Doug Bruns

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“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

In Technology, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers on June 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I spoke recently with a young acquaintance who had, as she called it, “gone off- line.” Worried about obsession, she had exercised a discipline unique in modern life. She had logged off and then simply and purposefully disconnected her internet cable. I found this particularly interesting, in that I too am concerned about obsession. “For good,” she says, with emphasis. She is young, as I said. And the young are drawn to absolutes.

“I was getting compulsive,” she confessed. She related that she normally started her session by checking her email. Then she would browse the web. But as the on-line hours ensued, she found herself surfing the net aimlessly, casting about with no apparent focus. “It was worse than channel surfing,” she said. “I hated it, but I couldn’t stop.” I asked if it was difficult going cold turkey. She said yes, that it was hard. “But more disturbing,” she continued, “now I feel out of touch. I even deleted my Facebook account. I’m a pariah.” She looked disconsolately across the room. She had hit upon another cherished theme. Fortunately, the world is rich with opportunity for reflection.

Pariah. The word comes into English from Tamil paraiyar, the plural of paraiyan, a caste name, meaning literally “hereditary drummer.” It is derived from the name of a drum used at certain festivals, and later evolved to capture the essence of the Indian caste system, the untouchables. Thoreau picked up the theme in Walden, the pariah’s manifesto: If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. My acquaintance was a social outcast. It was a course she had guided and could blame no one. But now she was troubled. She was no longer connected. She had checked out, gone off-line. She consciously set herself apart from her on-line peers. She had declared her independence, and in do so, had declared herself an untouchable.

I have thought about going off-line, about disconnecting, moving to my personal Walden and picking up my drum. It is an inviting idea to anyone remotely self obsessed, like myself. I gather there are some who have not at one time or another wished for a life of self-involved quiet and contemplation? Yes, of course there are. Many more, I suspect, than those feeling cramped and wanting to break away from it all. In general, though, Americans, I believe, trust in a singular independence, our pariahness, collectively and independently. I think we fancy ourselves each different and independent, yet similar, sharing common goals and aspirations. Are we not, after-all, collective practitioners in pursuit of happiness? Our pursuit has forced upon us a homogeneity that is at times comforting, then again repugnant. Too, I think it is a tendency of Americans to think of ourselves as different from all the rest of the world, as if we were One Nation (of pariahs) Under God. But these matters were far from my youthful friend’s concerns.Going off-line is not a passive statement of individualism. It is a bold step in today’s terms, particularly and uncomfortably bold.

I have friends, Franz and Anna, who live a remote area of South America, the lake region of Patagonia specifically. They had but one connection to the world from their island lodge, a satellite phone. Several weeks after visiting them, I read that Iridium, the satellite telephone company, had gone out of business. Its orbiting satellites were rendered silent, as were Franz and Anna. A few months later Franz was traveling in the states and I caught up him. I asked him how Iridium’s demise had affected him in Patagonia. “It put us in a real jam,” he said. “Any time we wanted to call someone I had to take the boat across the lake and drive into town.” This was no trip to the Seven-Eleven. The journey to town took two hours, crossing the Yelcho, then four-wheeling a gravel road. Town consisted of a handful of small buildings with corrugated metal roofs, one of which had a phone line. Now there is someone off-line.

There is no groundswell of primitivism afoot today, no Luddism. To the contrary, technology pariahs are few and far between. I know a fellow, an early adapter, who a couple of years ago retired his PDA  (do you remember those?), claiming that he missed the tactile pleasure of holding a traditional writing instrument. “I even missed the scratching sound of writing on paper.” However, last year he stood in line for eight hours to get an iPhone. Someone recently gave my son a beautiful calf-skin leather journal. He likes the feel of it in his hand, which is not something you hear usually said about a laptop. But he does not use it.

