Skeptically Yours

So I’m hanging out at the horse barn as Santiago Wonder Pony Burrowes finishes up a session with his physical therapist. Santa is looking like he just scored a hit of the best stuff off the biggest doobie…

Madame PT says something to the effect of, “I  wish people still regularly curry-combed their horses. It would make such a difference.”

“You mean,” says me, “because we have super tech rocket science fly sheets now, and rain sheets, and sun sheets, and horse vacuums, and all that stuff so the horses don’t get muddy, and now all we have to do before tacking up is a lick and a promise with the dandy brush, and off we go?”

“Exactly. Carrying for the horse’s coat takes half the time but ten times the gear, and when we skip the currying, the horse loses so much that was beneficial.”

The benefit to the horse of a head-to-tail currying starts with the obvious: It feels good. He learns to associate the beginning of his work day with pleasure. The curry comb (a soft rubber device, usually) also get his subcutaneous circulation going, and begins to warm up those great big horsy muscles that will soon be supporting my un-dainty weight in addition to his. If I’m half-way paying attention when I curry my beast, I’ll notice any areas of soreness or swelling before I plop into the saddle and make those ouchies worse (or get a free lesson in how to imitate a lawn dart).

The PT’s remark about currying reminded me of this talk, by the late Dr. Neil Postman, Ph.D, given in 1997. (Big creds to Austin Kleon for the link.) Postman was something of a canary in the brave new digital coal mine, though he described himself as tech skeptic rather than a tech critic. I hope you watch the talk. His remarks are 52 minutes of substantive thinking wrapped in exquisitely skilled delivery and communication.

One question Postman encouraged his audience to raise when considering any new technology is: What pressing problem is the new technology needed to solve, whose problem is it, and who will pay for the solution? Like 99% of equestrians out there, I saw the new, lightweight, affordable, washable, blah, blah, blah flysheets coming out and thought: Roll in the mud all you want, Big Guy, but first we’ll just buckle you into this horsey-fashion-burrito, and I will no longer spend half the morning in the wash stall with you and the other half grooming you back into recognizable condition.

The problem–lack of time to groom–was mine, not Santa’s, and I’d shell out money at the tack store to solve it–but the horse would pay for my decision in many ways.

Postman refers once or twice in his talk to the Luddites, and of course, my Regency author ears pricked up. The Luddites were labor activists who generally came from the cottage weaving tradition. They saw exactly where factory production was leading–not to good quality cheap goods for the masses, but to starvation wages, child labor, work place deaths, and an enormous increase in demand for the dangerous and health-wrecking mining jobs. Factory production led to destruction of craftsmanship, villages, ecosystems, and families that had thrived for centuries under a different “less productive” manufacturing model.

The Luddites were hanged, shot, banished, and otherwise convinced to get out of the way of “progress,” as slums multiplied, the environment was ravaged, and enslavement in the New World and colonization generally got a second wind thanks to that progress.

Being a skeptic of innovation can challenge well-funded and powerful interests who stand to benefit from the new mousetrap, however pointless or even harmful the updated model is. As artificial intelligence is starting to write books, and Ring technology is reporting to law enforcement with out meaningful customer consent, I think Postman’s question deserves more attention than ever, and you can bet I’m going to be regularly currying my darling pony.

Is there innovation you regret? Have a lover’s quarrel with? Wish you’d had access to sooner? I’ll add three commenters to my Yuletide Wishes ARC list!

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17 comments on “Skeptically Yours

  1. I used to love email. Instead of time difference issues between west coast vs. midwest and phone calls with my sister, we could email when we had time. I could get up in the morning, have an email from her I could respond to and she could respond to my response when she got up. We had good *conversations* and got a LOT done, family-wise.

    Now it’s a pain. I have several email accounts (FYI my email I have used here has changed because the account I had for 25 years has locked me out and no one can help me get back in), including two business accounts and a new one for personal. Instead of two–personal & business–to check every morning, I have three plus another on The Cloud for an arts alliance I work with. Sheesh I hate it!

    I have a Love/Hate relationship with texting too. Do I really have to respond immediately? Like, can I read it, decide how to answer THEN respond? I actually don’t like being able to be reached 24/7.

