The Tragedy of Technology


Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world.

The 2015 film Everest is the kind of thing that can make the blood of rational people boil just a slight bit.   It documents the 1996 climbing disaster where 8 people died (caught in a blizzard) while trying to ascend or descend from the summit.   The film is one of many treaties on the subject; the book Into Thin Air gives a more thorough background on it (and yes, there are counterpoint arguments and books on the topic).

The events of that year (and of many other mountaineering disasters) have called into question the commercialization of Everest, and the wisdom of having novice climbers attempt such feats.  The commercialization of Everest (and of climbing it when you have little to no 8000 meter-plus experience) makes you muse on how this state of affairs has come to be, the parallels in other fields of endeavor, and the general outlook of our society on “adventure” and “goals” in general.

For one, the commercialization of Everest climbs makes you realize how much money and its connections have crept into practically every part of life.  You can hire a Sherpa to help you carry stuff up to Everest, have people write pop songs for you (and film a video of you singing it), or even pay for a trip to the edge of space, provided you have enough spare cash laying about.   Yes, there are some regimens that you must go through for some of these ‘adventures’ or ‘experiences’, but in many cases, a lot of the hard work and details that you would normally gather as part of a much longer training process are skipped, and you only get the ‘crash course’ version of things in preparing for them.  If all goes well, you’ll probably be OK, but if things go off script, you’ll be in a world of hurt.   The comment by the ever wise Publilius Syrus,  “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm,” is a perfect summary of this; these “adventures” are the equivalent of giving people the helm in a calm sea.   The mastery that used to come with years of dedication to such pursuits isn’t there, and it can show when the chips are down.

The tragedy of this state of affairs is partially brought on by technology, which allows people to do things “safely” that would otherwise be seen as risky, and a culture that seems to prize (as Guy McPherson would put it) “go faster” as its topmost goal.  The “go faster” idea has even morphed into “be the youngest person to do X”, where X may be something that requires maturity and good judgement to complete the task at hand.  Yes, it is possible for young people to be mature and level headed, but to attempt some thing as a stunt to primarily sell a book or story to the media is insane (for every story of a Laura Dekker sailing around the world there is another Jessica Dubroff dying while flying a Cessna cross-country, or Abby Sunderland, who cost Australian taxpayers over $A 200K in rescue fees).    In a strange way, technology allows people (using technologies such as GPS, autopilots, and satellite/cell phones) to attempt such feats at younger and younger ages, but also allows them to attempt such tasks when there is no good reason for doing so.  Yes, there is something to be said that many young people are coddled a bit too much, and are insulated from the reality of the world.  Sailing solo (which can be a useful skill) is great, but to actively pursue a course of action (like sailing for days and weeks on end solo) which has little margin for error is foolhardy.  When you get down to it, it can even be considered illegal, and not for trivial, bureaucratic reasons.

The main complaint here is not so much that people are doing these things at all, but the base reasons behind doing them don’t meet any standard for real usefulness.   Why are these people doing these actions, and taking these risks?  Ego?  Some sort of New Age “self-actualization?”  If you are escaping from a truly dangerous situation, and have no other options, than these sorts of stories are more understandable (stories of escape during wartime, for example).  Technology (and the corresponding technology-derived social and traditional media that can generate financial support) can allow these sorts of ego-driven fantasies to happen, but is this what our society needs?   What about the immense amount of resources (again, fueled by those with money) that are expended in these (quite literal) ego trips?

Climbing the world’s highest peaks, skiing to the North and South Poles to write books and become a ‘motivational speaker’ seem rather selfish and trivial, unless they have some more noble and underlying mission.  For example, working at the South Pole, or climbing mountains for serious scientific study can get you to these places, and seem better uses of society’s limited material resources.  There are plenty of challenges, problems that need solving, and predicaments that need navigating in this world, and adventures do not need to be half a world away.   Defending the rights of people in your own backyard; keeping your friends, family, and community together; limiting the influence of technology on our lives – these are all noble causes that deserve more time and energy than these empty ego-driven pursuits.


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