McLuhan used to say, "Fish are the last to see the water." To him, we're the fish, and technology is the water. We've become so used to it as we swim through life that we just can't see it. And because we're trusting souls, we chomp on every little piece of advertising bait thrown our way. Cell phones, TIVOs, automatic coffee makers - they're all just expensive lures that marketers use to reel us into the nearest gadget store. The difference between us and fish is that when we swallow bait the pain isn't immediate. Usually it takes a few months before your TIVO screws up, or you lose your cell phone, or, as happened to me recently, your coffee maker develops a leak and floods your kitchen with coffee. Then you know pain in its truest form.
Which leads me to Technology Blackout Day on May 20th (technologyblackoutday.com). Yes, on top of our already overcrowded national observance schedule, we have yet another special day. (Did you know that February 20th is "Hoodie Hoo" day? At noon you're supposed to wave your hands over your heads and chant "Hoodie Hoo" to chase away winter. I do that every day so I don't know what the big deal is.)
National Technology Blackout Day is actually a great idea. On that day we're supposed to forgo technology so we can see how it influences our lives. It should help us lost fish "see the water," and, hopefully, swallow the bait with a little more suspicion. My question is: Does technology include books, eyeglasses and refrigerators? It ought to. But my guess is that most people's depth finders won't go that deep. This begs the question: What technology qualifies as blackout technology? Assuming that the sponsors of blackout day are referring to modern, digital technology, the main qualification is simply this: Can a 12-year old use it better than you can? If yes, then it qualifies. This is just about everything except lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners.
Technology Blackout Day is a step in the right direction, particularly for our kids. As the saying goes, technology is anything you didn't grow up with, which is why our kids treat all of today's wonder gadgets like nothing more than intelligent furniture. They use them but they don't really notice them. Hopefully blackout day makes them take stock of what they have.
But, alas, Technology Blackout Day is ultimately disappointing. Its real aim is get us to think about technology in positive rather than objective terms. Students are encouraged to enter an essay contest about their sans-technology experience by responding to two questions: How will you use technology in your career? How does technology make your life better? These are alright, but I'd much prefer to read responses to questions like: What is the last piece of technology you destroyed with a hammer? If torture were legal, what should we do to people who don't turn off their cell phones during meetings? The first prize in the essay contest is an iPod! It ought to be a rotary dial phone or a typewriter. I'd be happy to donate my cassette player.
So, on May 20th, turn off your cell phones, unplug your video games and don't forget that if you want to get warm you'll have to sit around a campfire. After all, even your home heating system is computerized. And whether the blackout causes you to wax nostalgic or go through withdrawal, just remember this: Creationism aside, we started as fish and apparently that is what we still are. The only thing that's changed is the water.