Jilly D.

Resist grid logic

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 23, 2014 at 3:11 pm

IMG003Sam and I find common ground in our suspicions of modern technologies. We have no need of most electrical appliances others take for granted: hair dryers, electric blankets, can openers, blenders, pencil sharpeners, vacuum cleaners, clothes dryers, etc. All of these things waste energy. Doing things by hand is just as easy and much more economical. And there is something so much more fulfilling about doing or making something with your own hands.

492703-R1-10-11AMachines and tools have their place and purpose. What goes wrong is we become a tool in the hands of technology instead of the technology serving our purposes. As a college professor with an email account and office hours I resisted the technology of voicemail. My Dean insisted we utilize this telephone feature on all School of Communications office lines.

“Press one now if you’ve seen Elvis. Press two for Finnish language. Press three or wait until the beep if you have to leave voicemail for Jill Swenson.” I fulfilled my Dean’s request. His secretaries were the only ones to leave me messages.

Instead, I would have email from the hundreds of students enrolled in my classes each semester. If they missed a class they would write and ask for a brief summary of what they missed. Whatever happened to asking your classmate for lecture notes? I would get 20-30 of the same messages from different students every day asking me to repeat something individually to them that had been communicated previously in class, in print or online. Email is not a time saver; it simply makes more work than there was before. And you don’t get paid per email response. Whoever thought carpal tunnel syndrome would be an industrial work hazard for college professors?

As I drive past a bus stop on my way to Ithaca, I notice a young woman with an infant strapped to her chest. She holds a cell phone in her right hand with her arm extended away from the baby at her breast. Struggling to use the telephone without the interference of her baby provided a very disturbing picture of a modern mom.

I got in line to pick up photos from the 35 mm film I’d left to be developed. There were a half dozen people before me. The young woman in front of me had her cell phone in her hand. She phoned the store and asked for the photo department. We all heard the phone ring and interrupt the sales clerk who had to answer the phone.

“Hello, Photo Department,” the clerk answered.

“Hi, I’m wondering if my photos are ready for pickup today?” the young woman in front of me inquired and gave her last name.

The clerk put the phone down, went over to the cabinets, found the package of photos, put it back in its place and returned to the phone.

“Yes, they are ready for pickup today,” he said.

“Thank you.” Then she hung up.

How dare she cut in front of the customer he was waiting on with her phone call?  He put her photos right back where they were filed. How did that save her or anyone else any time?

You think that is pathetic, try going to a party. Don’t leave your cell phone behind. There is no face to face human interaction these days. Everyone is on their cell phone calling the person across the room from them to surreptitiously chat about the other people in the room; what they are wearing, who they are with, what isn’t being said aloud.

Like nearly a quarter million Americans, we live off-the -grid. That is to say, we do not derive any electricity from the national grid of power lines nor do we feed that corporate system. But in this day and age it means much more. When Thoreau took to the woods there were no such things as cell phones or satellite dishes. When Eliot Wigginton assigned the students in Rabun Gap to collect the local wisdom in the Foxfire series of books they didn’t get TV reception, much less cable or internet access in the north Georgia mountains. When Scott and Helen Nearing took to the Vermont to escape the Depression there was little concern for daily news updates, facebook, twitter or other digital nonsense.  With Homeland Security and constant surveillance of public spaces, going off-the-grid today implies a resistance to the social order.

The “grid” is the electronic infrastructure of modern life. Utility poles mark the grid lines in bold along our roadways. Cable lines, satellites, and fiber optics map the universe with less obvious grid marks. The “grid” is a system of electronic and digital pathways that govern the everyday behavior of citizens and consumers. It includes UPC bar codes, email addresses and the GPS devices for those who can’t read a map or navigate. The “grid” is also a large set of unquestioned assumptions about technology, progress and neoliberal economics.

An absurd example of grid logic is the large organic farm in California willing to pay an intern $60/hr to Tweet live from the fields where vegetables and fruits were growing to promote sales. How much do you think they paid the laborers to pick those same fruits and vegetables? I’m guessing it was closer to $6/hr.

During my 30s I collected all of my electronic identification cards on a string I wore around my neck as a reminder of my grid life. There was my license, my campus identification card, my credit cards, my video rental card, my library cards, the photocopy cards, dozens of check cashing cards and a host of other identity cards issued in my name marking my cyberexistence. When I moved, I just added dozens more cards to my string of electronic pearls. When I left Ithaca College I took the yoke of my e-existence off and had free rein to create face to face systems of accountability.

Sam’s vengeance against grid logic is more vitriolic than mine. “Calculators were invented for dummies,” says Sam who can do math in his head. “Why do you have to write it down? Can’t you remember it?” he asks whenever I’m keyboarding or taking notes. “Whatever happened to penmanship? I think you should grade these blue book essay exams based on legibility. These kids can’t even write,” he used to comment looking over my shoulder as I reviewed students’ finals.

When I left my tenured position at Ithaca College, I wanted to try to make my way in the world in a different way. Using my own hands, head and heart, I yearned to produce more than I consumed in the world.  I wanted to produce something real; something tangible. I knew I had no control over what everyone else was doing, but it didn’t let me off the hook. I didn’t have to plug in. I could resist. Drop out, unplug, disconnect, hang up, and get off the grid. I resist because I can and I can’t not resist.

Dropping out of the wage-salary economy, flying under the radar screen of digital surveillance, resisting war taxes by refusing to earn more income or buy more taxable goods, living by daylight, refusing to maintain a cyber-identity, and operating on a use-value instead of market-value system are all new millennial acts of digital disobedience.

  1. Sweetness in the utopian vision. How idealistic and lovely it was. Vic and I had a similar although less severe vision when we bought this rattletrap place. We didn’t think of giving up electric, but cut our own wood and heated with it, canned like crazy, put up vegetables and stews. But technology came rushing in, just as it did in your life. So I think of you now. You’re one adaptable woman, Jill.

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