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Technology and Respect for Its Roots

One of my favorite pieces of art is Winston Link’s photograph “Old Maude bows to the Virginia Creeper” in which an old horse seems to be giving deference to the approach of new technology. Gene and Roy Hampton just happened to be at the crossing with a sledge of wood destined for their nearby farm when Link asked them to wait for a photo of them with the approaching train. Maude was described as being a gentle and patient old animal, but she grew restless and began bobbing her head as the noisy steam engine arrived. It was billowing thick black smoke because of the steep incline. Both the train and the rail line were known as the Virginia Creeper because of the slow speed going up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia. In a moment that could not have been staged, he captured this poignant picture of the old and the new occupying the same space and time.

Today we often seem to be divided into two camps: those who blindly steam forward with every new technological advance and those who helplessly cling to the old way of doing things. Neither of these points of view is wrong, but it is a shame that there has become such a lack of respect for the opposing perspective. Sometimes it is blamed on generational differences, but the more likely cause for this form of blindness is just plain old ego. We seem to be evolving into a culture that focuses on the protection of self to the extent that it sometimes denies the right of others to a different viewpoint. There is a very close relationship between being self-assured and being narrow-minded. Perhaps it is partially due to the fact that is not possible to see a physical picture of the old and new together except in our minds. 

In a civilized world, there will always be advances that will totally transform the way we do many important things in our life. To borrow from an old analogy and twist it a bit: we can enjoy sausage, but we may not want to see how it is made. The same is true to a certain extent for technology. Intelligence is born of the knowledge that comes from curiosity demanding that we understand enough of where we have been to know where we are now… and to predict where we are going. Disrespecting either end of this journey is short-sighted and contributes to the brain rot that keeps us entrenched in the stagnation that created this line of thought in the first place. It is ironic that professing to embrace the technology sausage without knowing what is in it or where it comes from can actually limit our technological growth. Transportation was improved by the steam engine, but it didn’t stop there. Digital application to processes will no doubt give way to something else not yet invented.

We could take a lesson in horse sense from Old Maude. Recognizing that change is inevitable, give the new ways a clear path to success. This is not so much an issue of getting out of the way of progress, but respecting the way that led us to where we are. Do you see it? The train is also screeching a blast of thanks to Old Maude for paving the way for the iron horse.

Image credit: Courtesy of the O. Winston Link Museum, Roanoke, VA. © Conway Link

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