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Swiss philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote, “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau admired the “noble savage” who lived free from the influences of civilization, although he believed that man could not return to the natural state. I, however, am not so sure. I think there is perhaps just a slight possibility that we are finding our way back to this natural state, and the unlikely vehicle is technology.
When I was a teenager I had a close friend with whom I could discuss all the deepest ideas. We would lie on our backs in an open field late on summer evenings, gazing up at the stars, and question the age of the universe. We tried to picture what was happening outside the universe when it was still, as Stephen Hawking had said, infinitely small.
A Technological Plateau
One night in particular we were discussing technology, and my friend told me that he would be perfectly content if progress were to cease right then. He felt we had reached an ideal plateau technologically. We’re talking the 80’s here but, nonetheless, I had agreed with him. Nothing we saw coming down the pike made us very excited.
We were spoiled rotten, with our calculator watches, and we knew it. We had the freedom of having “music on the go” on our cassette-playing Walkmans. We couldn’t imagine video game graphics getting any better than those in Dragon’s Lair, and we had been satisfied to not see automobiles start resembling UFOs. Quite apparently, we didn’t know what heights of freedom were yet possible.
We didn’t know that these personal computers we were hearing about would one day free us from the need to own nearly anything. We didn’t know that we’d one day say goodbye to the noise of television, the limitations of radio, and the intrusive mess of newspapers. We didn’t know that anything we could ever desire to entertain ourselves would be available at our fingertips with a few clicks – and the only device required could fold up like a 3-ring binder and be tossed into a backpack. We didn’t know that without all that pesky “stuff” in our lives, we wouldn’t need to settle on any one place to live for long, much less chain ourselves to a job-dependent mortgage for a large house.
21st Century Fool’s Gold
Could it be that the debilitating effects of the Industrial Era’s brainwashing are, once and for all, wearing off? With the unfaltering success of the storage industry, and a seemingly endless vault of source material for reality-based shows about hoarding, it would appear not. But there is an evolution taking place. Many of us are shedding the futile inclination to surround ourselves with heaps of material possessions – relics of an old world, to which I now refer as the 21st century’s version of fool’s gold.
We’ve been hearing about a return to values, without really knowing what that means, since the 1980’s. Today, without the drive to own everything that the market dreams up we may, just possibly, start to embrace more sincerely the purer values of the human experience. Perhaps technology’s gifts will soon distance us to such a degree from the material world as to return man to Rousseau’s “natural state” – perhaps even closer to a state of pure consciousness.
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