One of our primary modern superstitions is that communication is always good and that fast and easy is best. So we get the computer, which by making possible the e-mail forward puts us into the position of cheering for the most vicious and degenerate kinds of human thoughts because they can be simply and easily passed to a large number of people.
I heard a radio interview perhaps 10 years ago, when this computer world was being midwifed into existence by the usual gaggle of boosters and glad handers. The interviewee was holding forth at considerable length about the absolute hopelessness of anyone who would desire the current postal system, which he referred to as snail mail, when all communications could move so much cheaper and faster via the Internet. I wondered then if that meant that I was going to have to give up my treasured association with my rural mail carrier and neighbor, a man with whom I shared my first real job and some of my college years. I was best man for him when he married, and I really did not relish the thought of replacing his regular appearance at my box with electronic blips on a screen.
This absolutist attitude is one of the primary characteristics of the true believer. The man on the radio did not believe or say that e-mail would be a good thing, that it would improve our lives, or that it would serve as a good complement to the already existing service. No. He said that it would completely replace the postal, that it was better in every way, indeed that anyone who clung to the postal system would be beside the point and hopelessly out of date. He appeared to be angry at anyone who questioned his belief in any way at all.
Our near-religious awe for technologically enhanced communication has to do, I think, with a jumbling of the meanings of words like information, knowledge and wisdom. We like to pretend that information is knowledge. It is not. Knowledge is, at the least, systematized information, information organized so that it is useful in some way to some one.
Knowledge is not wisdom either, any more than information is knowledge. We would wish it so because then wisdom would be a kind of quantity thing, something that could be gained by stacking up enough knowledge, or systematic information, so that at a certain point the whole pile becomes wisdom and we graduate to a kind of guru status. Wisdom is in reality the engagement of careful and ongoing human thought as well as emotions and memory over time with the hard rough edges of lived experience. Wisdom is, in part, knowing what to do with knowledge and information, and what not to do. Wisdom always has a human cost, sometimes a dear one, and can never be bought with a credit card in the computer store.
The kinds of minds that railed against the very idea and existence of the postal system on that radio interview 10 years ago propose to completely cure what ails the rural areas with broadband access.
Now it is impossible to deny that much of what passes for the economy these days goes on over the Internet. Leaving aside the question of how much of the economy as it is presented to us is real, how much is desirable outside of Wall Street, and how much of it is good for us here in rural America, it must still be admitted that slow internet connections in the country do not mesh well with fast ones in the urban areas.
It is true also that there are links between the rural and urban economies, which would make a standard system desirable. Some of these links, such as the electronic connection between our farm and its urban customers, are benign and non colonial. It seems to be common sense that if the commerce and information sharing is going to be conducted in cyberspace, we all need access that is roughly equal. But we are still talking about information sharing and at best, the occasional communication of knowledge. This is nothing to get all religious about. The hard work of figuring out what is wrong with rural America and how to cure it has gone on and will continue to go on independent of the question of broadband access.
Any real and thoughtful analysis shows that rural problems stem from the fact that food is not valued highly enough. This has been a driver of change in rural America and not change for the better. It didnt start recently. When the financial powers that be set their eyes on the west and engineered the legal structure with which to steal it from the Indians, they had cheap raw materials on their minds. They settled the lands with hungry and desperate European immigrants (sound familiar?), built the railroads to get their production back east in a manner that left them in control of price paid and did whatever further processing was needed in urban centers such as Chicago by use of more underpaid immigrants. This stranglehold on Midwestern and western farming lands continues to this day, aided and abetted in the last century by technology which has come to the farm always to make it bigger, never better.
The cost/price squeeze which results from farmer control of production only and never price has been well documented. What is not so well understood is the impact of cheap food upon the quality of the farming and the quality of life. Suffice it to say that oil is not the only industry that is destroying the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture is too, and by means of farming short cuts. Like all other Americans, we farmers have been coaxed and driven to think of ourselves as economic animals only and much of what little we knew of good farming practice and culture along with all of what we could have learned has fallen by the wayside in our race to keep up financially.
The bright spot in all this is with a certain small part of the buying public who have decided that food price should be a secondary consideration and who are willing to buy their food based on how it tastes and how it was produced. This gives a certain few of us a little breathing room in which to begin the building of a new kind of farming economy, one that will be kind to the land, fair to us farmers and straightforward and honest with the eaters of the food. It is a small chance, and there is no guarantee that it will come to fruition. But it is real in a way that rural broadband access as a rural economic savior is not.
Jim Van Der Pol farms in Minnesota.
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010
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