Ned Luddan English laborer, fearful of jobs lost to technology, destroyed weaving machinery around 1779. He garnered followers who were dubbed Luddites. But there is no Luddism in going off-line, no yearning for turning back the clock. Fear of technology is not at root here. I don’t think my young friend is afraid of a technological future. Rather, there is something deeper, more akin to the spiritual, at work in her misgivings.

Some cultures practice that a photograph steals part of the soul. The Sioux Indians, for example, believed that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life. I have a friend—he does not own a television—who says that T.V. robs us of our intelligence. That, I believe to be not far from the truth. A vital layer of life goes to rest in front of the T.V.. My off-line acquaintance found herself aimlessly staring into her computer at night. She said she had “to get a life,” that the internet was stealing it. I have to wonder if we are losing bits and pieces of ourselves as we are given over to the subtleties of modern existence, not only its technology, but also its conveniences and entertainments? I suspect after a fashion that we are being blindsided. For example, there is a phenomenon in animals where they become “naive” if natural predators are removed. After a generation or so they forget their enemies. Wolves recently re-introduced into the wilds of Yellowstone had easy pickings until the moose realized they were going to be eaten by them. This is what I mean by the subtleties of modern existence. Consumption and predation are related and I have a fear that one can too easily morph into the other. To repeat an axiom, nature is balanced.

In 1965 Joan Didion wrote:

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

She closes by saying, “And I suspect we are already there.” She was writing on morality and consumerism and of course the grand era of the ‘60s, but on a larger canvas, as it relates to our possessions, I agree, we are in bad trouble–as recent events, the crash and burn of consumerism, suggests. It seems to be the nature of things human that stuff we own will soon enough own us. I live in a world devoid of natural predators. I fear being like the moose in Yellowstone, growing forgetful and waxing naive. I resist.

I harbor an odd hankering to be a technology pariah, independent of cables, connections, satellites and modems. I respect my friend’s decision. There is a stubborn romanticism to the contrariness of the idea, and all fashion of contrariness holds an innate appeal for me. But truth be known, I am connected and will stay connected. One year I did all the Christmas shopping online. My wife couldn’t face another year of it and I relieved her. It was no small annoyance to her that I never left my desk and that the children’s presents arrived already gift wrapped, including cards. That was reward enough. The razor’s edge of technology is to ask where it stops helping and becomes a thing obnoxious. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” begins the Unabomber Manifesto. Would Thoreau be Kaczanski today–presumably without the violence–if he was around? He did, after all, spend that famous night in jail.

I often drive without the car radio on. I like the unhurried quiet of Sunday afternoons. I avoid the mall. I prefer cross-country skiing to downhill. My life is a balance of avoidance and seeking. Avoid noise, crowds and rushing around; seek quiet, stay calm, be stable. Being on-line helps. There is a great deal one can accomplish in the quite nether realm of technology, whereby one avoids much of modern annoyances, such as traffic, surly clerks, pollution and canned music. To my friend’s point, however, I am conscious of the slithery Faustian tendrils of technology. I don’t look too hard into the computer. I’ve made an observation: The Sioux were right. A computer screen does not reflect your image. It absorbs it.

Persephone returns!

In Creativity, Literature, Music, Mythology, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on May 2, 2010 at 5:49 am
Persephone, the abduction.

Persephone, the abduction.

Spring settles on me with an irrational anxiousness. Maybe, to think about it, it’s not all that irrational. The symbolism of Spring is a big deal. For instance, in ancient myth, the onset of Spring is due to the return of Persephone, Zeus’s daughter, to the earth. She has been abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. (She was a babe.) Zeus demands her return, a demand Hades obeys, knowing it best to keep Zeus off his back. But first Hades tricks Persephone into eating pomegranate seeds, which ensures her return. Before her abduction, Persephone tended her garden, planting seeds and generally being a goddess of nature, the original Earth Mother. When she escapes the Underworld and wicked Hades, she returns with flowers. Spring arrives. But alas, she was tricked into eating those seeds and so, sadly, she will eventually return to Hades. And the Earth will grow cold. Again.

I said Spring makes me anxious. Its arrival seems a big deal in some fashion. And as a big deal, I feel beholding to do right by it, by the season and what it symbolizes. That’s why I said it is irrational: I’ve laden Spring with a good deal of portentous heaviness. Or maybe not–maybe I’m not being irrational. Maybe being serious about rebirth and escaping winter and living to see another season should be taken seriously. The ancients thought so. Persephone escapes to return to her aggrieved mother, Demeter. She escapes Hades and his unmentionable Underworld demands. Most of all, she returns to Mother Earth with renewed life–things of a serious nature all.


It was in this context that I took a magic marker and drew a line about four feet long, horizontal, on the wall of my office-man-cave. To the far left  of the line I wrote Antiquity. To the far right: Death. The end of the line for me. Then I started to make some notes along the line, left to right. Confucius, Socrates, Jesus, moving right, through the dark ages with the Black Plague death of William of Ockham, to the happier days of the Renaissance, Alberti, , Erasmus, Michelangelo and my personal favorite, Montaigne, fast-forward to the Romantics, Beethoven, Brahms and the bunch, to Goethe, Liszt, rushing to the moderns, Thoreau, Nietzsche, Stravinsky, faster now, Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, Cage, Nabokov, and so on until the line stops. Game over. Under all this I put big labels, Iron Age, Dark Ages, Industrial Revolution, Age of Flight and so on. Lastly, I made note of the major things: the Gutenberg Bible, Columbus, Landing on the moon, the atom bomb, the silicon chip.

Spring. The time-line. A life and a context. The more I think on it, Spring is a big deal. It is a reminder, a connecting thread to the tapestry of our humanness, the time-line to which we all subscribe. Spring ushers in fresh growth, a return to life and the overarching scheme of things.  On my small and personal scale, I am simply curious about where I fit in, about the history of the species and how I am delivered to this place, here in the sun, observing Persephone tend her garden.

Infinite Jest, Longfellow Books

In Literature, Reading, The Examined Life, Writers on April 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I am a swimmer. Every morning, weather permitting, I get on my bike, peddle across the peninsula, and swim at the Portland  Y.  I always assumed I’d end up in a pool, having torn, twisted and generally f”-ed up everything a guy can f-up: shoulders, hip, back, hands. (The knees are in good shape, surprise.) The pool is the refuge of the aged-maimed athlete. My swim is good. I can’t hurt myself. It’s also good for my head. It can be a meditation or a lesson in tedium, both of which are beneficial and have intrinsic value. Today was different. I wanted it over. I wanted to return home, to my chair,  and finish a book, specifically, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’ve been working on this book for two and half months. It’s a three-pound book, three pounds and two ounces precisely. One thousand twenty-seven pages, including footnotes. It’s a monster and I had only twenty pages left. The sprint to the finish. Get the swim over. Finish it. But more. I love this book. Two and half months living with it, studying it, reading the footnotes and the on-line commentary. It was in my blood, under my fingernails,  and with only an hour or so left with it, like it was a lover going off to war, I wanted its company–its company until the last. Period. In fact, finishing it was the most remote of my motives. Make it last. That’s the ticket.

Tonight: I am ten pages from the end as I write this. I don’t want to finish it. It’s like sex and holding off until the very end ’cause that’s when it’s best. But really, it’s more like losing a friend, and knowing DFW is no longer with us, well, not yet closing the book is not yet accepting that salient sad fact–so the friend is still with us-me. In a bit, an hour or so, I will complete it, close it and then it will be over. (I will write about it, a review or more properly, the experience, in the next week or two. Check Mostly Fiction dot com where I write about reading books.)

