Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Technology: A History of Adaptation and Resistance

"And now they were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them." (The Grapes of Wrath page 97)

As I have written before, characters from The Grapes of Wrath such as Grandpa Joad who are unwilling or unable to adapt to the shifting conditions in technology inescapably prove to be powerless and unable to survive in the face of an ever shifting, technologically progressively-oriented world. In returning to the Digital Divide from a historical lens, as related to how past groups of humanity have dealt with novel advances in the technological sphere, let us consider the group known as the Luddites.

The Ludites were British artisans displaced from work by advances during the Industrial Revolution. They protested by banding together to destroy mechanized looms across the country during 1811-1812 in protest of the new technology which they saw as being a threat to their livelihoods. The movement resulted in a mass execution of the protestors by the government in York and exile of the rest. From their actions, we learn of the futility of struggling against advances in technology against otherwise universal acceptance. In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads realize this futility of pitting their labors against the hugely efficient tractor and see the need to adapt and move on in order to survive in a competitive world.

America During the 1930s – the Decade of Steinbeck’s publication of The Grapes of Wrath
At this point during the most widespread economic depression ever known to the US, President Franklin D. Roosevelt “mastered the new technology in his radio broadcast ‘fireside chats,’ which reassured a nervous nation. His administration created an alphabet soup of federal agencies all employing new technology to meet new social needs” (Joseph Millichap, "Steinbeck and Film", page 27). While the effects of those efforts remain contested, many such as Millichap agree that the president’s decisive investment in the latest technology had to offer during the doldrums of national stagnation resulted in the eventual economic turnaround.

Technological Dilemma within The Grapes of Wrath
When Joads (the main family of the novel) reach Weedpatch, a modern government-run camp for immigrants seeking employment in California (incidentally part of the Resettlement Administration Act of President Roosevelt’s New Deal), they encounter a problem common to those on the disadvantaged side of the Digital Divide today. They lack the knowledge of how to use new technology used by the camp appropriately. In the case of the novel, plumbing proves to be an issue for a sizeable number of campers that have never had access to running water before. One newly-arrived woman attempted to use a toilet as a washing machine and Ma Joad herself mistakenly washed her hands and face in the men’s lavatory (The Grapes of Wrath pages 311-314). In both cases, ignorance of convention resulted in inefficiency, misuse, and embarrassment which led to avoidance behavior. These issues were easily remedied by a brief demonstration and explanation by the camp council and contributed to a more efficiently run camp. This instance stresses again that access to technology alone is insufficient to overcoming the Digital Divide unless combined with as the know-how that comes of familiarity and/or instruction. As Chris Kocela argues,
In the end, the epistemological problem of how to bring about understanding still underlies the need to cross ontological borders, just as the migrant farmers must accept constant destruction of their individual, lived worlds in order to arrive at the set of social codes that will enable them to survive as a “people” in California. (“A Postmodern Steinbeck, or Rose of Sharon Meets Oedipa Maas” page 253)
Thus, regardless of the physical availability of a technology, the physiological border of ignorance can only be passed through obliterating outmoded, inaccurate conceptions of the past and reconstructing those conceptions on the other side of the divide with help from the native guides familiar with the new technological territory. Otherwise, immigrants risk maladjustment in the transition.  Likewise, we see the importance of computer literacy in today’s age of technology and the relevance of providing education in addition to access to today’s Digital Immigrants.

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