Last week I bought a slightly unusual lawnmower and it took some finding I can tell you. My search started with fruitless visits to the major DIY retailers where my enquiries were met with baffled looks and the kind of sympathetic expressions that are reserved for the mad. I tried a few specialists who did at least suggest that they might be able to get me one but at a price that implied it was made by Bentley. In the end I went online and even this wasn’t easy. eBay had plenty of vintage models requiring ‘TLC’ and / or the manufacture of parts involving the use of a lathe and Gumtree had some that looked as though they had been at the bottom of a well for a decade or more. But eventually I found what I was looking for and it arrived the following day in a surprisingly un-lawnmower sized box.
The unusual thing about this lawnmower is that it has neither engine nor cable, the only way to have it progress up and down your lawn is by shoving it. Once out of the box it assembled with nothing more complicated than a screw-driver and a spanner; the only tricky bit being the setting of the blade height, which required micro-adjustments to a point where the gap was wide enough to permit only the passing of a sheet of A4 paper. With half an hour I was mowing away with the nostalgic satisfaction derived from believing yourself to be just a few steps removed from a character in a Thomas Hardy novel scything hay on summer’s day.
When all things are considered this seems a somewhat odd purchase. It’s slower, it takes ten times the effort and it probably doesn’t cut quite as neatly. Although I accept that this is more to do with the model rather than an innate problem, its grass collecting system amounts to nothing more than a rather flimsy nylon net which I have rejected completely. This has resulted in two further undesirable outcomes; firstly the physical effort now required to mow the lawn is not only greater per se, but is substantially increased by having to rake up the cuttings. Secondly, I have incurred my wife’s wrath by bringing a trail of grass into the house each time I leave the garden post-mow. I soothe myself by believing that leaving the cuttings on the lawn is good for it, returning the nutrients whence they came as it were – this does not soothe my wife.
So why have I bought a brand-new piece of equipment that is demonstrably less efficient than its petrol or electric driven descendants? Certainly, there is an element of nostalgia here. As a child I loved pushing the mower round the lawn and, doubtless, across the borders and over the roses; the gentle see-saw motion and the rhythmic clack-clack sound of the blades spinning, undoubtedly evokes simpler times and days of innocence. And despite the problems with the cuttings, there is also an element of practicality. With my previous electric model I really hated the business of unravelling the orange cable, finding the circuit breaker, feeding it all through the dining room window, plugging it in, then trying to mow without tripping over the damn thing and pitching head first into the border. I can lift the new mower out of the shed with one hand and be mowing within seconds and then, when done, return it to its home, on one nail, in equally quick time. I could, of course, considered a petrol model. No cable to wrestle with for sure but, righteous though it may sound, consuming fossil fuels to mow the lawn just doesn’t sit comfortably with my world vision.
But what really matters is the simple pleasure of having done something under your own steam and as I strode back and forth across the lawn pushing my new mower before me I began to wonder why what I was doing so undeniably satisfying.
Humankind’s remarkable relationship with technology all began, so we are to believe, in the Paleolithic and, although there were no cameras to record the first use of tools, Kubrick had a pretty good shot of it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The one and only time I ever saw it was in the Odeon Marble Arch as an utterly baffled and somewhat spooked eight year old in 1968. I still don’t know what possessed my parents to take me, presumably Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang was sold out. Looking at the opening sequence now, forty-nine years on, with no green screen or CGI, it not only makes a lot more sense than it did to my eight year old eyes it’s still astonishingly effective. The ape suits are perhaps a little comical, but the pace, like the whole of the movie, on a knife-edge between too slow and just sufficiently taut, is perfection. Coupled with Geoffrey Unsworth’s beautiful cinematography and Alex North’s eerie opening soundtrack, the sequence collapses the instance we first took up tools and how we subsequently used them into a starkly depressing narrative; the tool as primarily an offensive weapon.
