"Technology and Happiness" - J Surowiecki; "Economy" - H Thoreau; "Luxury or Necessity?"; Louis CK


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The question that all of these pieces are attempting to answer is whether our ‘civilized’ society and way of life is truly fulfilling. Questions of whether our advancing technology truly makes our lives easier, what is necessity, and what the connection between wealth and happiness really is. Thoreau battles with these questions by removing himself from the ‘civilized’ society of which he was a part. His questioning of what knowledge is and how this knowledge affects the person who is striving for that knowledge was of interest to me. It was reminiscent of the Frankenstein story in that, as a society, we have the desire to know everything there is to know about everything, but where does that get us? In the story of Frankenstein, it gets you to insanity. Thoreau pulls from Confucius, “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge. “ This makes me question when knowledge is too much, and in hand with knowledge, development and technology. This leads into the questions that were attempted to be answered within these pieces. Surowiecki questions how technology and happiness are linked. He speaks about the frustration that comes with technology not working properly, as does Louis C.K. in his piece. The other pieces speak to whether technology is viewed as a luxury or a necessity and why this might be shifting. This is a question that Thoreau also attempts to answer. What do we really need to be happy? Through all of these pieces, this constant advancement in knowledge and technology don’t seem to find us in a happier place. Frustration, complication and confusion seem to be what arises from our dependence on more and more technologies.

I think it’s interesting to see statements like the ones in James Surowiecki’s “Technology and Happiness” about the happiness levels in the Amish community. This relates well to the theories of Thoreau in Walden, who expostulates the virtue of living in nature, or more specifically, in simplicity rather than slaving like machines/for machines in order to make a living in a depressing society. It’s easy to bash the changes in technology and say that it would be better to live like the Amish, or retreat into nature and live completely economically like Thoreau. However, we don’t live in the same comparably antiquated era as Thoreau when technological advances were easier to avoid in daily life. And (most of us) don’t live in sheltered, close-knit communities like the Amish. Instead, we’ve all grown up in and with a significant amount of technological progress, adapting fairly easily to technology even if we resist temporarily. Surowiecki makes an astute point when he says, “Does our fast absorption of technological progress mean, then, that technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of technology's impact, for good and ill, more complicated.” In a complicated way, if we seclude ourselves from technology, we are isolating ourselves from a society that is in turn becoming more and more individualistic through technology. I like to think of technology in this middle ground, as a complicated gift that brings luxury and hardship at the same time. Would it be nice to live in a secluded cabin in the woods, simply working enough to survive peacefully? Probably. But to do so now would be to ignore the world, and neglect the positive outlets of technology.

However, the “Luxury or Necessity?” articles are also showing that although we live in an age of advancing technology that is impossible to completely ignore, people are taking steps to be technologically economical, getting rid of technologies that they find unnecessary so that they can enjoy the ones they choose. Essentially, this embodies somewhat Thoreau’s entire point of “Economy,” which is to not shun technology completely, but to avoid unnecessary or fancified technology when something simpler would do just the same. Perhaps, in some small way, we are attempting to return to simplicity even within our technological society.

I saw two prevalent themes in the reading. One is that the freedom of choice can actually be detrimental to our sense of well-being and the second, we often take technology which we believe that we cannot live without, for granted.

I found the first theme particularly interesting because about a month ago I had read a similar-themed article in respect to decision making. The article said that by reducing the amount of decisions you make in a day it can greatly reduce the amount of stress in your life and the article went on to discuss how President Obama wears the same suits each day and eats the same breakfast in order to eliminate needless stress.

What I found interesting and did not expect to read in the "Technology and Happiness" article was that new technology does further increase the amount of products, decision, etc. but it can also help to reduce the amount of choices through use of filtering, shopbots and consumer-rating sites. And I believe this is mirrored in my own life when I sit down to make a purchase of an item that I am not particularly knowledgeable. I usually take a look at the huge assortment offered by Amazon and can easily feel overwhelmed, but through the use of amazon review, consumer reports, etc. the field begins to narrow and the tasks becomes much more feasible.

When reading technology and happiness, I found myself questioning my opinion on the idea that increased technology does not necessarily mean increased happiness. While I am very happy with the technology I have, (cell phone, personal computer, microwave etc.) I think back to the time when I did not have such things. It wasn't that I was genuinely unhappy. But I can remember the frustration I felt toward my parents because I didn't have a cell phone. At this time, I am feeling frustration because I don't have my own car to help me get around.

This led me to think that maybe technology in and of itself is not making us unhappy, but our expectations are. We slowly grow accustomed to what we have, and because technologies are constantly being improved, we are in a constant state of "want." It is the improved technology that we want, but if we lived in a culture of simply being content with what we have, we might be happier.

However, I do believe that too much exposure to communication technologies can lead to a "soulless society," as Surowiecki calls it. Texting can bring people together, like my brothers and I who are spread out across the country. But it can also ruin relationships. When my friends are together, we cannot hold a conversation without someone checking their phone and texting someone else.

Another thing that leads to unhappiness, as Thoreau points out, is living a complicated life. Living simply, with only the necessities, is key. Men take on jobs that they hate to pay for a large house that they don't need, and end up being unhappy at work. But in this day, how does one live simply? Are bare necessities different than they were in Thoreau's time?

