Some years ago, on a flight from Billings, Mont., to Denver, I met a remarkable woman. She was a physician assistant at the Indian Health Services hospital in Browning, Mont., on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. A member of the Blackfoot tribe, she completed her education and training and returned to the reservation in northwestern Montana where she was raised. It was clear she loved the challenges of her job.
Much earlier in my life, I had the opportunity to serve Native Americans in Montana and had spent a lot of time on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That experience lent itself to a stimulating conversation with my traveling companion on the too short flight. We spoke of many things, but mostly of the challenges faced by people every day in Indian Country.
Toward the end of the flight, my new friend recommended a book to me. She told me that In the Absence of the Sacred dug into how advances in technology were uprooting traditional customs and values among native people.
When I read the book, I learned that Jerry Mander was no newcomer to the idea that technology brought with it enormous risks to society. In his 1978 best seller, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Technology, Jerry makes the argument that regardless of the content, TV is basically a harmful technology, especially for young, developing minds. He draws on his background as an advertising executive to make the point that television is a passive medium that isolates people from their natural, conscious environment and mesmerizes the viewer with the unfiltered message of the programmers.
In the Absence of the Sacred, which was published in 1991, expands on some of Jerry’s arguments by examining technology as a whole. He challenges the notion that technology is neutral.
To borrow from a current argument about gun technology and proliferation, “Smart phones don’t harm people, people harm people.” Jerry argues that there is not enough debate about the pros and cons of a particular technology and its impact on society. By passively embracing the idea that technologies are benign and inevitable, we surrender decisions about the merits of a particular technology to profit driven corporations.
As the subtitle of this book suggests, Jerry pays particular attention to the impact of technology on indigenous populations throughout the world. He argues that these peoples are naturally closer to the physical environment and thus are more affected by the impact of technology on the earth and on culture. Native Americans in his view have been the only consistent “voice in the wilderness” warning against the impact of technology, perhaps because they have been most impacted by it.
This provocative book seems particularly relevant today, two and a half decades further into the information age. If nothing else, perhaps it will encourage the reader to pause and think about the value, use and impact of technology in everyday life.