A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Planning Ahead: smoke signals and cell phones

I once lived, for several years, in a small log cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico. No running water, no gas. We had electricity and a phone – I had a business in town and these were essential – but cooking and heating were fueled with wood; I cut, hauled and split every cord. Oak, maple, piñon, juniper, and pine mostly, with the occasional fruit wood when an apricot or apple tree died. I also built a room on the cabin, selecting the trees from the forest above the cabin, cutting, hauling, peeling, sorting, stacking and drying them for a year before building.

“A watched pot never boils.” The cooking stove was also the major source of heat. It was a big white Home Comfort stove with warming boxes and a water-heating tank. I had heard that saying applied metaphorically since I was a child, but using a wood stove made clear its origin.

In the winter I would get up at 5 am and light the stove with the coals from the previous evening. A little pile of dried oak twigs and a few splinters of sap-filled pine or piñon were prepared and ready, and several finger sized and somewhat larger sticks of maple were in the wood box ready to bring the stove to life. A few pieces of this year’s oak (a wetter wood) topped off the mix to make a fire that would grow hot and sustain.

It was a way of life that spread its activities and connections across the days and seasons. Unless the woodlot was growing with all the right woods through out the summer and fall, the late winter days would be uncomfortable and rushed. I learned the first winter when I had to cut wood in the dark to stay warm for the evening and the next day: there was no getting ahead. A cold day and cold night demanded its payment of fuel. The next winter the woodlot was tended, saws sharpened and axes ready.

It was a life lived in the moment by planning ahead. The year had a form and a function, and each day was its moment. It was not a world of day-minders and to-do lists (although my business world often slipped into the mountains with its calendars, lists and even computers…), but was, in its very design, its own image and expression of the future. There was no need to write on the calendar, “pick apples”, or “gather raspberries.” The woodpile, to the experienced eye, laid out the year’s work, reforming it exactly with every subtraction and addition. The water in the various gravity flow devices ‘wrote’ the time and amount of the next trip to the spring.

And many other things required a thoughtfulness of preparation for such a life to be comfortable and inconsequential: food, cars, outhouse, medical supplies, tools in general and special tools in particular, protection and all the minor and major emergencies of ourselves and others who came within our region of opportunity and responsibility. Often little things like being able to tell the condition of the fire in the wood stove from the smoke and lines of heat coming from the kitchen chimney helped clarify how a ski trip up the mountain would go.

I am struck by the difference in the construction of experience created by a central heating system, a water heater, running water, paved roads, mechanics and cell phones. I find that I cannot explain the gracefulness of my life in the mountain cabin to young people (I have ‘un-retired’ for a time to teach in high school).

My grown children humor me. I say things like, “I’ll be there at 9 next Saturday morning.”, speaking of some event several days in the future. They play along and show up. But that is not how they do things: much of their world is arranged across town and cross-country in the last 15 to 30 minutes on a cell phone. Even their jobs have flex-schedules that instant-everywhere-communication organizes within a half-day window. The question, ‘What will you be doing in six months?’, is meet with bewilderment by many of the people I know; what they will be doing in the next hour or two requires a little flurry of phone calls.

I can almost hear some particularly precocious student telling me that the immediacy of walking by a ripe raspberry is the same as the immediacy of a cell phone call, and I would certainly see their point: both are cued and happening in the moment. But the raspberry has been growing in that spot year after year; it leafed out in the spring, bloomed in the late spring-early summer and fruited in the late summer. Birds, squirrels, bears and I have been watching. I can’t speak for the bears, but I am reminded by an increasing recollection of a taste sensation as the flowers fall away and the berries grow and ripen. I don’t think that this is how a cell phone is organized in the cognitive space [1].

I find that I really don’t like planning ahead and do much better when immersed in an environment like the mountain cabin where living in the moment is the plan to make a possible, even comfortable, future. The chill of a particularly cold winter night can be viscerally recalled on a warm summer day; a walk with an axe and saw into a beautiful stand of small oaks just seems to happen.

A cell phone seems to serve the same humanly mental need. It helps to avoid planning ahead, but also allows, even encourages, disconnection from the larger experience of the living space. I have seen my daughters decide that they want something to eat, get in a car without any idea of where they are going, call for takeout on the way, arrange to meet a friend, add to their order, change location for the meeting, change which friends they are meeting and then decide to go to a movie all over a couple of hours without anyone (of the now 3,4,5 people) having a commitment to an action more than 20 minutes into the future. This has to influence the shape and form of the cognitive space.

Without judging (though I personally prefer cutting firewood in June for the first fall fires on cool late September mornings), it is still vitally important that we consider the consequences of the objects and functions that we add so quickly into our daily lives. Cell phones are only one example. These things change us, change how we think, change our daily patterns, change what and the way that we believe, change what we hold to be important and ultimate change who we are as a species.

[1] I had a cell phone in the 1990s, a big thing in a carrying bag with a hand set separate from the receiver; so while generally ignorant of the mentality, I am not completely so. I see that some students become visibly shaken and nervous when separated from their phone as though I had turned off their pace-maker. This convinces me that I don’t really have a grasp of the deeper reality of the instrument.


Michael Dawson said...

You have it nailed, actually. The main impacts are further instantification (if that can be a word) of life and extension of the bubble-world in which people spend their hours.

There are very few people who truly require constant communications links. ER staff, people with sick loved ones, various government officials. Beyond that, these things are overwhelmingly used for choosing tacos v. pizza, sending teen texts, viewing third-rate LOLs, and, yes, generally commodifying human memory.

The jittery kids are exhibiting addictive withdrawal symptoms.

James Keye said...

While I get the greatest attention from the young ones by giving current research on tumors, it is the reshaping of the cognitive space that is the most concerning.

Thanks for dropping by, Michael.

Michael Dawson said...

I just got back from an electronics-free week with my son in Glacier NP, so this post felt even more spot-on than usual!