Technology and Happiness, Walden, Luxury or necessity, From luxury to necessity, and the youtube video at one point or another touch of the subject of needs vs. wants. Years and years ago, our society did not have half the the technological advancements we have now. There was no email, no computers, no phones, no ipads, etc. If you wanted to talk to someone you had to hand-write letters, something that our society has become less and less familiar with. The you tube video particularly talked about how we feel this sense of entitlement and this need of instant gratification. We want a response almost immediately. We want the plane to take off exactly at its scheduled time. We want an email response within the hour. We want someone to text us back right away. We want to check out in the grocery line and not have to wait. All these instant gratifications are privileges we frequently take advantage of, and forget these everyday conveniences are miraculous innovations that we are extremely lucky to have. I find it hard to believe someone in my generation could imagine what life would be like not to be dependent on technology. Who knows, maybe the world would be a better place.

These readings made me think about what I can do without and what I can’t. Today, with so much technology, we as a society think of so many things as necessities for everyday life. Although how does one define a necessity? I thought it was curious that after the economy took a downturn in 2008 that people’s perspective on what they considered to be completely necessary for everyday life changed and they suddenly found they could do without things like cable TV or even air conditioning. But I feel like one could also make the argument that none of these technologies are truly necessities. In reality, I could probably live without anything like phones, washer/dryers, Internet, TV or even a house. I could survive out in the woods without any of these things, although I would rather not do that. But I guess that just how we perceive the world today. To be able to function in a modern society today, I suppose one does absolutely need things like a telephone and a computer with Internet access. Although I agree with the observation that all these brilliant technologies are not really making us any happier. They just give us more to think about, more things to want, and more to be dissatisfied with. I think it would do some good for a majority of people to take a step back and instead of worrying about the newest smartphone in order to survive, to instead think about keeping warm for the night and what to eat in the morning. I think I would enjoy living a simpler lifestyle where I make my own way, at least for a little while, and produce things instead of just consuming all the time.

^^Comment from Jeff.

In the article The Impact of Emerging Technologies: Technology and Happiness, James Surowiecki talks about the paradox of increasing technology and ease of life not correlating with a similar increase in happiness.

I believe of all the points he brings up, the most pertinent is the idea that "[one] key insights of happiness studies is that people have a very hard time being content with what they have, at least when they know that others have more" (p4). This explains much of the happiness he uses as examples within his article, with the Amish being incredibly happy, and the average person from 1940 to now having a stable, albeit lesser, level of happiness.

The Amish are definitely not known for their technological innovation, and so removed from the stress of not having the best tool at one's disposal, they remain quite happy in their equality. This isn't so with the person of today, and even the person of the 1940s, where innovation and new technologies were being invented at a fast rate and there was always the push to get the biggest and best thing that was offered. This innovation or lack thereof may be in fact the reason for relative happiness or not.

The other thing I wished the article had pulled more from are from longitudinal studies as opposed to cross-sectional. I would like to see how the effects of wealth and ease of access to technology changed an individuals relative happiness throughout their life, not just a slice showing the average of everyone alive at the time.

^ From Chris

As I read through the different pieces, it seemed that they were all prevalent with the ideas of technology often being looked at as less necessary than it previously has been.
I found it interesting to think more critically about the happiness or lack of it that comes from technology. It was interesting that the addition of new technologies would temporarily give a bump to a person's happiness, but would soon become so commonplace that it no longer seemed to have such properties. Along with this, the fast paced advancements in technology and the idea that as soon as one buys a new product it is outdated, was fascinating. Feeling as though whatever you purchase will soon be inadequate could certainly lead to a lack of additional well-being from the advancements.
I also found it compelling that some older technologies had fallen out of favor as those that were a "necessity". People had grown so accustomed to a certain lifestyle that they were unable to picture themselves without specific items. The recession really caused consumers to tighten their belts and think critically of what would be necessary for their survival.
In truth, none of these items should really be considered a necessity, because one could easily live as Thoreau or the Amish do and be quite happy. The very spartan living allows them to worry more about their well-being and give them feelings of accomplishment rather than leaving them to wonder about their friends' statuses or if the dishwasher is on.


Walden and the two articles on Luxury and Necessity reminded me of the adventures of my brother- and sister-in law, both urbanites who met while attending school at the University of Minnesota. They both surprised their families by moving from Minneapolis to the central Minnesota town of Eagle Bend - about 30 minutes east of Sauk Center. The bought a renovated farm house and went about creating a rural life style complete with wood burning water heater, 10 acres of land, several "out" buildings and a creek that runs through their property. While in some respects they love the rural lifestyle - my sister-in-law refusing to buy a microwave in order to cook more home made meals - they also rely heavily on the Internet for shopping and socializing, as their nearest neighbor is several miles away. Not quite Thoreau, but as close as anyone I know.

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This page contains a single entry by Capper Nichols published on January 29, 2013 10:05 AM.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley: chapter 1-5; "Does Improved Technology Mean Progress?" - Leo Marx; "The Technological Imperative" - Lewis Mumford was the previous entry in this blog.

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