Sunday 11 October 2020

Tales from a life without technology (kinda) - Kelly McCaughrain

Recently I read The Way Home by Mark Boyle, in which he describes his attempt to live without technology. The book is fascinating but I was particularly interested in his experience of writing without technology. 

He freely admits ‘technology’ is a woolly term that you have to define for yourself. Technically, language and pens can be described as technologies. But he did rule out electricity, which meant no laptop. He didn’t have a typewriter either. So it was back to pencils and paper to produce the book, plus his journalism on the subject, which he had to post to his editors, who also had to write letters to him since he didn’t have a phone. It took about a month to get an article published. Imagine a newspaper editor waiting a month for your article these days!

He said writing on paper is a process his generation (he’s about 40) has little experience of. He’d never tried to write anything without a computer and quickly realised it requires a different approach. We tend to vomit-draft our ideas on computer and then edit them, using the screen as an extension of our thinking process. But Boyle found he started to think for a lot longer before setting any words down, getting his ideas in order and knowing what he wanted to say before he said it. 

Mark Boyle

He said the paper he was using was cheap, but not cheap enough, because if he’d had to make his own paper, he’d have been even more careful about what he wrote.

When it came to the book being published, he had to use technology, and he elected to type up the manuscript himself. Which he soon regretted because he found staring at a screen for hours left him tired in a way that growing food, tending animals, chopping wood and the million other physical tasks involved in self-sufficiency did not. It was a different class of tiredness and a much less pleasant one. 

Mark's technology-free house. I'd live here.

I had great plans to write this blog post on paper, to test this theory, but in the end I ran out of time. And maybe even put it off because the idea was just so daunting. And it’s just a blog post! How on earth did Jane Austen write her novels? With a pen she had to stop to dunk in ink every few words! 

Anyway, the book is about our reliance on technology and the environmental impact of that. I think that we probably believe that we’re actively saving the planet when we send emails and use phone calls instead of posting letters, and when we draft on a computer instead of printing out reams of paper. We have this idea that computers and phones are carbon-neutral because they don’t produce anything we can hold in our hands and send to landfill.  

But my software engineer husband assures me we are deluded and proceeded to educate me on a lot of techy stuff I had no idea about. Namely:

Think about this – how many new smartphones have you had in the last decade or so? Probably a new one every couple of years when your contract runs out. And you had to upgrade, not only because you smashed your screen, but because your old one had started to run slowly, run out of memory and kept telling you to delete your photos. 


But does your latest smartphone actually do anything that your first one didn’t? You’re running the same apps (Facebook, Twitter, Email, Instagram, Whatsapp, Music Player, Camera), nothing significantly different. And your new phone has a vastly bigger memory than your first one. And yet it’s getting slower and slower. 

I think most people assume that their phone is somehow aging. Slowing down like a tired OAP who suddenly can’t cope with the things it used to. 

This is a big fat lie!

Phones do not deteriorate like this (though batteries do a bit) and they don’t lose their memories like someone with dementia. What is actually happening is this: Lazy programming.

Every time your phone insists that you ‘install upgrades’ or Facebook etc releases a shiny new improved version (like this really annoying Blogger one), these upgrades eat up more of your phone’s capacity to do stuff. The upgrades give you only slightly better features, but the programmers know that you’re using a better phone than you were last year, with more memory on it, so they don’t have to be as tidy with their software. They can sprawl out in that extra memory space and take up twice the room to do pretty much the same stuff. 

They might also be incorporating features that your old phone doesn’t have, such as multiple cameras, but often it’s just that it takes effort and elegant programming to make a program run on less memory, and why should Apple software care about making your phone function well for longer when you’ll be replacing it with an expensive new Apple phone?

All this goes for computers and laptops too. Your laptop is not running slow because it’s old, it’s running slow because the software is demanding more and more processing capacity.

And so we toss millions of pieces of perfectly good technology into landfill every year.

And all those online interactions are not carbon neutral. Every click has a cost and they require a physical infrastructure. They have to be processed by ‘server farms’, which are power-hungry and generate huge amounts of waste heat which has to be cooled using vast quantities of water, often in dry regions where water is scarce. Google are now storing their servers deep under the sea to keep them cool, or building them near coasts so they can use seawater as a coolant.

