“Before technology was even invented…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? It’s that observation-based-on-a-hazy-notion-of-history, the time of “yore” so usefully deployed by Phoebe—or was it Rachel?—in an episode of Friends to describe the origin of a putative antique: it was made in Yore.

I’ve written before about that historical time, so shrouded in the mists of the past and of the student mind. Despite the noble efforts of the school system, Americans in general have a rather shaky notion of history; nevertheless, we like to invoke its lessons and examples (accurately or otherwise) to justify all kinds of things. The past lends GRAVITAS. In this assumption, students are just like all the rest of us.

They want to put their ideas into an historical context to make them important, serious, significant. I appreciate that. The problem arises when the historical context is something comically vague, or comically wrong, or downright bizarre—as it was in this student’s paper.

He was writing about electronic communications: specifically, cell-phone calls, emails, and texts. We had talked in class about the changes these resources had made in the way we lived our daily lives, exchanged information or affection with each other, made contact with our fellow creatures. Then I had asked the class to write an essay that answered this question: Through our embrace of modern technology, have we become complicitous in our own isolation, almost agoraphobia?

My student wanted to defend our near-constant use of technological devices for communication, arguing that they enable us to be not isolated but actually more closely connected than ever before. That’s an argument that can be made, of course.

But he undercut his own effectiveness from the very beginning, because he felt he had to establish the contrasting image of those dark ages “before technology was even invented” (as if starting a fire by striking two appropriate rocks together or creating friction with a bow-drill were not technology). And the way he defined that pre-tech time was… well, you decide:

“Before technology was even invented, one would have to send a letter that would be carried by a man on a horse.”

Communication with someone not in the same room depended on three components, you see: a letter, a man, and a horse—the man carrying the letter and the horse carrying the man. Any other means could not succeed. Clearly the illiterate could not communicate at all (drums, smoke, beacon fires, and other non-script communications not counting). Those who could write letters but who were not men with horses, or who had no access to “a” man with a horse (so much for stagecoaches, not to mention ships), or who could not afford to employ said man, were out of luck. Could next-door neighbors simply hand their letters across the fence, or did even they have to find that obliging equestrian? People who lived in places where horses did not exist or, alternatively, existed but were not tamed to the saddle were, obviously, out of luck.

So what “technology” are we talking about here? Maybe the telephone and the telegraph machine, both of which inventions supplemented and then began to supplant letters—and both of which were faster than a man on a horse, or even a man on a bicycle or in a car, once that technology (!) was invented. I certainly hope my student had at least that time in mind, and wasn’t thinking of the invention of the computer or the cell phone as the advent of technology, because if he was thinking of the computer age as the dawn of technology (and many of my students do) then he was imagining this busy man-on-a-horse serving his very grandparents’ social and business needs, and that is a notion of history not merely bizarre but downright terrifying.

In all likelihood, my student wasn’t thinking in specific terms at all when he wrote this sentence. Something called “technology” that was his subject, a vague figure like a Pony Express rider thundering across the plains with mail in his saddlebags or perhaps a royal messenger galloping through Sherwood Forest, scrolled message held aloft in one hand and reins in the other, as a contrast to two thumbs dancing across tiny letter keys to ask “U hungry?” or remark “ROTFL.” And the contrast was, after all, his subject, his point; the rest of the image was mere launch-pad.

He didn’t expect me, his ever-hopeful reader, to spend more time thinking about the sentence than he had. But if he had spent more time, the essay would have begun better.

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! This image of the stamp accompanies the description of

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! (This image of the stamp accompanies the description of “Pony Express” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Pony-Express and can of course be found on hundreds of other sites as well.)

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““Before technology was even invented…”

  • ultimatelibrophile

    A wonderful post, RAB! I think you touch upon two very important and related points in this post.

    The first is the relevance of the education system. Never having been to the US, I cannot comment on the American Educational System but as an Indian student, I can say that our educational system doesn’t seem to be providing students with the skills and knowledge that a student needs to live in the real world. The syllabi are not relevant to the current scenario and as I understand, many education systems in the world have similar issues.

    The second, and related, point is the absence of critical thinking abilities in today’s students. Students are being trained to pass exams and get scores but not being trained in the art of extracting meaning from information. As you pointed out, they have a very narrow perception of the word “technology” and this is due to the fact that this word has only been used to refer to mobile phones and tablets but having read about the aqueducts in Rome or the drainage system of the Indus Valley Civilisation, they are not able to perceive the same as “technology” simply because the word has not been used.

    Thank you for writing this post as I hope it is posts like this that will help bring about a change.

    • RAB

      Thank YOU for this wonderful comment. Yes, I’m afraid the educational system has fallen into the hands of politicians and bean-counters, at least in the U.S. What can’t be quantified is irrelevant or nonexistent; thinking is threatening; students shouldn’t be discouraged by being given difficult challenges, they say. Well, here the late 1960s showed the country what could happen when a lot of well-educated young people start to think critically, and then decide they can and should DO something to correct the problems they see. “Enough of that,” said the powers-that-be. And since the new “values” make life easier for students and more flattering for the parents, we slide little by little into intellectual impotence and narcissism. I don’t really blame the young: after all, their elders are supposed to guide them. That they have bad guides is a tragedy for them, for their nation, and for the future of humanity.

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