A walk around the world raises questions about tech
By Mark Hurst • June 30, 2023
Paul Salopek has been walking across the world for the last decade. He started his Out of Eden Walk, funded by National Geographic, in 2013 by walking north from Ethiopia. Starting out from east Africa, Paul wrote at the time, was an act of “recreating that ancient human journey out into the world . . . the way our forebears did during the Pleistocene — on foot.”
Ten years later, Salopek has made it to southwest China – having walked through the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. I spoke with him on this week’s Techtonic. Take a listen:
Techtonic interview with Paul Salopek (June 26, 2023):
One of the enduring themes of Paul’s walk is modern technology: its proliferation, its absence in some places, its destructive powers, and its occasional indispensability. Our Techtonic conversation touched on all of these, as Paul’s walk through China’s Yunnan province has taken him through extremes: from traditional hillside farms to modern cities with skyscrapers, wifi, and coffee shops.
Of course, the walk is about a lot more than tech. But for my own interests, Paul’s walk highlights a central question of our time: how do we choose the good in technology?
It’s clear, for starters, that the proliferation of tech (by which I mean everything from iPhones to cars and the systems that create them) has not been good for the environment. As Paul writes in his new essay in National Geographic:
Viewed at the intimate pace of three miles an hour, I can confirm that Homo sapiens has altered our planet’s ecology to such a radical degree that we should be suffering from mass sleeplessness – not just from bad consciences but from genuine dread. (In more than 3,500 days and nights spent trekking from Africa to East Asia, I can tally, depressingly, the number of meaningful wildlife encounters on my fingers and toes.)
Ecological costs of technology are nothing new, of course, but Paul’s observations from the road offer some vivid examples: Villages full of geriatric farmers, as the younger generations have all fled to the cities. Tiles crumbling on the roofs of ancient buildings, with no one to replace them. All signs that traditional practices are dying out, to be replaced by the metastasizing, totalizing tech machine, which has no sustainability in mind, only growth.
The decline of these villages represents a much larger loss than it might seem from a regional Yunnan report. As Paul puts it, the farmers have traditional knowledge going back generations – centuries, even – that the modern world has not bothered to learn, let alone adopt. How do you grow crops on a steep hillside so that they don’t get washed away by the first monsoon rain? How do you build and maintain villages that fit the community’s needs, without putting undue pressure on nearby habitats? These are the questions that we’ll ask as climate change advances and we look for more solutions, more resilience, more sustainability. The answers are there in Yunnan, right now, the knowledge held by one final generation. One last chance to say “teach us” to the farmers. All the while, the cities grow, forests cut down and fields paved over, and tech companies grow rich by expanding the addiction machine.
There’s a danger here of romanticizing the past, even condescending to people who have chosen to adopt modern ways. I type these words on a networked desktop computer with an air conditioner humming in the background: should I tell someone else not to buy a computer, or an A/C? Or, for that matter, tell them not to install indoor plumbing? I’m not about to judge someone for their choice to adopt a new convenience. In our interview, Paul said that Yunnan farmers told him they’re ready to use electric power tools, if they could just get an extension cord up to their village. “I’d do the same,” Paul said. And so would I.
We all played a part in building this system. To varying degrees we’re all complicit. But look for a moment beyond blame: the fact remains that the system is careening out of control. Where will help come from? Don’t look to the tech companies and their finance partners, the most powerful cartel in the world, as they double down on their growth-at-any-cost strategy. No help there. Governments can put a brake on the cartel, as we’ve seen the EU do on occasion – and in the US, from Lina Khan’s FTC. We should support politicians and regulators who are willing to fight Big Tech.
But even with occasionally willing governments, we still face nagging questions: How do we discern the good tools, the good uses of tech, from the bad? How do we know what to invest in, or try to learn, against what we should avoid? Tech boosters have a ready answer: “Tech is neutral, and its advance is inevitable anyway, so you might as well adopt all of it right away, and try to enjoy it.” This is all nonsense, brainless marketing for Big Tech, so I ignore it.
There are already legal guardrails around the uses of technology. For example, you’re not allowed to set up a market for organs. You can’t noodle around with fetal DNA. And you can’t sell military flamethrowers at the hardware store (though you can apparently put them on robot dogs: see this Forum post). My point is that we’ve long had a process for discerning good uses of tech from the bad. We just have to get better at it – and fast.
Last chance to learn
As Paul Salopek and I discussed, one thing we should be doing right now is recovering traditional and indigenous knowledge about sustainable farming and living – before it’s too late. Back in November 2021, soon after my Techtonic interview with Tyson Yunkporta, I wrote a column on the Forum called Indigenous thinking and the future of civilization, which came to the same conclusion. I wrote:
Consider this non-exhaustive (and probably oversimplified) comparison of the Western vs. Indigenous worldviews:
• “Either/or” vs. “both”
• Commanding vs. listening
• Taming chaos vs. appreciating complexity
• Transaction vs. relationship
• The individual vs. the community
• The utilitarian vs. the sacred
We need both.
. . . Considering Indigenous perspectives is not some sort of “nice-to-have” option. If we want to find a healthier path forward, some alternative to the tech billionaires’ self-serving projects, we need to open the conversation much further than we have to date. Western science and Indigenous wisdom: we need both.
Paul Salopek’s experiences in Yunnan are a good reminder that the way forward needs to involve traditional knowledge and modern technology. We should bring that extension cord to the village. But we should also ask the farmer: “teach us.” If we don’t – meaning, if we choose not to learn these dying traditions – pretty soon all we’ll have left is the residue from the tech machine’s predations. The Silicon Valley billionaires will zoom off to their compounds in New Zealand, or on Mars – while the rest of us try to remember what the farmers could have taught us.
Photo of Paul Salopek from A Handmade World, National Geographic, June 13, 2023
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Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
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