A gadget life

A power outage led me to reflection.

by Trent M. Kays

Like many Minnesotans, I weathered the summer thunderstorm over the weekend. My apartment building lost power Friday night, and we didn’t get power back until 2 a.m. Sunday. My building was lucky to get power back so quickly. As of Tuesday morning, there were still 19,000 people in the Twin Cities without power.

I am mentally and physically prepared for power outages, loud thundering storms and terrifying climatic events. Still, as I sat in my living room Saturday morning with a dead smartphone and a sleeping cat, I mused about how reliant our society is on gadgetry and technology.

I wandered around my neighborhood looking for power. I saw many downed trees that blocked roads, crushed cars and destroyed sidewalks. I soon became frustrated because I couldn’t find a place with power. I observed a mess and people wandering aimlessly.

To be fair, many were probably just surveying the damage to their neighborhood; however, such surveying often appears to be aimless. Eventually, I happened upon a small coffee shop with copious electrical outlets and a nice barista. I charged my smartphone and laptop, I updated family and friends and I checked the power outage map.

The urge to find power and charge my gadgets was overwhelming, and I lament the control my gadgets had over me during the power outage. In many ways, my smartphone has become an extension of me. I use it to work, socialize, converse, text, photograph, browse the Internet and do numerous other life activities.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one searching for power. As I sat in the coffee shop, an elderly man talked to me about how he lost power at his house. We sat together for almost three hours; I said little, and he said a lot. We both charged our smartphones. While chatting, it occurred to me that reliance on contemporary technology — and by extension contemporary power — is an intergenerational issue. Despite the news punditry, this reliance isn’t beholden to the most recent generations.

Culturally, our gadgets are part of us. Certainly, technology has always been part of culture, though, perhaps, it is more noticeable now than ever before. But, gadgets and technology are always about more than just what they can do for users. Thomas J. Misa, noted historian of technology and author of “Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present,” argues: “[D]ebates about technology are rarely just about technical details, but rather are about the alternative forms of society and culture that these technical details might promote or deny.” Misa’s argument is correct. Our gadgets and technology — dependent on ubiquitous forms of power — not only allow us to operate our day-to-day lives but also allow us to intimately experience our culture and the cultures of others. They are ingrained in our thought.

As I considered my dead smartphone, I never understood it as integral to my work in the world. The power outage and my witnessing the aimless roaming of my neighbors in search of a powered electrical outlet crystallized for me the importance of our gadgets and technology in our day-to-day lives. Moreover, this experience reminded me — as it should all of us — our culture isn’t what it once was. I’m not sure if it is better or worse than it once was; it’s just different.

Whether we embrace it or not, our reliance on gadgets and technology is a defining characteristic of our culture. This is who we are now. Let’s celebrate it.