Saturday, October 19, 2013

Reflections on Technology, Humans, and Botanic Gardens (Ethnobotechny!)

I've been writing this from my personal computer, as the computer here at the Gardens I usually use has been in the local Apple computer hospital due to a temperamental power button, which is a pretty crucial part of the machine. After someone at the Genius Bar checked out the machine, he explained that he hoped the problem had to do with the power supply rather than the power button itself, because if it was the power button, the entire interior of the machine would have to be dismantled and rebuilt... practicality definitely seems to be taking a backseat to design elegance. Just look at an Apple product and see if you could even think of a way to simply open the thing up without cracking the screen. Ironically, I wrote that last sentence before Apple called me and informed me that the computer wouldn't be ready for a few more days because they had to order a new screen, as they cracked the original one when they were replacing it!

Magic seems to be the only thing that can be used to open this thing up.  Photo credit:

During the computer's absence, I've been reflecting on how vitally integrated computers and the Internet have become for staff in botanic gardens and many other industries and areas of life as well. I use a computer to keep plant records, map plants, produce labels, research and write plant profiles, blog, plan, choose plants for our collections, educate others, communicate with others, learn how to do something new, purchase products, etc. Almost everything I do here at the Gardens involves personal computers and the Internet (neither of which even existed one hundred years ago!) as a major, crucial component. After I got back from taking the computer in, I had to sit in the office for a few minutes and literally think really hard about what things I could do now that I didn't have a computer. I found myself wishing I could experience what it would have been like to work at a botanic garden during the 1700s or 1800s: working with paper records, making labels by hand, visiting libraries for research, writing out pamphlets for education, keeping a notebook, setting up physical meetings with others, communicating via letters, and tracking down specific plants only after extensive travels. Liberty Hyde Bailey and Asa Gray would know something about all that:

Liberty Hyde Bailey.  Photo credit:
Asa Gray at his desk.  Photo credit:

I then began to think about why exactly we develop and adopt new technology. Today, developing and adopting new technology has become so ingrained in our society that there don't really seem to be questions of "if" or "why"; it's assumed that further technological advancement is beneficial progress.

It seems the major reason humans have historically embraced technology and chosen to develop it is the perceived promise of making life easier, simpler, longer, and better overall. Theoretically, if technology makes it quicker and easier to do something, we would have less work to do since we can now do what once took eight hours in two hours and what once took a month in a day. The irony is that the more technology makes things easier and simpler, the more stressful work seems to become, and we still work the same amount of time (more in most cases, to provide for a longer life!). This is because the overall business climate of the world is competitive and profit/goal-driven and 40+ hour work weeks have become the "norm," so if time can be saved by technology, businesses will not normally give their workers an equivalent amount of time off, but will instead require them to complete more tasks at a quicker pace, while at the same time having to learn how to work with constantly updated technological tools, all of which thereby increases productivity/profit, but also stress. Something similar happens with our personal lives, where technology makes many tasks much quicker and easier (e.g. laundry, dishes, cooking, heating the home, errands around town, etc.), and yet many of us feel like we barely have time to breathe! Sure, technological development and progress in the past was slower, but was that necessarily a bad thing?

Photo credit:

After seeing this a while back I laughed, but not for too long.

The tools technology offers us are certainly extremely powerful and extremely useful, but I wonder if there is a point where that power, speed, utility, entertainment, and lifespan could be considered by us to be "good enough" or perhaps even "optimum." It's pretty easy to learn from experience that "more" is never enough, and that one desire satisfied makes way for another unless one understands and embraces contentment. Contentment, however, is not one of mankind's "default settings"... it's something we have to dig deep to find in our "system settings" and enable. The trouble is that our society holds accumulation of wealth and the fulfillment of desires (both of which are diametrically opposed to contentment, and also driving forces for technological development) as the ultimate measures of success and happiness.

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This, of course, is a lie that is too often taken for truth. If the promise of technology is to make life better overall, then why are so many technologically-optimized people who accumulate the most wealth and fulfill the most desires in developed countries so miserable? There are indigenous people I lived with in the Peruvian rainforest who have little more than their families, their simple homes, arts and crafts, and their surrounding natural environment who seem to demonstrate that the opposite is true. I certainly admit that technology has given us many blessings, but I also think that, like the relationship between earnings and happiness, there is an optimum peak to the rate of technological development and the nature of its adoption during a person's life as it relates to human well-being and contentment.

John Muir at Yosemite, with a walking stick as the extent of his technology.  Photo credit:

Steve Jobs showcasing what is clearly a better, more technologically advanced experience, no walking stick necessary.  Photo credit:

I see plants as ideal models for us of contentment; they spend their time living with what they have rather than obsessively developing newer technologies they think might improve their quality of life. They seem to have learned that since more is never enough, life with a good supply of the necessities is optimal; no more, no less. Could we not also thrive and bloom beautifully with only good provisions for our basic needs of fresh air, water, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and hygiene? How much technology do we really need for optimum well-being and what good could we do with the resources we would normally allocate to technological development if we chose to be content with a more elemental existence, as plants are?

An explosion of life and beauty exuding optimum well-being with just air, water, and sunlight. The resources it doesn't use are made available to and used by other plants to thrive.

Technology has no power on its own (yet), only what is given to it by humans; it is not inherently evil in itself, but is a valuable tool that can be used however we see fit, for our good or otherwise. I suppose everyone has a different idea regarding what kinds of technology are worth adapting and to what extent.

Technology making life better than it's ever been!  Photo credit:

So where do botanic gardens fit in with all this? I've always perceived botanic gardens as places to "get off the technological treadmill" as it were, places to experience the world in a more elemental form. It is so powerful for me to feel the relative silence in which the natural world and the universe in general exist without us and how restorative this quietness can be to the human spirit. One thing that's neat about gardens is that they can fit into crowded spaces, so they can exist precisely where they are needed most. I hope botanic gardens will always exist as sanctuaries where one can experience the natural world more directly, inspiring reflection and important questions like: What is life on this earth all about and is there an "optimum" way to live here in relationship with Earth's other creatures, both individually and globally? What am I doing in my life and why? What can I learn from the natural world around me, which has existed without humans for millions of years? Are technology and what society puts forth as valuable distracting me from what is truly important? Perhaps there will be a time when questions like these will hardly ever be asked by the general population due to technological exposure almost every moment of the day from birth to death, causing us to be estranged from ourselves, our ultimate purposes for our lives on earth, and the sources of true joy and fulfillment, as in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It is scary how strangely similar the world in that book seems to our own today, but there is reason for hope if gardens remain, where humans can go to get back in touch with their humanity and glean profound insights in the company of Earth's quietest creatures.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director