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.

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills (Today) – Follow Up

She Walks These Hills: Past vs Present

Considering that She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, how would the novel be different if it was written in the present? How would the roles of each character be affected with society’s dependence on technology today? Would the trail be different? How would the local community spread their information?

Where would Hank be Today?

The biggest character difference between (1994 and 2017) would be Hank. In the novel, he is a radio host and was the glue that spread information and invited communication. While the radio is still an important way to spread information, is it still as impactful as it was back then? What other types of technology are able to connect to people today? What is today’s “radio”?

People today are more on-the-go and spend more time on their laptops or their phones. Many people listen to the radio on their commute to work. However, that is becoming less common since the introduction to technology such as Bluetooth in cars. People would rather listen to their own music, free of commercials, instead of listening to the radio. Often, people get their information through news websites, internet blogs, Facebook, etc. Based on the sometimes relevant/mostly irrelevant information that Hank talks about in the novel, from gossip to trying to prove the innocence of an escaped convict, Hank would most likely be an internet blogger. Unlike Radio Hank, Blogger Hank wouldn’t be able to have as much personal contact with his audience. Radio Hank had frequent people calling in to tell him information or discuss a certain topic. In contrast, Blogger Hank wouldn’t have people as many people trying to tell in information immediately. Rather, Hank would merely be writing about a certain topic, allowing viewers to be able to write their own post on their opinions/thoughts. This is drastically different in the sense that not everyone would be receiving the same information since not every single person reading Hank’s blogs would be reading all the comments written by the viewers – including Hank himself.

Where would Jeremy be Today?

Jeremy would still be too unexperienced to be traveling through the Appalachian trail since he still would have been a first-time hiker. However, the items he brings along with him for his journey may be different. Instead of books, Jeremy would probably bring his iPad/laptop which contain the books that he wants for his journey in addition to being able to finding time to write about his journey on his laptop. Since the Jeremy in the novel brought everything imaginable with him on the trail to cover all possible scenarios, he would probably have his phone containing hiking apps and digital maps of the Appalachian Trail. Instead of having to drop all of his items during his trip because of weight, Jeremy would have to leave his items because they got wet from the weather or because he couldn’t find a place to charge his electronics in the case that his portable chargers ran out of battery.

Where would Harm be Today?

Harm’s character wouldn’t be much different than the character he was in the novel. Since he was an escaped convict, he would still have to travel through the Appalachian Trail without supplies, unless he found a way to obtain supplies along his journey. Additionally, since he was serving time for approximately 30 years before he escaped, he would not be as aware of the changes in technology while he was in prison. Harm of the past would still be the same as Harm of the present since he would still be using instinct, knowledge of the land, experience as a hiker, and luck to reach his destination. The only difference with Harm’s journey would be if the Appalachian Trail were to drastically change from his time in prison.

How Would the Town Communicate Today?

In the novel, the community’s main sources of spreading information was through speaking with each other in person, listening to the radio, and occasionally using the landline telephone. Individuals spent more time talking to each other in person and spreading gossip/information. As mentioned in the novel, when trying to research information on Harm, Hank found it more beneficial to obtain information by speaking with people rather than looking at old newspapers/articles.

As a small and close-knit community that was generally technologically unadvanced, communication with others in the town today would still have a focus on face-to-face contact but would also find more time communicating with each other through online medians (text messaging, phone calls, Facebook posts, email, etc.). People would still listen to the radio but they would not be listening or calling in as frequently as they did in the past. The radio would be used more for listening to music, weather/traffic reports, and the occasional gossip rather than the main source of information on important local gossip/news on people/current events surrounding the community. The radio would be used more for impartial, informative, and sometimes entertainment purposes while personal contact or communicating online would be used in order to spread “important” information to each other.

The Trail Today

With people viewing their cell phones as a necessary item, many hikers (day and thru) bring their cell phones with them on the trail. While there are more marked trails than there were in the past, people also use the GPS on their phones to tell them where they are. Additionally, more thru-hikers (hikers that hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season) are bringing other technology such as laptops or tablets along their journey to blog or as a source of entertainment.

