Mistakes we made along the way

Jared Diamond picks on agriculture as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race:

Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.

Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.

Then I read this piece on misunderstood jobs in The Atlantic, in which a construction worker describes the paradox of human progress too well for me to not quote the whole thing:

It’s 95 degrees and the humidity is 80%. People don’t understand that. People see a man with a shovel in his hand working on a job site and think he’s lazy because he’s just standing there. What they don’t see is the struggle going on inside your brain. The part of you that has lived in the wild for millions of years is saying it’s too exhausting, it’s too hot, why don’t you go lay in the shade for a while. That part of your brain sees the shovel, sees the ditch, sees the pipe to be laid, and it doesn’t see how this is getting you food or sex. That other civilized part of you is saying, there is food and sex to be found in that ditch. You just need to hunch over that pipe for another 5 hours, and then for another three days, and then it’ll be this made up thing, Friday, and you’ll have this other made up thing, money. Then you can go out and eat and try to procure a mate.

You just need to clinch that shovel tightly for a little longer and you can get what you want. The little tribesman in your mind doesn’t understand this. Things were easier in his time. Sure you only lived to be 26, but if it was too hot you didn’t move, if some bit of fruit was too hard to reach you walked to the next tree and looked for lower fruit. There is no low hanging fruit left in this world though.

You hold that shovel and think if only I could bludgeon that little tribesman in my brain. Then I could be free to give myself to wage labor, free to force my body to do what it doesn’t want to. So when you see a man on the side of the road not moving just watching some machine manipulate earth, know that he may not be lazy, but just engaged in a struggle between a past that shaped us and a present that was made by us but not for us.

That last line is great, no? If I’m honest though, I’m just posting this out of my own little sense of laziness guilt, because today I visited this site’s admin page for the first time in so long that I actually had to log in. Bad sign.

I feel sorry for blogging. How could something so great just wither on the vine? There are vast prairies of abandoned blogs now. Without any specific decision, there’s been a mass migration to social networks, like tribesmen picking up and moving to cities overnight. It’s certainly not the worst decision in internet history but maybe it’s fair to say that it wasn’t given much consideration at the time. “Just imagine a band of savages,” Diamond writes, “exhausted from searching for nuts or chasing wild animals, suddenly grazing for the first time at a fruit-laden orchard or a pasture full of sheep.” Progress isn’t deliberated upon, it’s magnetic. But once drawn in, you might find yourself living (in a shotgun shack) on a cheaply manufactured high-carb, high-fructose diet of realtime information. You’ve traded still pools of honest expression for rivers of pageviews and machine-generated timelines. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether we all made a little mistake with that.

Or maybe not. Maybe the super-accelerated infobahn of internet time just breeds early-onset blogging nostalgia, like how being a tweedy professorial New England type can lead you to be nostalgic about scratching around in the underbrush for berries and shit. Progress is having none of that. Progress tells you to shut up, grab the shovel, and dig.

Previously on Thoughtwax: Running, hunting.

— 02 Sep 2011