Reading reflection: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

There are tons of “American journey” stories out there, and authors can struggle to find an interesting angle toward authoring a book or blog or such. Rinker Buck certainly can’t be called uninteresting in his choice of adventure: re-creating the Oregon Trail in modern times using the same style of ox-drawn covered wagon employed by the settlers.

Rinker Buck’s book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey chronicles his journey along the Oregon Trail, a gateway across America taken by settlers in the early 1800s.  The book notes that the notion of a single “Oregon Trail” is deceptive, as there are many paths that were used by settlers making the journey west. Parts of the trail have become roads and highways and some goes through private property, but much of it is far from civilization, so the author had to choose a path that was safe, legal, and enjoyable.  The book balances stories about traveling through wilderness and traveling on modern roads in an old-style vehicle, interleaving the history of the trail and observations about the people that he met along the way.

As always, I kept an eye toward tech use, which was not at all a focus of the book.  The author had a mobile phone on his journey that he occasionally used, but generally he relied on the oft-present kindness of people that he encountered along his journey.  He certainly had a lot to say about the role of technology in enabling trail travel, then in making it obsolete–focusing on tech advances in transportation, manufacturing, and farming. In reading between the lines, the author seemed to intentionally avoid writing about personal technology use, seeking to add to the air of authenticity regarding their journey.

Overall, the book was entertaining and very well written, certainly worth a read both for the historical perspectives and to learn about a meaningful trip across America.

Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Lines

At our Technology on the Trail workshop in March, invited speaker Alan Dix highly recommended a book by Tim Ingold titled Lines: A Brief History. We purchased it and made it available to people taking part in the initiative, with some thoughts listed here.

From Alan Dix’s blog post referencing Lines: “Ingold’s thesis is that we have privileged the point or place in modern thought, seeing the connection as merely the means of getting from A to B. Ingold is an anthropologist and spent time studying reindeer herders. Their way of life is to follow the herds as they make seasonal migrations; for the tribes following the herds it is the way they follow, the path, the line, which is primary.”

Ingold’s book explores how lines are a key part of walking, writing, storytelling, and much more.  The book probes the foundational meaning of a line, and what it is and means across various domains, noting early on that “to an illiterate reader, lines have no more meaning than abstract art”. There are tons of other examples in computing in HCI, e.g., certainly those who study visualization have a skill in recognizing patterns that an unskilled eye could not pick out.

The book is highly speculative, putting forth a series of analyses of topics and situations that were often not well grounded in evidence, which some found unsatisfying. Grad seminar participant Colin Shea-Blymer summed up this viewpoint very well:

I honestly appreciate the book’s magnificent scope, and, when taken as more of an artistic endeavor, it succeeds in that scope in many ways. However, coming into the book from a more critical perspective I found Ingold’s introductory apology for his lack of depth in many of the subjects he tied lines to unsatisfactory. The sections of his book that I muddled through read more like a stringing-together of romantic-era aesthetic arguments as evidence towards an unstated hypothesis; done without criticism of the arguments he appropriates. In brief, the book works well if you’re looking for an eye-opening overview of how lines go undetected in human art and society, but falters if the reader begins to scrutinize the arguments within. The path Ingold illuminates is beautiful and worth peering down, but the steps he takes appear treacherous and unstable upon closer inspection.

There’s more Ingold work, including another book that seems like it might be even more relevant to our Technology on the Trail theme, an edited collection titled Ways of Walking: Ethnographies and Practice on Foot (also available in the Virginia Tech library), stemming from a meeting of anthropologists who split time “sitting in a traditional seminar room” and “climb[ing] up through the forest and out to the open hillside”.  Given the similarity to our own seminar, there may be a review of this book in the near future!

Reading Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. His book is one of the historically great Technology on the Trail books, balancing tech issues of maintaining a motorcycle with the experiences afforded by a road trip through small towns with his son. I’ve read it previously and picked it up again after hearing of Pirsig’s death—it’s interesting to reconnect with his journey after recently reading and hearing about the journeys identified in preparation for our Technology on the Trail initiative.

Worth a look if you’re not familiar with it, and worth a look if you haven’t looked in a while.  Good luck finding a copy…I suspect there will be a run on the copies for a while.