With society today becoming more dependent on technology than they were 10 years ago, the types of items that people deem “unnecessary” have also changed. While a solar shower can still be determined as superfluous on the trail, many hikers have changed their opinions on bringing a cell phone on the trail. Today, the cell phone can be used simply for calling family members to ensure them that they are safe, finding upcoming rest areas, determining how much further away a hiker is from a certain destination, or even for ordering pizza. The most important thing to consider now that technology on the trail has become more frequent in recent years is to determine and decide what is unnecessary on the trail and what can be considered as beneficial for a hiker (novice and experienced).

Reading Reflection: A Walk in the Woods

One of the better known books from a hiker who tackled the roughly 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail is A Walk in the Woods, written by Bill Bryson. I finished it in just over a week, and the content should be easily understandable even for readers completely unfamiliar with hiking or the region. Overall, my enjoyment was limited by not sharing the same sense of humor as the author, but I found the middle section appealing for its blend of facts and description of the actual Appalachian Trail hiking experience. Published in 1998, the technological aspects of the trail have doubtless changed, but there are a few insights I’d like to pull out and examine.

I won’t belabor the point, but I was disappointed by how often the author added “humor” by mocking or demeaning other people. Some of the jokes are outright microaggressions against minorities (or, really, anyone with less privilege than the author). Although I didn’t grow up near Virginia Tech, I know the school is involved in many studies and projects to help rural Appalachian people, so the fact that the author frequently speaks ill of this demographic is a big sticking point for me. Wholeheartedly agreeing with the premise of Deliverance and often mentioning a fear of being murdered by “hill people” isn’t humorous.

So rather than summarize and respond to main plot points (which would amount to more of the above paragraph), I’m going to be pulling out relevant themes and then responding to some specific interesting points or statements that caught my attention while reading.

Technology on the Trail

While technology was hardly the focus of the book, there was plenty to examine about the tension between humans (both our technology and our presence) and nature. Consider the passage in chapter 7 describing the Smoky Mountain balds. These patches of grassy mountainside inexplicably without tree cover are a sight to behold, and they house an impressive diversity of species which live nowhere else in the park. However, it’s unclear whether these features are natural or manmade. When the book was written, as a result of no grazing or other maintenance of the balds, forest species were encroaching on the area. Should humans intervene and keep the balds in a semi natural state that preserves its unique species, or should the “wilderness” be left completely to its own devices?

This dynamic between “true” wilderness and human-touched nature remains an undertone to the discussion of hiking and trails. Bryson captured the extremes well at the end of chapter 15 while contrasting the Appalachian Trail’s “protected corridor” of “wilderness” with a trail he hiked in Luxembourg which included not only scenic woodland but also historic castles, villages, and river valleys. He goes on to say

“In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition – either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat is as holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.”

Particularly, he mentions several places where American architecture more or less plops concrete and asphalt down as needed and considers the area aesthetically ruined rather than making any attempt to have architecture complement natural beauty. I would like to think architecture and design have embraced more hybrid human and nature constructs over the last two decades, but we still have a way to go in breaking down that black and white either/or dynamic. Seeing a single car drive down a dirt road doesn’t completely destroy the beauty of the forest around it. Neither does seeing a human holding a cell phone while hiking.

Seeing other people on the trail is an issue in and of itself. Bryson remarks in many places that some of the parks and managing organizations of the trail seem to want to reduce the visitor count to the trails. The article on Baxter State Park linked once above explicitly mentions park policy wanting to cap the growth of visitor counts to the park. I read a paper a little while ago about an asocial hiking app meant to help you avoid seeing other people on the trail. Indeed, many people go hiking to escape society. I personally dislike crowds and busy public places. But why exactly are we trying to limit how many people get to experience the beauty of a state park? Who exactly should be prevented from entering? In the middle of chapter 16, Bryson remarks

“In 1996 the Wall Street Journal ran a splendid article on the nuisance of satellite navigation devices, cell phones, and other such appliances in the wilderness. All this high-tech equipment, it appears, is drawing up into the mountains people who perhaps shouldn’t be there.”

