I woke up today, not because my alarm went off, but because the house was so quiet. We had lost power sometime during the night and nothing was on. Nothing.
No phone to ring. No coffee maker to brew my morning potion. No computer to download my email or Facebook updates. No Wi-Fi to use with my phone or other gadgets. No treadmill to start the day with cardio. No hot water for a shower or to wash dishes. No garage door opener to set my car free. No air conditioner to cool the air once the sun comes up and things heat up. No lights to allow me to clearly see anything inside the house. No radio, television, or DVD player to entertain me.
Some of these situations were welcome, yet most were frustrating! I don’t mind not having the phone ring but I do mind not having my morning coffee or shower. (I assume those I live with would also prefer I have access to those things.)
I immediately thought about how to start my day with my typical routine even without power. I could walk to the coffee emporium down the street, thus getting in both my cardio and my morning caffeine without using the car. I would miss my morning radio programs on NPR and thought of using one of my gadgets to run the NPR app – but they need Wi-Fi to work. Oh well. I allowed myself to sleep in – not a typical choice for me.
Sociologically, what was happening here? I chose to abandon my usual morning rituals that help me start my day simply because my house had no power. At the end of my last Introduction to Sociology class, I challenged the students to spend a day without using their usual technology, in essence, without ”power”. Here I was faced with the same challenge and my first choice was to do nothing but sleep.
This might signal my need for more sleep but it also points out how much I depend on technology to live my daily life. I do have many things I could do when power is absent even for an extended time: eat meals outside, read, weave or knit. But most of what I spend my time doing (including writing this blog) involves using technology that depends on power.
We humans invent technology to help us do what we want to do. We want to control something better so we invent technologies to do just that. The irony is that technology often then turns around and controls or limits what we do. We depend on it and it then shapes our options and limits our experience. It creates the mental boxes that we then operate within. People who can “think outside the box” are those who can imagine life outside the strictures of our present technologies.
We can experience going off the grid by living through a power outage or natural disaster or by camping. In those times, we may go back to use previous technologies which may feel quaint or even fun, but only if we don’t have to use them for any extended period of time. I did find my corded dial telephone that I kept once we went to a cordless phone. I plugged it in and was able to have phone service since we still have a landline, not an internet based phone line.
Our technologies are not often the labor saving devices that we intend them to be. Rather, they change our cultural standards and add in more tasks or labor for us. Ruth Schwarz Cowan’s book, More Work for Mother, explores how household technologies actually created more work for women, less work for men, children, and paid help, and increased standards for cleanliness and household work in general.
Our technologies are connected to the larger society and to political and economic realities. Technology does not exist in a vacuum; indeed, it is part and parcel to our economic functioning. We create new technologies to spur our economic power and our economic power depends on technological innovation.
Our late-capitalist economy needs new technologies to increase growth and keep investors happy with increasing profit margins. Without new technologies creating new markets and lowering the cost of production and materials, profit would come from further exploitation of workers.
Since the search for inexpensive labor has already been gone global, it doesn’t appear that many more human sources of cheap labor are available without further impoverishing the middle and lower working classes. Thus, technological innovation is the lifeblood of today’s potential for power within the capitalist economic system.
Two issues arise here for me as I use my sociological imagination to try to understand this.
First, cultural lag explains that while we invent technologies, we may not really know how to best use them since our culture changes more slowly than does our technology. Our lives depend on many technologies that may not be in our best interests, yet we buy them and use them without concern for their impact. Adopting various technologies can create strain within our culture as it changes our lives in unanticipated ways.
Second, this all connects with the question of capitalism as a viable economic system. As I am writing this, there is more evidence that we are indeed at the end-stages of the capitalist economic cycles, as Marx predicted and Wallerstein elaborated. This, of course, does not mean that life is over. It simply means that we must acknowledge that our economic system is no longer working nor will it be fixed by small tweaks to the system.
When you consider that the poorest of us (and, over time, more of us) may not have access to most of the technologies of the day, how might those people be able to compete in the marketplace? How might their children be prepared for work in society when they don’t grow up with these technologies and don’t know how to use them with any expertise? Does this create more of a permanent underclass and one that is comprised of a larger (and growing) percentage of the population? How will our society survive without a viable economic structure to ensure that the people will have the means to provide for themselves?
How else might our technological dependence relate to our economic woes? Better yet, how might we restructure our economic system to sustain technological innovation yet not further impoverish workers?
Use your sociological imagination to ponder such large questions, since what we experience personally connects with societal dynamics and historical contexts.