    Sigh, just typing this makes me tired! 🙁

  2. I’m still cackling over “learning to imitate a lawn dart”!!! Boy does that bring back memories of the rear empennage of certain rental horsies. And the knot on my thigh bone that finally smoothed out after a few decades of healing time. How come school word problems never had useful issues to solve for like “metal horseshoe hits novice groomer on arc X, raising lump Y. Solve for speed of impact Z”???

    I turned off cable TV over a decade ago as it served no purpose for me. Saved a week’s grocery money, urgent news is on the interweb if I need to flee Cat 5 hurricanes, & my brain gets to exercise on more useful things like survival on a fixed income during historic inflation.

  3. An innovation I regret is fast food, not only the drive-up kind, but the freezer section variety. I know that people are so busy today with work, after school activities (if there are kids), a social life (if there are no kids), but I can’t help but feel that we have lost more than we’ve gained with the advent of instant gratification meals. There are so many dishes that can be quickly made from scratch with a little planning and a minimal financial investment and are so much healthier than the already packaged stuff that is masquerading as nourishment. And we miss out on the camaraderie of working together preparing a meal, prepping ingredients, setting the table, sitting down together to enjoy what you have created and, yes, even cleaning up together. Conversations with loved ones happen around the cutting board while cutting up veggies, revelations appear over soup, anxieties are addressed over dessert, solutions devised over dirty dishes. You can’t package that and I think we are the poorer for trying. Stay safe. Stay well everyone!

  4. I appreciate and regret so many things. The internet, medical technology, Photography, Television… the internet brought wonderful things to us followed closely by destructive & dangerous things, medical technology offering a chance for infertile couples followed closely by people demanding to choose the sex of their child, throwing out unused zygotes (maybe it’s just me), all that slick photography giving a boost to artists and pornographers. In the end it’s not the technology it’s us. Humans are animals we have this intellectual potential that can be used for all sorts of things an is … G-d gave Adam dominion over the other animals and look what happens to them … I think we may still be in the garden of Eden and are busy trashing it as fast as ever we can.

    What a cynic huh?

  5. I wear a very interesting outfit outdoors in bug season myself and am happy for it. But take the innovation you please and it’s a good servant but poor master.

  6. The mobile phone is both such a blessing and a curse. I can’t imagine now living without mine, but man, is it a double-edged sword!!!!!

  7. I don’t exactly regret smartphones and social media but I am very careful how I use them. Unlike many, I don’t let them control me. When I’m out, my phone is in my purse and when I’m home, it’s on the table on the other side of the house usually. I refuse to text because I don’t have any children or anyone else that needs to get to me that quickly and mostly, I tend to think of it as rude. I don’t answer the phone unless I recognize the number and I figure if it’s important, the caller can leave a voice mail. I even turned off the ringer on the phone in my bedroom once both my parents passed as there’s no longer a reason to be immediately accessible. If Tim is at the grocery store and I’m inconvenienced, he doesn’t like it that he has to leave a voice mail but I absolutely refuse to take the phone into the bathroom. I grew up with one physical phone shared by 7 people and I’m very comfortable controlling how and when I interact with the outside world. Similarly, I don’t use social media to share every aspect of my life with everybody else nor do I want to look at everybody else’s foolishness. I hardly use it at all, except for checking the Facebook pages of a few (as in 5 or so) of my favorite authors who regularly post interesting things (yes, of course, Grace is one of them) but even that is only once a day. I also agree that social media has tended to make the worst parts of our society even worse, or at least more visible, unfortunately. So, no thank you. Not a Luddite but looks like I’m trending toward curmudgeon (but I try to keep to myself).

  8. I have very limited participation with social media because I always thought it would kill relationship. I think it has. The Awful Algorithm’s social media (and other LARGE companies, too) uses divide people and keep us from finding treasures.
    I am FOR SURE a luddite when it comes to smartphones and social media. Now, people are losing email… because texting. Answers are shorter, sometimes harder to interpret, and we are losing language and attention spans.
    I have a lover’s quarrel with my medical technology… it is awful and intrusive and uncomfortable… but it comes in handy every once in a while. *sigh

  9. Well, I have a lover’s quarrel – as you put it – with automated translations. On one hand, it is nice to have a quick translation of a text written in a foreign language. On the other, there are voices suggesting language learning at schools is a waste of time, since cell phones, equipped with AI that will translate anything, are omnipresent.
    While translations via Google Translate and such yield good results with scientific texts or newspaper articles, the results for historical novels are poor. A reader might get a word-by-word idea of what the book is about, but the tone of the text and the feelings the writing is conveying are gone. Which (the feelings), in my opinion, is why we read romance.
    I get that for native speakers, what I described above is not an issue. Being a book (and romance!) lover, I am sad when people look down on the books I enjoyed in English because their (Czech) translation is poor. It gets even worse when humans are involved only marginally because AI does the core.

