: It is unlikely that we will slow down. To our dismay, we find our technological brilliance at the helm of our lives and our instinct shackled somewhere in the galley. It is time to take a break and unplug our computers, television sets and phones. But as I type these few unpopular words of dissent on my computer, I know this will never happen. The medium which I depend on to speak my mind and the one which I am bemoaning are one and the same. Ironic, isn’t it?
Welcome to the 21st century.

Mustafa Khan’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily.