Technology Makes the Harshness of Life Invisible

Yesterday, I asked some questions about how I (or you) might act, consume, and dispose differently if the relationships between us and those who produce and dispose of the things we use were visible to us or if we had to deal face-to-face with them.

I asked:

Would you directly tell a person, whom you know and who is going to pick food for you, to go out into a field and harvest that food while a plane sprays pesticide directly onto him or her?

Would you gather together an army and lead it into a territory to gain control over “rare earth” minerals so that you could then build a cell phone or the computers you and I are using right now?

But maybe you would.  I left the questions as if the answers were obviously no.  But the answers aren’t obviously no.  Large antebellum plantations were often nearly self-sufficient communities.  There, whites used slave labor, controlled by violence, to cultivate their food and produce cash crops.  Southern whites could not hide from the brutality of slavery.  But they engaged in it anyway.  And they rationalized it.

Okay, sure, but I wouldn’t enslave anyone.  While many of my ancestors were abolitionists and never enslaved anyone, other ancestors of mine did enslave other people.  But, still, that seems like a rather straight-forward moral issue.  How about something more ambiguous…

Would you chop the beaks off of little chicks and cram chickens into cages so small they couldn’t move and let them live out their short, awful lives there?  I wouldn’t, but I’ve paid other people to do it.  I just didn’t have to see it.  If you needed to do so to feed your family, would you raise chickens in your yard and kill them to eat them?  I would.  Maybe some of you reading this have done this.  No one would let his or her family starve.  And most people probably wouldn’t give killing the chickens a second thought.  We should also keep in mind that the chickens you raise in your yard would probably live a much better and less brutal life than the chickens on the factory farm.

But what if things were really tough for your family, your clan, your tribe, your country?  Would you gather together an army and invade the adjacent territory to get enough farmland to avoid starvation?  If not, what would you do?  Submit yourself and your family as slaves to your neighbors?  Just starve?  Maybe you would gather an army afterall.  (At the risk of oversimplifying a complex conflict) Does Darfur sound familiar?

My point in this and the last article isn’t about what we should or shouldn’t do; it’s about the relationships, consequences, and responsibilities that technology hides in an industrial society.  My point today is that one of the things technology hides is the frequent harshness of life.  We outsource our moral decisions to others.  We pay others to witness the brutality of life.

Then again, if we had to witness these things ourselves, perhaps we wouldn’t even view them in moral terms; perhaps we would have to just come right out and admit that my family or my tribe or my country is more important to me than yours.  But at least the relationships would be visible and we’d be taking responsibility for our actions and experiencing their consequences.

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