Just exactly when the higher primates that evolved into Homo Sapiens first picked up tools is a matter of debate and conjecture. As most organic material tends not to fossilise the only evidence we have is stone made. No one can ever know if tools were being fashioned from wood for instance 50 million years ago but, as the archaeological record of stone tools places their first emergence between 3.4 and 2.6 million years ago, logic suggests that it was around this time that primates began their journey into the world of technological.
The use of tools is surely also the moment at which human intelligence and the intelligence of most other life began to diverge. In order to apply technology to a task the mind requires the power of reason. As you reach for a stone to clobber your prey and then develop a technique for knapping that stone into an instrument for butchering it, so a certain thought process must take place. This then essential difference between an animal that lives its life millennia after millennia always doing things the same way and one who realises that to do it another way would be altogether more efficient. Of course all organisms evolve, but there’s a world of difference between change by natural selection driven by environmental factors – a process we can measure in millions of years – and change that comes about by picking up a rock. This process takes no more than a second’s flash of inspiration.
So where have these flashes taken us? To the top of the food chain for sure and, impressively, unlike most other food chain champs, technology has enabled us to win when much of our prey is bigger, stronger and faster than us. Whether Australopithecine Lucy sat cross-legged 3 million years ago bashing seeds with a stone we shall never know but the ability to capture and prepare food more efficiently through the use of tools and of course fire, had a profound impact on human evolution. Unlike the ruminants whose entire waking life is consumed by the digestion of relatively fuel inefficient vegetation, our high protein, fuel-efficient diet enabled us to quit developing an enormous stomach and start developing an enormous brain. Along with this came greater social cooperation, a really versatile opposable thumb and art to soothe us as we became the only living thing in the known universe with the ability to consider existence in three temporal dimensions and therefore to consider our own demise.
But there is a sense of Promethean gloom hanging over this remarkable journey. The same moment of inspiration that led to the taking up of a stone is the moment when the unstoppable march of technological progress begins – a Gadarene race to the bottom in which, rather than liberating us, each new advance enslaves us. The tipping point comes around 10,000 years ago with the shift from hunter gathering to collective farming. The reasons for this shift were compelling. So compelling in fact that it’s a wonder that it took us nearly two million years to think of it. Hunting prey is not fun, not particularly efficient and damn hard work. Why chase an antelope across the savannah when you could just as well round them up, fence them in then wander down and slit a throat when you feel hungry? Similarly why wander the forest for nuts and berries when planting a tree outside your hut means there’s a ready food supply just by your door? Farming’s great isn’t it?
The problem is that the archaeological evidence from around this time shows that the human frame begins to shrink1 and life-expectancy also takes a massive tumble. In terms of diet, farming reduces variety. We’re not talking about modern farming methods which lead to an absurd over-abundance on supermarket shelves (and its attendant issues around over-indulgence), for most of these ten thousand years humans have relied heavily on single food sources such as wheat, rice and maize. This monoculture inevitably leads to deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals. Furthermore collectivisation driven by farming increases population densities which leads to a much wider spread of disease.
But another reason why the advent of farming is not good for humanity is perhaps less obvious. Farming is all about control. Control of your food supply and also, crucially, control of who receives it. The evolution from simple hunter gatherer groups to the large, complex societies that were made possible by farming inevitably created a much more stratified social structure. In the more linear model of the hunter gatherers distribution of food was done largely on a need basis. These new complex groupings created hierarchies where the distribution became a matter of status rather than necessity. In short those in control (and ipso facto in power) prospered, whilst those further down the chain began to experience want, not because of lack but because of their position in the hierarchy. Rather than providing opportunity through increased efficiency, the technology that leads to farming deprives the masses of the diversity and equitable distribution offered by the hunter gatherer group. The shrinking frame indicative then, not only of diminishing physical potency but of reduced status as well.
This nightmare continues for many millions around the world as developed countries deploy beggar my neighbour farming policies, plundering land vital for subsistence in poorer countries to grow food to their burgeoning and increasingly wealthy populations. Well-fed they may be but the developed world face new challenges to their well-being, hoist by their own petard of a spiralling technological environment.