There’s a lot of subtle elitism and gatekeeping to unpack from that viewpoint, which is certainly not unique to Bryson, and I don’t doubt it will be relevant to many areas of technology on the trail research.

Other Interesting Points

First, at a few points, the “rules” of the Appalachian Trail are brought up. In chapter 7, Bryson writes

“The Park Service (why does this seem so inevitable?) imposes a host of petty, inflexible, exasperating rules on AT hikers, among them that you must move smartly forward at all times, never stray from the trail, and camp each night at a shelter. It means effectively not only that you must walk a prescribed distance each day but then spend the night penned up with strangers.”

The rules may have changed in the two decades since his hike, but a bit of searching turns up no lack of rules these days. USA Today describes some broad policies across the trail, but a long distance hiker will have to worry about how the rules vary from state to state and park to park. For example, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy details what permits you might have to worry about along the entire trail. Baxter State Park, known for its strict rules, drew media attention when fining and publicly reprimanding a recent thru-hiker for breaking several rules upon his arrival on Mount Katahdin, the very end of the Appalachian Trial.

Obviously, some rules are necessary. Particularly when protecting nature from humans (like forest fires) and vice versa (like getting lost in miles of wilderness). However, there’s a balance to be had between overly limiting responsible hikers, especially thru-hikers who will face a variety of regulations in different states, and preventing irresponsible visitors from doing damage.

Of note, I also enjoyed Bryson’s brief account in chapter 10 in which some of the shelters in a stretch of Virginia had brooms.

“Several [shelters] were even provisioned with a broom – a cozy, domestic touch. Moreover, the brooms were used (we used them, and whistled while we did it), proving that if you give an AT hiker an appliance of comfort he will use it responsibly.”

Especially with officials worried about increased park attendance and decreased park funding, allowing hikers and visitors to pitch in some general maintenance could go a long way.

Speaking of trail maintenance, Bryson mentions the quality of the maps he uses at various points, and upon entering the New York and northward parks which provided extremely detailed maps, he remarks in chapter 15 upon how much that improved his experience.

“I can’t tell you what a satisfaction it is to be able to say, ‘Ah! Dunnfield Creek, I see,’ and, ‘So that must be Shawnee Island down there.’… It occurred to me now that a great part of my mindless indifference to my surroundings earlier on was simply that I didn’t know where I was.”

The experience must be vastly different now with electronic maps and GPS smartphones, but I wonder how the aspect of being able to name one’s surroundings affects one’s general experience of being in the “wilderness.” That alone could be a rich research area.

Accounts of hiking would hardly be complete without nature. The first animal description that tickled me enough to look up was the hellbender salamander mentioned in chapter 7, which is also known as the snot otter. Unfortunately, he never encountered one. Also among the things he mentions but never encounters are dozens of extinct species, such as the American chestnut tree which was wiped out by an alien fungus in the early twentieth century. He described a historical photograph of how mighty the trees were, perhaps one of the photos on this site. I appreciated the various descriptions of extinct birds, plants, and other wildlife that Bryson offered throughout the book. In the last twenty years, we’ve no doubt lost dozens more; we’re in the midst of a mass extinction, after all. On the other end of the spectrum, chapter 10 begins with a vivid description of how discovering American species created such a craze in western European countries – and some of these cuttings and saplings retrieved by explorers and botanists have been preserved in captivity despite dying out in the wild.

In chapter 11, Bryson describes the trouble he faced when attempting to walk a few miles across Waynesboro rather than catching a cab. Between a lack of sidewalk, bridges with no room for pedestrians, and private property with tall fences, being a pedestrian in a city or suburb becomes nearly impossible. Even hikers or marathon runners comfortable with going long distances on foot find themselves unable to get by in our current society without cars (besides the impracticality of spending so much time commuting). Many cities are installing more pedestrian- and biker-friendly terrain, and it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the relationship between the personal car and the setup of our cities.