There are things to miss about the Third World. For instance, I just looked out the window and saw a little boy of about five wobbling down the street on a bicycle with his little brother clinging onto the back. They almost toppled over, but they made it. And I realized that I only noticed them because of how rarely you see such thing. Even here in Smalltown USA in the height of summer you can go a week at a time without seeing a kid on a bicycle. Probably it’s because they’re all inside staring at backlit screens like they one I’m looking at now. I especially noticed how awkward the boys were, as if attempting such a feat were a rare novelty, something untried and unknown. Well, to them I guess it probably was.
But back in our Thai village, you saw kids whizzing around on bikes fifty times a day. Five kids on a bike: that’s a feat. Two is just transportation. Carried out with the effortless grace that, I guess, kids over here conquer Nintendo-summoned dragonbeasts with. The main difference is that Thai kids are skinny and endlessly smiling. I don’t know if they’re any happier; likely they just have much lower entertainment thresholds. And not that kids here in America seem miserable. But the older ones that I observe in Wal-Mart and swimming pools and suchlike places seem jerky, overstimulated, always on the prowl. Inquisitive and acquisitive, as befitting the nature of American life, as Thai kids are largely diffident and submissive, as befits their as-yet largely feudalistic society.
Now, in general I think the advance of technology is a good thing. (It makes this blog possible, for one.) Hell, you could argue, and I would agree, that we’ve been utilizing technology since the first caveman picked up the first stick to bash his cavemate across the head with it. Still. I do wonder how much the difference between Thai and American kids stems from how many more electronic gizmos American kids have. Quite a lot, probably.
Technology boomerangs on its users, as any iPhone user will tell you. It’s not clear who controls whom. And, no matter how amazing all this networked wizardry is, it’s certainly not clear it’s improving the quality of life. Take the iPhone. I saw an ad for one the other day. This most amazingly networked mobile device in the history of mankind, containing in its white frame as much computing power as existed on the whole globe in 1950, has the ability to … tell you what time the movie starts. Really? That’s it? It’s 2009, man. Shouldn’t we be flying around in jetpacks, scooting around in moonbuggies, teleporting ourselves to Jupiter? And would it matter, if we could?
Probably not. Because even without jetpacks things are amazing, and nobody is happy. To wit:
(Note: this clip really is worth watching to end. Highlight: “You’re sitting in a chair! In the sky!”)
Clip via Kevin Kelly.