13 02 2011

Forty years ago John Lennon asked us to imagine a world with no religion. No possessions. A brotherhood of man.

It’s easy if you try, he said.

While his deep lyrical intonement were was wrapped in a melody that had Top 40 written all over it, I’m not so sure it really is easy to imagine away all the world’s problems. Inequities. Injustices. They are just bigger than life, and no amount of wishful thinking can make them go away.

The same goes for our increasingly wired lives. (Never mind the irony that, as we become more wired, we are actually becoming more wire-less.) Can you imagine a world in which we had no internet. No cell phone. No Facebook?

Yeah yeah yeah. I know. It’s easy if you try. And for those of us over 50, all we have to do is dig deep in our cranial recesses, for therein lay fading black-and-white memories of a technological Stone Age.

So when Wired Magazine posted a photo essay of the “The Last Uncontacted People,” it set my brain’s wheels to spinning. Can we imagine what must it be like to be living in a social cave, completely disconnected from the rest of civilization? What would life be like without even the most basic of things? You know…like electricity? Mechanized transportation? The internet?

For that matter, could we even imagine the things of which we likely could not even begin to imagine exist in the first place?

Yes, I love a good conundrum.

This is the kind of thing that gets people started wishing we could return to simpler times. That somehow life was better back then. Slower. More relaxed. Safer. But I think our collective memories are mistaken, only because we tend to get swept away in the frustrations of the moment. We forget that, while we existed in those former moments, we were probably just as stressed out as we are now in our more advanced state of living.

While scientists and anthropologists speculate there may be as many as 100 isolated tribes having never experienced contact with civilization, it is but intellectual folly for us to think that those people are better off than we. That life would be better if we could return to the halcyon days of our human past (pick any year).

Daydreamers and poets have tried to envision a world without the trappings of the day, and in most instances, they only met with frustration. I just finished erading (and watching again) Into The Wild, detailing the adventures of one Christopher McCandless (aka Alex Supertramp). Alex graduated from Emory in 1990, and dropped out of life to head west. He ditched his car. Burned his money. Shunned his family. He bounced around the US, working odd jobs, living off the land, and mooching (yeah…money may be the root of all evil, but you sure as heck need it to live).

Alex was heavily influenced by the idealistic thinking of folks like Thoreau, London and Tolstoy. In April 1992 he headed north to Alaska, hitching rides and hopping trains. On 28 April he was dropped off at Stampede Trail near Healy, and headed off the grid for his ultimate adventure: surviving the wild with nothing but a few bare essentials.

It was the last time he was ever seen. That is, until 06 September, when his body was found inside an abandoned city bus some 25 miles from the highway.

It was in dying that Alex learned the secret to living: that happiness is only real when shared. And while I admire a large part of his adventurous spirit, I know that it was his desire to break away from society that ultimately did him in. There is no turning back.

While it may be interesting to contemplate the ways and means of The Last Uncontacted People, the literary musings of Thoreau, the blind ambition of Alex, I can only be concerned with where I am headed, not where I have been. Furthermore, I see no point in rescuing those uncontacted people and trying to whisk them away to the 21C. We would only bring disease and ruin to them. Let them be. Let us admire from afar.

Maybe Lennon really was trying to imagine a future world, not some long-gone civilization on the Serengeti. But then again, maybe his lyrical musings were the wishful thinking of someone convinced there is beauty in simplicity. I’m not so sure that’s possible. As for me, I find more beauty in complexity. I find more hope in tomorrow, not yesterday. And I am happy to not be on the uncontacted list.

Besides, I really do like my technology and the devices it brings. How else would we even begin to have this conversation asynchronously. Across miles, continents, time zones? Across devices?

Dr “Yeah…Imagine That” Gerlich




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