21.4. The Virtue of Friction in the Landscape
Such is the "world" to which so many have been eager to transfer our society's workplaces, town halls, schools, and places of recreation. I have no doubt that some transfer of function is inescapable and proper in our day. But the equivalent of a mad land rush in this case, a government-encouraged, tax-assisted, consumer-tolerated rush to landlessness will be catastrophic, if only due to the two causes I have cited: the destructive impact upon human affairs of mechanisms whose primary recommendation is their efficiency; and the disorientation resulting from the loss of real place, with its complex grounding and structuring role in our lives.
Real places with their social institutions allow the embodiment of endlessly varying values in different contexts and do so in a way that encourages people to take up their position along these "value gradients" wherever they feel most comfortable. Yet all these different places can coexist as part of a larger society a coexistence that begins with the underlying fact that the land itself is, in the end, one land, and that attempts to compromise this integrity lead to ecological calamity. Issues such as deforestation and global warming unite Amazonian Indian and Arctic Inuit in a single community of interest, even as the different character of the land also calls forth radically different local cultures.
In a real landscape, friction must be overcome in getting from here to there. This helps to explain how "here" can preserve its own character, different from "there." Because exchange between the two places requires work and a certain dissipation of energy, the one place cannot so easily overwhelm the other.
An historical succession of ever more powerful communication technologies has progressively disturbed this delicate interweaving of local value and global diversity. The Internet promises a nearly perfected culmination of the historical trend. When screens are inserted at countless points within the differentiated cultural pattern, becoming part of the experience of most members of society, and when every one of these screens delivers anything and everything with indifferent efficiency, then the entire ordered, place-based pattern is at risk of chaotic dissolution.
When I referred above to the "catastrophic" consequences of one-sided efficiency and landlessness, I did not mean we will necessarily experience events widely recognized as catastrophic. Whatever happens will no doubt be hailed by many as "progress." The catastrophic elements I refer to are already there for those willing to see them: for example, the ongoing scientific reconceptualization of the world and the human being as some sort of computational machinery, and the inability of children, by the time they have grown up, to experience an organic and deeply motivating connection between themselves and the larger society, or between themselves and the physical world.