Low-Tech Fun

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Thursday, August 15, 2013

Low-Tech Fun

LANDER, WYOMING. Since I'm attending a conference in Butte, Montana next week (more about that in a future column), I flew west this past Monday to visit my son and his family here in Wyoming.

Lander sits at the feet of the Wind River Mountains with 12,000 foot peaks visible from town. Fly Rod + Reel magazine lists it as one of the top ten trout towns in America. And so inevitably when visiting in the warmer months, we venture out into the mountains with backpacks, cameras, and fishing rods.

This trip was no exception and had the added distinction of being our grandson's first backpacking trip -- at age 14 months.

When hiking closer to home in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, cell phones can remain on and active. In the Winds, there's no way. It's far out of service range so I shut off the smart phone and left in the glove compartment of the car that we parked at the trailhead.

That's right, though it was only one overnight, I did it entirely without the help of technology. In fact, the highest tech we had (aside from cameras) was the gas backpacking stove, which broke leaving us to cook over a campfire. Talk about low tech.

While I realize that many people go through withdrawal when deprived of cell phones, iPads, and other means of being constantly connected, I didn't mind at all. After all, the weather was good, the company was great, the scenery was spectacular, and the fish were cooperative and tasty. What more could I ask for? Oh, yes, a comfortable bed. I could ask for a comfortable place to sleep, but besides that, I was set.

In the process, I couldn't help but be reminded of a conference I attended a couple of weeks ago called "Shaping the Industrial Internet." The "industrial internet" -- aka: the internet of things, the cloud of things, the smart planet, and a few others -- is the networking of everything. Sensors in the road, in your car, and in everyone else's car to ensure a safe trip. Refrigerators that know that the milk has expired and order replacement bottles. Home thermostats controlled with your smart phone. WiFi cameras that post your snapshots to Facebook automatically. And tens of thousands of other industrial, business and personal applications.

We talked a lot about privacy that in the European Union is considered a fundamental human right and in China is considered a vexing problem. And while technical, ethical, political, and policy issues abound, but don't expect any of that to stop anything. Mountains of data already exist about you including that you're visiting this site and reading this page. If you're reading on a smart phone or tablet, your location is also being recorded. It's astounding.

Astounding and more than a little bit frightening, hence the questions about privacy, how data can be used, and who can use it. It makes me, at least, look at all these useful devices (I'm writing this column on my iPad) in a new and mildly suspicious light. Doing without all that connectivity for a couple of days was, as a result, a bit of a relief.

Am I becoming an old fogey Luddite? I don't think so. I'm happy to have the conveniences of smart phone, tablet, and my brand new computer (finally). FaceTime when I'm away from my grandson is the greatest invention ever.

That being said, as Calvin College professor Quentin Schultz wrote in his book Habits of the High-Tech Heart, "We love to presume that our newest contraptions will equip us to engineer a better world. We thereby display an enormous capacity for collective self delusion, because the same machines that appear to give us a greater command of life are harder and harder for us to control. [Vaclav] Havel writes that 'as soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.'"

Schultz argues that in order to live, as he says, "virtuously in the Information Age," we need to carefully assess the technologies around us to use them wisely without losing our humanness in the process. A few days in the wilderness cooking over an open fire, sleeping on the ground, and trying to outsmart skittish trout all in as low tech a manner as possible is a useful reminder and a great way to reconnect with that essential humanness.