November is hard. The days are shorter, colder, darker. There are still jobs to do outside, but there is also work to do inside. Or pseudo-work. Working for a large land management agency in the 21st century requires manipulation of information. I have a morbid curiosity about bureaucratic tasks and find it difficult to believe that some people take this far more seriously than field work. So it is with a sense of detachment that I immerse myself in the very abstract world of numbers and lines of data.
There are moments when I regard the glowing screen with something less than affection. My body is immobilized in a chair and the only parts that move are my eyes and right hand on the mouse. Click, click, click. This cannot be healthy, and I entertain a fantasy of what a sledgehammer could do to a computer. Visions of Luddites arise, smashing machines to protest the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. They had a point. It wasn’t the labor-saving inventions that they had a problem with, but the poor wages and working conditions brought about by increasing production. When a worker exists only to feed spinning machines, what difference does it make that he/she has skills gained over time and contributes to a greater good by being a member of a community? The Luddites were not so much suspicious of technology as of the changes that technology wrought in the experience of being human. They did not want to turn into machines themselves.
Fast forward to the digital age, where technology infuses every part of contemporary life. My coworkers and I joke about being assimilated, but at some level it isn’t funny. We are living through a revolution that is changing our experience of being human. Will we become digital ourselves? Feeding a database is not the same thing as chopping a log with an axe. Chopping the log is direct work, calories transformed into effort and results. Clicking a mouse to feed a database is a way of managing information about that log on a trail. It is several steps removed from the tangible world of sights and smells and physical obstructions. I feel the analytical logical linear left hemisphere of my brain become overheated as I stare at the screen. It is with great relief that I stand up and walk outside to climb down out of my head. Awareness rushes through my limbs and I remember that I have arms and legs and a beating heart.
I can call myself a descendant of the Luddites. I am not mechanical or digital, and I bring an attitude of inquiry to our current fascination with electronic devices. (The irony is not lost on me as I type on a laptop.) When I finish this post, I am going to sit binding the edge of a new quilt with careful stitches in blue thread. The work of my hands with actual materials is deeply satisfying, and I treasure my ability to focus deeply on it.
November is about half over. The tedious bureaucratic tasks will soon be done for another season, and then there will be a return to field work. I’m looking forward to the cold fingers, dripping nose, and wintery forest. Yes, I am. And a new quilt to sleep under.