Apparently, ballpoint pens don’t work in space because of the lack of gravity. It is said that NASA, troubled by this realization, spent many millions of dollars designing a ‘space pen’ that could function in the absence of gravity. The Russians used a pencil.
Whether or not this story is true, it raises interesting questions about how technology is used in modern society. Are we, like NASA, complicating life and wasting money on superfluous technology? To what extent could we, like the Russians, find much ‘simpler’ solutions to the problems we face? In particular, what role should technology play in living the simple life?
At first instance one may think that living simply is about doing without technology, but as is so often the case, the simple life is more complex. No simple liver, as far as I know, thinks that we should regress to a primitive existence and go back to living in caves without matches, penicillin, or the wheel, etc. But, in the 21st century, are there times when our lives could be improved by using less technology, not more? Or by using technology smarter?
On the other hand, there are technologies that are clearly a positive advancement and which no simple liver or anyone would want to do without. I just suggested matches, penicillin, and the wheel, as examples, but the list could go on and on. Life without any technology, we could imagine, would probably be ‘nasty, brutish, and short,’ to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes. The question, then, is which technology is appropriate and how much is needed to live well?
To be sure, there is no ‘rule’ to follow, as such, that can tell us when technology is appropriate and when it is not; but here are five examples which it could be argued express the type of reasoning involved in living simply: (1) avoid using a clothes dryer when sunshine and a piece of string will do the same job; (2) avoid driving a car when a bicycle could be used for transport (and exercise); (3) avoid passively letting technology entertain and instead get creative; (4) don’t bother inventing a ‘space pen’ since a good old-fashioned pencil will work just fine; and (5) don’t build a multi-billion dollar desalination plant to solve a shortage problem that could be solved more effectively (and more cheaply) with water tanks, shorter showers, etc.
There is much, much more to say on the question of technology, and in future posts I hope to explore the issue further. But for now, let me leave you with some questions: What are your thoughts on technology and the simple life? What types of technology would the simple liver never want to give up? What modern technology could the simple liver easily do without? In particular, can you offer advice from your own experience on how to use technology well?
Your thoughts would be much appreciated.
For a short review of Thoreau’s views on Technology, click here.