This article caught my attention yesterday – our hunger for electricity to power our “personal electronics” has grown so insatiable that very soon the United States will need to build “the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants,” according to the International Energy Agency. Since 1980 – when, on average, there were three “personal electronic” devices per house, that number has grown to about 25. And – this one floored me – the amount of energy the nation uses to power “gaming systems” whose players are unwilling to turn them off at night (lest they “lose” the current game they are playing) is equivalent to the annual usage of the entire city of San Diego, the nation’s ninth largest city.
The move to electricity was once hailed as a near-miraculous liberation from “drudgery.” Freeing humans from the need any longer to do the basic chores of the household that once required muscle, endless vistas of newly-won leisure were upon us. We no longer had to cut our grass, mix the batter, sweep the floor, cut the turkey – any host of menial household tasks – using our muscles. No longer did we have to snap our wrists to produce a breeze from the fan, or wind a clock, or look in the back of a closet in the search for the elusive tie, with the creation of devices that relieved us at every turn of the drudgery of employing our muscles.
It was thought that this new era of liberation from drudgery would free us for new pursuits which our grandparents might only have imagined. Leisure to pursue crafts, hobbies, to read, write, learn, worship, spend ever better quality time with family and neighbors. Instead, we have seen the exponential rise of the use of electronics for the use of “personal entertainment” devices, ones that largely exist to distract us during the relatively more ample leisure time that we now enjoy as a result of our electronic liberation. The very source of our liberation – electricity – became the conduit for a kind of mindless servitude, the bread-and-circus programming intended to keep us occupied and distracted from anything resembling actual thought about the implications of what we were doing.
Those acts of drudgery that we overcame were inherently educative: they taught us about the natural rhythms of life and nature, the circularity of time and lifespan, the basic needs of life and their connections to all the matters of the created world. In tilling the soil and preparing our food, in working to preserve what was available now what we knew might not be present in the future, we learned virtues of thrift and foresight, prudence and moderation. Yes – we were taught in the first pages of the Bible that to work by the sweat of our brow was a consequence of the Fall, a burden that had been laid upon man for transgression in our first state. Yet, to recognize the fact of such work as a basic and inescapable condition of humanity was to reconcile ourselves to the conditions of the world, to make us prone to satisfaction with what is, rather than dissatisfied with what is not. It taught us to appreciate blessings small and large, a piece of ripe fruit, an evening of leisure in song and story, a small bed of flowers that pointed to our love of beauty that transcended mere utility.
Our liberation, and current forms leisure through electronic distraction and stimulation, also contains inherent lessons. Many of those forms of electronic distraction are meant solely to stimulate our senses, to offer an incessant cascade of colors and images and sounds that are intended to excite the basic hedonistic centers of our cortex. Further – in offering us an ever-escalating intensity of stimulation, this form of sensory distraction stimulates a kind of stimulation addiction. Like a heroin addict, we need ever more and purer highs to achieve the satiation that was once available to us with less. Not only do we now have over 20 new gadgets in our houses than thirty years ago, but hundreds of channels, countless games, ever-present tools of “communication.” A colleague begins his course by accusing his students of addiction to their electronics. When they deny this is the case, he passes around a box and asks for volunteers to give up their cellphones for the semester. The box always returns empty.
Furthermore, our leisure is no longer leisured. Leisure at its best is a time and space apart from the world of necessity. Today, much of our electronically primed “leisure” is largely another opportunity for commerce, specifically advertising. In our “retreat” from drudgery we are inundated with images and sounds and temptations that urge us to want more, to crave more deeply, to ache more longingly for that possession that finally will fulfill us. Our leisure is a boot camp for consumerism, a training-ground for , an incitement to conditions of indebtedness and spendthriftiness. As the historian Lendol Carter has written (Jason Peters’ colleague at Augustana), “The original promise of industrialism was that it bring people more time not for leisure, not more money for goods. Goods we now have, but little time for leisure…. To be sure, credit-driven consumerism offers moments of indulgence and excess. But the apparatus of credit ensures that consumerism is also a goad for more work. This has made American middle-class life today less a playground for hedonists than an extension of Max Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of disciplined rationality.”
What we learn in our leisure flows without obstacle into our political selves, manifested particularly in our dissatisfaction with current conditions and our expectation for constant “product improvement.” So we find ourselves unjustly burdened and inconvenienced by any discomfort or obstacle to our happiness, and hold the government accountable for our dissatisfaction. We come to demand government activity in all spheres of life to relieve what might otherwise have been accepted as basic conditions of life (e.g., our right to constant MRIs), no matter the cost to future generations.
Of course, this last is the ultimate lesson of our electronic binge: for, at its root, it is a power that has been given to us by geologic time, the inheritance of ages that preceded us in the millions of years. In the burning of coal, the firing of natural gas, the half-lives of uranium, we use this inheritance constantly without replenishment, claiming for ours what no generation can truly own, but which our generation has usurped without permission. We draw down this eon-old inheritance in the belief that we alone are entitled (first) to liberation from drudgery, and (second) to a right to distraction from attentiveness. Ours is a right to sloth, paid for by debts to be paid by our children and theirs. For, certainly, eventually we will build those 560 coal powered plants or 230 nuclear power stations, because to do otherwise would be to deprive ourselves of the right to press a button and have our will be done. Wendell Berry has written that if we could invent a steam shovel to pick up a dime we had dropped on the street, we would do it. What we are doing is inventing an endless string of devices to obscure from ourselves the viciousness of our actions. The first thing we’ll do when the power goes off is to blame the government at the same time we demand it fix the problem. We are truly, in every sense of the word, a nation of addicts.