None of this is to say that we could get by in today's world without the newer technologies. But it is to say that we cannot get by without recognizing the disciplines we must work ever harder to develop in order to invest the ubiquitous programming with our own purposes. And we also need to realize when our preoccupation with technology is just plain fickle.
In 1975, when the flood of goods from outside was threatening the Waorani way of life, the local missionaries tried to stem the tide. But when they restricted the flow of radios, T-shirts, sunglasses, and baseball hats, the Waorani simply expanded their contacts with nearby oil exploration camps and tourists. Going so far as to clear an airstrip at one location, "they invented rituals, imitated the activities of an oil camp, and sang songs to the helicopters, with the hope that they would unleash a rain of gifts."
Eventually the missionaries realized the hopelessness of the situation. One of them, Jim Yost, remarked to Davis,
As romantics we idealize a past we never experienced and deny those who knew that past from changing. We forget perhaps the most disturbing lesson of anthropology. As L vi-Strauss said, "The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it." (p. 290)
The "cultural relativism" L vi-Strauss was referring to includes the notion that every culture has its own distinctive values worth preserving. Surely it does. Yet it is also true that the members of the culture itself may prefer change over becoming museum exhibits. We can hardly preserve them against their will, whether by dictating their values to them or artificially isolating them.
Davis hones the issue to a fine sharpness when he quotes Yost as saying,
Nothing thrills the Waorani more than killing game and cutting down big trees. It's what so many people don't understand who haven't lived in the forest. You don't have to conserve what you don't have the power to destroy. Harming the forest is an impossible concept for them.
When Davis interjects, "They don't know what it means to destroy," Yost goes on:
They have no capacity to understand. In a world of such abundance, the word "scarcity" has no meaning. It's what makes them most vulnerable. It's the same with their culture. When you've lived in complete isolation, how can you understand what it means to lose a culture? It's not until it is almost gone and when people become educated that they realize what's being lost. By then the attractions of the new way are overpowering, and the only people who want the old ways are the ones who never lived it.
You can easily imagine that a similar sense of the indestructible abundance of natural resources must have seized the early European settlers of the American West. And in a rather different way, the inexhaustible supply of computing power now invites the impoverishment of our cultural mores and institutions through their transfer to the shallow and much-too-automatic pathways of silicon.
Historically, there appears to be an element of tragedy in all this. We stumble along in ignorance and, by the time we realize the subtle ways our actions have caught up with us, the damage and loss are already irrevocable.
But one function of tragedy is to shock us into wakefulness. With this wakefulness comes a new ability to stand back and look at ourselves critically in the very moment of acting. And this in turn brings greater moral responsibility. Surely by the time of the settling of the American West there was much less innocence in the relations between settler and environment than there was for the Waorani. And it would be hard to excuse as innocent at all the widespread narcosis evident in the way we have yielded so passively to mass media and digital technologies today, allowing them to cut us off from vital openness toward the full-fleshed qualities of our human and natural contexts. We, after all, have as examples the Waorani and many other cultures, not to mention a reasonably objective knowledge of our own history. The Waorani had none of this.