Reading Reflection: Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology

As an MIT alum, Eric Brende understands how technology can be used on a daily basis in order to influence society and promote efficiency. As a man who went “off the grid” for a year living in a town where the people living in the town would consider the Amish as advanced, Eric Brende discovers how to survive independent of technology often taken for granted. Brende’s novel, Better off Flipping the Switch on Technology, explores now technology can positively and negatively affect an individual’s life.

Experienced vs Inexperienced

When Eric and his wife first move to the “unplugged” town, they are inexperienced in terms of not using technology and going “off the grid”. Their new lifestyle drastically changes how they learn how to perform everyday tasks such as cooking (since they do not own a refrigerator and must learn how to cook food that can be preserved for long amounts of time), obtaining drinkable water/washing dishes/doing laundry (since there is no running water), and farming as a means to earn a living and eat since there isn’t a nearby grocery store nearby. Instead of searching how to do something online and receiving an answer instantaneously, Eric and his wife learn through trial and error and by receiving advice and knowledge from experience of the locals. While performing a task without the use constant use of technology often takes longer and may seem tedious, Brende views these tasks as insightful and rewarding since tasks are now dependent on the human rather than on technology.

Viewpoints on Technology

Throughout the novel, the author describes this certain period in his life as a way for him to step away from the use of technology since he feels as if it is controlling his life. The author generally focuses on the negative aspects of technology rather than the positive. Such negative aspects of technology include: how technology isolates you from every day interaction with people, how you spend so much time with technology it’s almost as if you’re in a daze (driving hours to get to work), and how you become so dependent on technology you never recognize that certain tasks can be done without technology.

While the author constantly explains negative aspects of technology, he rarely focuses on how technology can be beneficial. For instance, with technology, it has become easier to connect with people that you’ve lost communication with faster (ex: Facebook over writing letters). However, messaging a person on social media instead of contacting a person by writing a letter is deemed less personal by society. Additionally, farming (what Brende spent many hours during the day completing while “unplugged”) can be done much more efficiently using technology. By spending less time farming during the day with the use of technology, Brende could have had more leisure time to relax and “have fun”. Throughout the novel, Brende mentions how people can live without luxuries such as heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity but fails to focus on how much easier an individual’s living arrangements becomes with the use of technology. By not having to worry about trivial things such as washing dishes without running water, individuals have more time to complete other tasks rather than attacking tasks that can be completed quicker with the use of technology.

Machines vs Tools

In the community that the author is living in for a year, locals only use the “technology” that was used by people as described in The Bible. They generally refuse to use technology present today. However, why is it acceptable for the people in the community to use the technology from the past rather than the technology of the present? The main distinction between the two was that the technology of the past are considered to be “tools” rather than “machines”. Brende describes the difference by deciding that people dependent on machines, “besides often depriving their uses of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands – for fuel, space, money and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic.” Tools were considered an object that would be used to help perform a certain task whereas machines were objects that were used to perform a task quicker without understanding how to perform the actual task.

Communication Without the Use of Technology

The people in the town the author and his wife live in work as an interdependent community. Overall, people within the community interact with each other in order for all of them to be successful (helping with farming, building, and bringing food to each other). They often use “working” as a time for people to talk to each other about topics ranging from trivial gossip to insightful commentary about personal beliefs. The author uses this time in order to reflect on how the lack of technology affects his performance on everyday tasks and gain experiences from his more knowledgeable neighbors in order to become successful by learning farming and living tricks and cooking tips in order to accomplish tasks quicker or easier.

Relevance to Technology on the Trail

Reading about Eric Brende’s experiences and insights through “flipping the switch on technology” is highly relevant to Technology on the Trail. Not unlike the people from the community that Brende and his wife lived in, many hikers view technology as a taboo concept use excessively. For Technology on the Trail, it is important to research specifically what people determine as useful and unnecessary to bring on the Trail. Additionally, it is important to research and discover how to promote the use of technology on the trail without hindering a hiker’s natural experience on the trail. Not unlike Eric Brende learning how to farm, cook, and live without technology, I am interested in exploring if there is a way for technology to be used in order to share the experiences of a seasoned hiker in order to benefit less-experienced hikers on and off the trail.