I don’t know enough about the eco-impact of that to comment, and I’m definitely not an expert on all this so if you’re interested I suggest you go and read more about it, but I just wanted to point out that, while we’re all becoming much more eco-aware, there are unseen costs to our technology use that never get mentioned.

In his book, Mark Boyle says he used to describe himself as an ‘environmentalist’ but he doesn’t anymore, because it seems to him that ‘environmentalism’ has become all about finding ways to maintain our over-consumptive lifestyles in ways that harm the earth a bit less, rather than about changing the way we live so we're more in harmony with the earth. It’s all about energy-saving lightbulbs rather than just switching the lights off and not over-illuminating our cities. It’s about electric transport, rather than suggesting we walk occasionally. 

Just to illustrate the point, I’ve just witnessed a neighbour take a heavy-duty power tool to a new hedge that could honestly have been trimmed with a pair of nail scissors. How often do we take the low-tech option these days? Even our shopping lists are on apps instead of the backs of envelopes. When my husband’s upstairs I phone him or text him rather than get off the sofa and go talk to him. 

I am not about to give up technology, but it was interesting to read about someone who did, and who was forced to think about what technology is worth keeping, what technology you can do without, and what technology life is actually better without. 

I think we are reliant on technology in ways we aren’t even aware of, and maybe it’s no healthier for us than it is for the environment. Maybe the healthy solution to climate change isn’t to harness enough wave and solar power to enable us to be more and more productive, stare at screens all day, and go to bed brain-dead and drained. Every click has an energy cost, and maybe not just to the planet but for us too. 


Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,
Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page




Nick Garlick said...

I want to say 'Interesting post; one that's got me thinking.' But that sounds so bland, even though your post really *IS* interesting and really *HAS* got me thinking.

One thing: as someone old enough to have written a few books on a typewriter, I bless - and continue to bless - the invention of the word processor.

Stroppy Author said...

I wrote my PhD thesis on a typewriter. A computer is definitely an improvement and although using a computer is not carbon neutral there is less harm in typing an 80K thesis and editing it on a word processor than producing, shipping and using the paper and typewriter ribbons for two or more drafts of a long work, double-spaced. The eco-cost in technology is largely, as you suggest, in people upgrading when things work. haven't replaced my phone in ten years as it still works. In that time, it will have saved a lot other potential eco-costs (camera film, paper for letters and the transport to move them, etc). Watching films on Netflix has a high power cost; clicking a like button or sending an email has a very very low eco-cost. Even the netflix is probably better than making gazillions of dvds. We need to be careful about dissing technology which, used properly, makes environmental savings. It's the consumerist aspect, the constant upgrading and duplication, that is most costly. I agree completely that it's better to walk than to get a more efficient car. But we need good public transport in all areas for more people to be able to get rid of their car. I don't have a car but I live in a city with reasonable rail links. Many people don't. As ever, it can't be all down to individuals without top-down support. Which is tragic, as the top-down will is not there.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Nick! I have an old typewriter and I think it would kill me to write a whole book on it! I've been trying to write a short story on paper and it's torture. Which I suppose only goes to show how used to tech we've become. I really don't know if I'd write at all if I had to do it all on paper.

Susan Price said...

I wrote books by hand and on a typewriter for about 14 years and, like Nick, it's made me eternally grateful for the word-processor. Indeed, once a friend had shown me his WP, I couldn't get hold of one fast enough. (No ribbon-changing! No carbon-papers, no correction fluid! No laborious re-typing of 'good copies.')

I've often thought about Austen, Bronte, Shakespeare... The sheer labour of writing what they did, with the inevitable rewrites (maybe several), on loose sheets of paper with quill pens, overwhelms me. I think I would have stuck to cutting coal.

But if we're all going to give up technology and return to a happy bucolic life, growing our own, chopping wood, huntin' and fishin', won't we need to drastically reduce the population? Who's volunteering? -- Perhaps we should hold Covid soirees and sneeze on each other? The Tory Party should hold the first one, to set an example. Don't forget to invite Cummings.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Stroppy Author and Susan! Yes, I think over-consumption is the big issue really, and technology will of course be the answer to climate-change eventually. But I thought it was very interesting (and very true) that 'environmentalism' does seem to have moved away from 'consuming less' towards us having everything we want but just trying to do it in a more eco-friendly way. Better for the environment but maybe not necessarily better for our mental health.