Technology’s invasion both blessing, curse

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

At the end of April, five explorers reached the North Pole. Bone tired and bone chilled after 37 days and 475 miles, they set up their tent and tried to get some rest.

Then visitors came calling. Three Russians and a Czech who had followed them the last 50 miles of the way turned up outside their tent. At which point the helicopter landed. It disgorged a group of tourists who walked around taking pictures of the explorers. Finally the Russians, the Czech and the tourists got back in the chopper and flew away.

“It was very surreal,” said one of the explorers. He said this to a reporter via satellite phone. And have I mentioned how the team posted updates of their progress to a Web site?

I thought about all that last week when a high school student asked me an open-ended question: What do you think of modern technology? I found myself struggling to express my ambivalence at the fact that you can now make phone calls and connect to the Internet from the top of the world.

As it happens, the team that trekked there last month was re-creating Robert Peary and Matthew Henson’s famous 1909 journey. There has long been controversy over whether they actually reached the Pole. It has been suggested Peary could not have made it in the time — 37 days — that he claimed. So the idea was to prove that it could be done.

Here’s the thing, though. No matter whether he stood atop the world or fell a few miles short, the one thing that has never been disputed is that he stood there alone, completely cut off from the rest of humanity but for Henson and several Inuit helpers who accompanied them. They had reached one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, beyond the reach of human contact.

Alas, what a difference a century makes.

I feel a little guilty griping because I’m thinking I should be celebrating this. Phone calls from the North Pole? Wow. Helicopter tours, too? Golly gee willickers. We can do things our forebears could never have dreamt. Great, amazing, cool, but … ah … you know … I just wonder … is there anywhere in the world I can just be alone for a minute? Any bleeping place left on the planet where no one will send me e-mail or call and remind me to pick up milk? Is there any place I can sit undisturbed and listen to myself think?

Apparently not.

The heck of it is, technology is almost always sold to us as a means of making life less hectic, opening up oases of time in our schedules. But here’s the part they never tell you: nature abhors a vacuum. So as soon as those oases open up, something rushes in to fill it — and it is never leisure, my friend, never a moment to enjoy a sunrise or pick a berry. Instead, it is invariably more work, more need to communicate, or just the expectation — whether from bosses above you or from the boss within — that with more time should come more production.

So you — by which I mean I — end up standing in line at the deli ordering a sandwich while at the same time talking to the office through an earpiece that looks like something out of a “Terminator” flick. You — by which I mean I — end up propping a laptop on a trash can in an airport lounge, trying to finish a little more work before the flight is called. You — by which I mean they — end up posing for tourists at the North Pole instead of just basking in the fact that you’re standing at the honest-to-St.-Nick North Pole.

Is it just me, or is there not a little craziness there? Not a little sense that the devices we created to serve us have also changed us, transformed expectation and altered the very rhythm of our days. No, I don’t hate technology. But remember when getting to the North Pole was an achievement and not a tour stop? Remember when we used to singletask? Remember when we still knew how to be present in the moment?

I do. And I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I am saying this: If I ever get to the North Pole, do not expect e-mail.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com