So, my head is spinning with all things Infinite Jest. But this isn’t about the book. Rather, I want to discourse on reading. More specifically, reading in the nature and manner of dead-trees reading. I read Infinite Jest in the dead-wood, sit-it-in-my-lap version, not on a Kindle, an iPad or any other device. I’m not a Luddite. To the contrary. I have a Kindle. It is in a drawer,  uncharged. I used to read on it. Now, however, I have seen the light–and that light is shining from a window that is

Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son

local. When I buy a book on my Kindle I am taking money out of Chris and Stewart’s pockets and giving it to Amazon. Chris and Stewart? They’re the guys who own my local bookstore, Longfellow Books. Longfellow is the dead-center of Portland, figuratively, literally and spiritually. Every dollar I send to Amazon is a dollar my community looses, a dollar less for the heart-dead-center of my town. If that happens frequently enough, my community goes away, replaced by the insipid one-size-fits-all wash-and-wear culture we seem so unwittingly fond of. (How does that happen?)

This so-called culture is a theme and subject of Infinite Jest. (There are ever so many themes to IJ.) Culture has been sold off. Corporate America bought it and ate it for lunch between two pieces of Wonderbread. It has an appetite that knows no satiation. See this picture? It’s Saturn Devouring His son by Goya: Corporate America consuming the individual–that’s how I read it. It is the apex of irony (should irony be a bell curve) that a country founded, built, and realized on/of individualism–a political and historical anomaly–is and has been rushing hellbent to a state of homogenization. Reading a physical book, procured at your local establishment of reading pleasure, shifts the universe homeward, back to you. Go local.  The less inviting option is to be devoured like Saturn’s son.

Read. It transports. And so much more. It makes one think.

Phase of Authenticity

In Philosophy, Photography, The Examined Life, Truth on March 1, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Is it just me, or do other people feel less authentic than they used to? It’s probably just me. I’m not even sure what I mean when I say authentic, but I know it when I feel it. (Kind of like Supreme Court Justice Stewart in 1964, writing about hard-core porn: “I shall not today attempt further to define…[b]ut I know it when I see it.”) I can’t define it, but I know it when I feel it.

But I am famous, in family circles, that is, of going through phases*. Going through a phase is something I have done all my life in an effort to avoid the static. Really, who wants to be static. Static is roadkill.

I was at dinner last week, a progressive dinner for The Telling Room here in Portland. I had my photographer’s bling around my neck. That would be my Leica MP with a short stubby sexy 28mm lens. (Yes, I am a camera geek/dork…) And the gentleman next to me, of all things, was a pin-hole camera hobbyist. We started talking photographer’s talk, film and f-stops and all that stuff, when someone across the table sort of demeaned the craft, specifically the film-photography craft in the day and age of digital. I said that I was in a life-phase going somewhat analogue, as best I could. Shooting film was a start. Are you, she asked, smiling bedevilingly, ready to stand in a bank queue at 6pm on a Friday night? (Well, for starters, I don’t get a paycheck on Fridays, but I sensed where she was coming from.) Do you remember, she continued, the days before ATMs and computer banking, when the banks stayed open late on Fridays so you could deposit your paycheck? Yes, I lied. I remembered. That was analogue, she said. Touché. Okay, Uncle. I give up. Analogue does not equal authentic. But is it closer? Is listening to vinyl more authentic than listening to my iPod. That’s silly. But…

I sense that the further I get from my origin the less precisely I feel I am living. (A friend, Vernon Hines, once proclaimed, We can never escape our biography.) I’m not sure I can explain that in a manner that warrants serious consideration. It is, after all, an intensely personal comment. But of this I can be sure: There are ways to think about living that are more genuine than other ways and I want to experience them. Again, intensely personal. In general, for starters, it is not about stuff. Despite my bling, stuff turns on you, and ends up owning you before you know it. Aspiring to stuff is aspiring to bondage. Believe me, I know. (“Possessions are a way of turning money into problems,” Brian Eno.) Stuff is not authentic. Style is. (But not the way you think.) Stay tuned.


*Phases: “Phase of Understanding” followed by “Phase of Existence (cogito ergo sum backward)” followed by “Phase of Being Present (my Zen phase)” followed by  current “Phase of Authenticity”