In the 1960s and 70s my childhood annuals were filled with aspirational line drawings of flying cars, floating cities and holidays on Mars. One of the most popular children’s TV series was called Tomorrow’s World in which ex-RAF office Raymond Baxter walked us through the inventions of tomorrow. His great clarity and wonderfully engaging commentary, delivered with the languid ease, was counterpoint to the frustrations we all had of somehow knowing that the marvels that unfolded before our eyes were never likely to be any kind of reality in our lifetimes. Then the future really was tomorrow.
If it was a life on Mars that occupied our daydreams in the 60s and 70s the great promise for the future in the 80s was increasing leisure time and the beating heart of this promise was technology. The digitised, mechanised, computerised world would surely take over tedious and menial tasks that prevented us from only having to work 3 days a week and to spend more time with the paper over our heads, gently snoozing in the arm-chair of idleness. However Nature abhors a vacuum and, bound as we are to the tyrannical wheel of consumerism, we are trapped in the consumer paradox; creating more time requires increasing amounts of our time to create it.
So, as technology tantalisingly presents us a cup of hope for the future before dashing it from our lips, so now it is helping us to severe the bonds of social cooperation that made humans what they are. When social networks first began to appear, they were heralded as the new garden hedge and village green – the medium through which we would all rise from the couch and begin to gossip again. Where we had all begun to live in silos, social media would reconnect us and surely these connections would bring greater understanding and cooperation on a global scale hitherto unimaginable.
The reality, as it transpires, is quite different. Rather than enabling us to create meaningful bonds, social networking has emptied human communication of any semblance of profundity and has also trampled on one of our mostly keenly evolved skills; the ability to assess a fellow human in a matter of seconds using visual, aural and oral prompts. Two million years of needing to know if we face friend or foe is swept away in an instant with fake profiles and fake news – just who and what are we dealing with? To communicate with others is both beguiling and essential for our psychological well-being, at the heart of which is the establishment of trust. The dissociative effect of information technology deprives us of the prompts needed for this.
So should we revert to the Palaeolithic? Paleo diets are the new the Atkins so are we moving this way? Possibly in some commune somewhere in the Welsh hills, but to turn back the clock is as ludicrous as it is impossible. Of course not all progress is bad. Whilst not everyone in the world enjoys its benefits advances in technology and their concomitant efficiencies are still largely worth having. Who can imagine a world without an electric toaster, a dish washer, a television and, of course, the internet?
There have always been naysayers but their message isn’t always wrong. One cannot but admire the energy, passion and dedication that organisations such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Greenpeace, for without them we may already have blown ourselves to smithereens and we may yet fry as CO2 emissions deplete the Ozone layer. And now a new doomsday scenario is emerging – the rise of the machines. Academics as sensible as Professor Stephen Hawking are already predicting that Artificial Intelligence will have done for us within a century or so as out robots realise that they have no use of the clumsy carbon life-forms that brought them into being. Who knows they may be right – there’s hardly a technology yet that we haven’t weaponised. Rocks become cannon balls become ballistic missiles. Less than ten years passed before the Wright brothers first flight became a means for aerial bombardment and less than thirty years after Rutherford split the atom before that bomb would release enough energy to destroy an entire city.
So back to my lawnmower. Were I completely on top of my technology game I wouldn’t be in the garden at all, I would have pre-programmed my robotic automower and gone down the pub. However, as human beings we have an urge to touch and connect. The inquisitiveness that caused us to reach out and grab a lump of clay and then to use our superior opposable thumbs to mould and form it into something useful, lies deep within us. It may take twice as long to mow the lawn and ten times the effort, but for an hour each summer weekend I sense something quite primal. I heartily recommend taking a technological step back and savour the victory over the tyranny of technology. Perhaps dust down your bicycle, cut the hedge with sheers (or like my father, with secateurs), or perhaps, like my nan, mash your tea time potatoes with a fork. What at first may seem a somewhat futile act of defiance could be the start of a whole new movement, one in which we take control again by refusing the efficiencies offered by progress and stand eccentrically, but proudly with one foot in the past.