I recently had the pleasure of watching a NZ Film Festival Film called “There once was an island”. The film deals with an island in Papua New Guinea that is apparently in the process of sinking. Now, many people will see this film as dealing with climate change, or addressing the problem of losing one’s cultural identity in the face of the inexorable march of industrialisation. I got a slightly more personal message from the film.
The message was driven home by one of the islanders explaining to her children the consequences of having to leave their apparently subsiding world for the relatively modern life on the mainland:
“The place where we’re going to live is very different. Here on the island, you can relax and get your food from the gardens. It’s very easy. The land and the sea there are owned by landlords who have their own rights. And we’ll depend on money so you have to go to school and get a job and help your father and mother.”
My first response was confusion: a subsistence lifestyle on an isolated island is “very easy”? Easier than mine, with all the convenience of modern living, TV and McDonalds? Impossible! I can get faster access to more food, better food with far less effort than the people of Takuu. Why would someone who has lived the difficult, precarious life of a hunter-gatherer look at the industrialised world as being “difficult”?
Well, here, in the so-called first world, we live a dual life of extreme hardship and plenty. We fritter away 8 hours (and in my case far more) a day so that we have a few precious hours free to placate our souls with electronic media designed to keep us engaged but slow-thinking, like the grain-fed cattle we ourselves feed upon. We give up the best years of our lives to use abstract tools to fashion symbolic meanings into frameworks for delivering virtual services to meet the virtual needs of virtual people so as to achieve a goal that has very little to do with our actual survival.
I’ve alluded to it before: the knowledge-worker lifestyle is quite a busy one. I have tried all kinds of tricks to free up some time. I’ve got to the point where I limit my activities to those things I absolutely have to do (like working and sleeping) and those things I desperately want to do (like spending time with friends and family). The nice-to-haves fall by the wayside. Nice to haves like thinking. As Herbert Simon predicted, I have found that over time, one of the resources in scarcest supply is the head space I need to just think.
When I was in high school, I would finish at around 2pm. I would be picked up at 5pm and since I played no sport, I then had the unique luxury of 3 hours every day to spend by myself with no one to talk to. I usually spent all of this time thinking. I like thinking. The slow, methodical, deliberate kind of thinking that comes from building models in your mind, models of how the world works, of how it should work, then exploring these models in all their glorious, colourful, complexity.
I tend not to do that anymore. My thinking is very much of the utilitarian, fast-food variety. Just enough to get a crisp few words out to articulate a hastily formed point of view, then woosh: off to the next topic. I don’t feel as though I’ve had a novel thought since I was a teenager. I don’t know about you, but I find I only really have time to consume and regurgitate the thoughts of others with little mental intervention on my part: the mental equivalent of chewing cud (rumination).
I sometimes feel like the intellectual equivalent of a cow and this, I think, is the great triumph of the industrial age: we’ve moved on from domesticating animals and have achieved in domesticating ourselves.
Perhaps there’s some wisdom to be gleaned from the experience of the Takuu people. Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather be free-range than battery fed?