Saturday, April 21, 2012

Devotion versus Distraction

Early Radio Receiver
Yesterday I took my camera on one of my periodic tours through the  Spark Museum, formerly known as the American Museum of Radio and Electricity, located just around the corner from Mindport. Much of the instrumentation and equipment there represents technological innovation of the hundred years previous to my birth in 1944. Textbooks on my grandfather's shelves, which supplied much of my early education in science, were full of attractive etched illustrations of just the sort of artifacts you find at the Spark Museum. That memory sparks a considerable amount of the pleasure I take in being a member there and in my periodic strolls around its aisles.

Morse Code Printer
 Vintage radio equipment and scientific instrumentation to me represent a time when handicraft was a part of nearly everyone's life. In viewing this handmade technology, you begin to understand the spirit of craft that produced it as a form of devotion bordering on the religious. These scientific artifacts were not just thrown together. They were built with love and an appreciation of form, as you may notice from the accompanying photos. They were built not only to demonstrate phenomena, or to serve useful purposes, but to be beautiful to look at, and possibly as monuments to the creativity of the people who fabricated them.

You see the same sort of devotion evident in technical drawings created by my great grandfather, mentioned in an earlier blog posting, and soon to be on display in our gallery. In them you notice infinite attention to detail and an obvious effort to create something of beauty as well as utility. Nowadays that sort of sustained creative attention has gone into hiding, at least when it comes to the design and production of the throwaway technology we use on a daily basis. A vestige of it survives in the arts. For example, Edward Burtynsky's startling images of enormous piles of junked cell phones and other castoff electronic equipment remind us of just how little enduring regard we now have for the the physical equipment and related technology that graces our daily routines.

Power vacuum tubes
 Some might accuse me of being a Luddite, or of being anti-technology, but, as I've mentioned in earlier blog postings, my life has been a long love affair with all sorts of technology. It's just that in the last ten years or so the direction of technological innovation has begun to evoke an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. The sort of wonder I associate with the instruments over at the Spark Museum has disappeared without a trace, and we now merely consume equipment that operates on the very principles demonstrated by those early technological artifacts. We, especially young people, are endlessly absorbed by the Internet, as presented via smart phone, iPad, and computer, which tends to eclipse any possible interest in the history of scientific exploration that made such toys possible in the first place. I can't say that I don't understand why, but it's disturbing to me to witness in any case.

An allied discomfort I feel about the current thrust of scientific research, leading to technical innovation, is that it no longer seems motivated by a quest to understand the mysteries of the universe, as was the case 100 or more years ago, but now seems propelled strictly by commercial interests. . . which in turn use the technology as a means to spy on us and sell us more junk that in two or three years will end up being subject matter for Burtynsky's photographic work.

Leyden Jars
In perusing the historical technology at the Spark Museum, I find that it brings to awareness a subtle quality that is nearly extinct today, which I can only describe as an amalgam of silence and attention. It's an incomparably satisfying experience to see something that has heretofore only been manifest as a mental conception take material form in the physical world. Acknowledgment and understanding for that sort creative process has unfortunately waned and rarely seems to be modeled by adults to the advantage of young people. It's certainly not a quality that can be conveyed via such forms as film or video. The opposite is true in fact: the spontaneous capacities of the young to put themselves in such a quiet, concentrated mind space are being hijacked by a clangor of commercial distraction coming in the form of video games, television and the multitudes of other forms of mental noise promulgated by electronic media. It seems to me that if we don't foster the capacity for inner silence and concentrated attention, our ability to innovate in ways that truly enhance human life, rather than simply provide further distraction, will be further compromised.

Kevin Jones

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