Chosen Futures
  • Connected to What?

    January 16, 2012

    I still remember the phone number of my best friend when I was growing up, but I don’t know my husband’s cell phone number. Of course his number is in my phone, so I don’t need to remember it, but I also don’t have occasion to learn it by repeated dialing. Is this a gain or a loss? In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age (HarperCollins, 2010), William Powers brings the wisdom of an eclectic group of thinkers to the plusses and minuses of living in an age of increasing connectedness.

    The book’s title refers to the “tables” Hamlet uses in Act 1, Scene 5 to write down what he has heard from his father’s ghost. We moderns take no notice of this moment; we are used to keeping notes and reminders on pocket-size gadgets. Elizabethan theater-goers, on the other hand, would have recognized these writing tables as a popular new means of coping with the information overload of their time. Powers points out that these newfangled tables actually incorporated two much older inventions, wax tablets and handwriting, and he reminds us that new technology does not necessarily make old technology obsolete. His own favorite handheld device is a Moleskine® notebook, which warms up much faster than any electronic device and offers few distractions from the observation he wants to capture right now.

    Socrates and Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan are the mixed group of advisors Powers surveys. The common theme is connectedness, especially how people in previous times of rapid, even chaotic change coped, grumbled, and experimented with new technologies of connection from writing (which Socrates distrusted) to modern media. Powers argues that it often took a generation or two for a society to incorporate a new technology so it would effectively help human beings connect with each without becoming overwhelmed by all the information coming their way. He gives examples of early adopters and proto-luddite skeptics in relation to writing, international mail (in Roman times), printing, railroads, the telegraph, and the increasing speed and density of cities from ancient Athens to the present day.

    Powers argues that we 21st Century humans can be happier and more productive by making choices about how and when to connect with the breadth of information and potential relationships in the world and when to go deep into actual relationship, including relationship with ourselves and our thoughts and feelings. He describes his own family’s choice to turn off their modem on Friday nights and leave it off until Monday morning and the positive results not only in shared family activities but in clearer thinking and greater creativity. His suggestions remind us that we don’t have to wait a generation or two to come up with solutions to our modern (electronic) servant problem, we can thoughtfully choose our own definition of a good life and take steps to live it now.

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  • Styrofoam and Curiosity

    January 02, 2012

    I was walking my dog shortly after Thanksgiving of 2009 when I crossed a trail of polystyrene pellets (commonly known as Styrofoam). It was garbage collection day, so I figured that when the truck picked up the garbage, a packing box tipped or fell and pellets scattered in the wind. Feeling somewhat self-righteous, I picked up a fair number of them, stuffed them in one of the plastic bags I carry for cleaning up after the dog, brought them home, and put them in my garbage – inside the plastic bag. I knew they aren’t recyclable, even in San Francisco, and I knew they don’t biodegrade, so I figured they were better off in landfill than drifting into San Francisco Bay.

    Over the next few days, I spotted quite a few more pellets, and I picked up a lot of them. Some of them were newly scattered, some seemed to be the residue of the first spill. The weeks between Thanksgiving and January 1 are actually high season for polystyrene gathering. A lot of gifts get shipped in that period, many of them are packed in pellets, and a lot of the stuff gets thrown away. The rest of the year there’s far less of it around, although I can usually tell when someone in the neighborhood has had a birthday or is getting married. Picking up pellets and larger pieces of polystyrene packaging has become a hobby for me, or maybe it has become an eccentricity.

    After two years of picking up the stuff, I got curious about how much I gather in a year. Styrofoam 1-1-2012.jpg.JPGIt was late last year, high season for packaging again, and I kept noticing how many pellets I was dumping into the kitchen garbage bag. We’re pretty abstemious about garbage in our home. The City makes it easy by requiring that we pay for garbage collection, but households don’t pay for compost or recycling pickup. So there’s not much in my actual garbage pail, the one destined for landfill. The last few weeks of 2011, most of our trash was the “fruit” of my collecting.

    But in 2012, my harvest is going into a box in the basement, at least until I get a good idea of how fast it piles up. I’m not sure what I’ll learn. I hope it won’t feed my self-righteousness. Maybe I’ll find a way to use my experience to help educate other people about how to throw out polystyrene pellets so they really end up in landfill rather than blowing in the wind. Not creating the material in the first place would be better than putting it in landfill, of course, but the streets of San Francisco are way out on the end of this particular supply chain. I’m not eccentric enough (yet) to start a campaign to ban pellets as packaging. I’ll see where my curiosity leads me, though, and meanwhile I’ll do my little bit to clean up the microtrash in my neighborhood.

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© 2020 Deborah Gavrin Frangquist, Chosen Futures