    • Every subject has its own vocabulary, its own nuances. I recently “translated” a simple contract from Swiss German into English. I pray it is never tested in court. The different translating programs helped a lot, but then I had to look for the English equivalents at law. I think I might do better with romance :-), but the contract was only 6 pages!

  10. I used to think that texting was dopey. When my daughter came to visit, she made all her plans with friends via text, and it seemed detached to me.

    Times changed, and I became a texter. It can be done subtly, and only takes a quick moment. These days when my daughter and her family travel, she sends me a quick text photograph of her toddler doing something (adorable) every day. I know they are having a good time, she does not have to spend time finding time to send me an email, and IMHO everybody wins!

    I’m still learning things about texting at 74, but the little bit that I know is a good thing!

  11. Dear Grace,
    Since my 75th birthday is coming up in a month, I feel a lot of sympathy for the Luddites. I love many aspects of our new technologies like my cell phone and my iPad, but we are removed from our innate intuition. I traveled a lot as a child and learned to use my sixth sense to understand the people and the world around me.I was able to dance lightly through some terrifying situations.
    I worry that my grandchildren will not develop this talent because these insights don’t really translate through our computers and modern technology. How will they learn to deal with people when their classes are on Zoom!
    Thank-you Grace for your wonderful books, they have saved me through the isolation of the pandemic.
    Margaret Kincaid

  12. I think currying is a great idea for just about everyone. I feel like I could use a little myself.

    Postman sounds wise and I’m pretty sure I would’ve liked him and the Luddites. I’m all for conscious consuming broadly and also specifically with technology usage, but it feels like average folks are so far from any of the decision making about where resources go (research, development, production, jobs etc.) that all the power consumers have is the right of refusal. The strip mining is already done, the water is already polluted, the air unbreathable, but the new model is available whether you want it or not. I don’t believe there was a Golden Age, every era has its problems, and I wish currently decisions were not being made with finacial gain ahead of ethical concerns and long term impact.

  13. Social media has made a sea change in our civilization, too much information about people unknown & instant gratification with no communication or critical thinking.
    I resisted for a good while, got sucked in somewhat and have backed out to only positive groups. (critters & flowers & gardening, a few authors) I carry a smartphone mostly for instant access to a good camera for sunsets & flowers!

  14. My mother, in her retirement, reveled in the unforeseen luxury of being able to talk to all her distant loved ones without ever having to worry about the cost. She could overlook the robocalls and scams in favor of the joy of connection. I found the same delight when my daughter went far away to college and I could text her a picture of one of the cats. Sure, spam and phishing, and a smartphone that isn’t especially good at being a phone: these are all annoying. But I can ignore a lot to stay in daily contact with the grown children.
    I’m lucky that computers allow my husband and me to work from home, on a more flexible schedule: the coffee breaks make up for the zoom meetings.

  15. This is a tough question. As a scientist I realize that curbing innovation is…impossible. Humans are creative and mentally active. We want to improve something even if it doesn’t need improvement. I think the problem with innovation is time. How long do we get to adjust to the innovation. If it’s slow, that better. If it’s fast, well, hold on. Cars are polluters but horses weren’t going to cut it as populations increased. To answer the question, no, I don’t have an innovation I regret because usually one can go backward if one wants. All changes have pluses and minuses.

  16. I do not regret cell phone apps (mostly) but this summer I went to Disneyland with my son and grandsons.I remember the rambling on the paths on Disneyland and partaking of rides, my favorite being Peter Pan. I did not mind the people packers as it was a joint misery with the magic guests. Now, however, all of Disneyland is controlled by a cell phone app in which you enter your credit card, in order to enjoy not knowing how much you have spent. The app is used to sign you up to cut the line at various rides, to order food( and cut the line to pick it up). The app is your map, your memorabilia buyer and your wily way to one upmanship of other sweaty guests. Luckily my son could grab the phone and get us into the Favored Few. So, I regret losing the magic of the magic kingdom through a viley commercial app.