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The Poverty of Scale
Longing for Grandfather Wisdom
One of my early memories is of my grandfather working in his ancient barn sharpening tools on an electric bench grinder mounted on a timeworn grease-covered bench. I used to stand next to him captivated by the glorious plume of flying sparks birthed by metal kissing stone.
My grandfather and grandmother lived up the hill from my childhood home and i remember how giant that climb seemed. All these years later my mom still lives in that same house and that hill now doesn’t seem so huge.
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But my grandfather and grandmother, they’re still giants.
I shadowed my grandfather constantly when he worked. I soaked in every move he made. He was always in motion yet in no hurry and neither was i. He’d be tinkering or fixing things. Tilling soil, planting corn, and shooting at crows as they tried to eat his corn. We planted saplings in the spring, flicked Japanese beetles off the raspberries under the summer sun, and picked pumpkins in the fall. After the pumpkins came the time to plant winter rye which would poke up through the snow and be tilled under in the spring to nourish the soil for another year’s planting. He took the time to explain things to me like how the American Indians planted their corn five seeds to a hill and under each little hill they’d put a fishhead to help feed the baby corn plants. Time was long and slow and I don’t remember boredom. There was always something to look at, do, or otherwise absorb my attention.
The door of the barn was well worn and daylight showed through its weathered planks. The doorknob had fallen off long ago and was just a wobbly metal stub. Suspended over the grinder, was a light bulb with a green enameled metal shade, its electric cord looped over a bent nail sticking out from one of the rafters. I believe papa made the bench grinder himself – it was an electric motor with a grinding wheel attached to its spindle. There was no on/off switch — you plugged it in to turn it on and pulled the plug when you were done. There were also no safety guards, eye shields, or placards warning of the dangers, safety hazards, and all things that could possibly go wrong. It had an unadorned beauty that was both stately and unapologetically plain.
Whether it was his scythe or a lawnmower blade, i noticed how when he moved the blade with his hands, changing the angle or pitch, the wave of sparks seemed to breathe and twist in the air. For me, the learning wasn’t just about what he was actually doing or explaining, it was about the aliveness of those sparks. They jumped off the wheel and sprayed through the air in a sparkling fan of tiny shooting stars. I’d pass my hand through the shimmering arc and he would laugh and tell me to stand back. As my hand passed through the sparks I could feel a vague tickle that stung a tiny bit and yet, there was nothing there – nothing to catch in my hand and nothing on the floor where they bounced and landed. Those sparks vanished into thin air. There’s magic in this world, and this was proof!
Many years later after my grandfather passed, he died when i was eight, i would crank up the grinder and sharpen blades from the lawnmower and i found i knew how to angle the blade against the wheel by feel and by watching the wave of sparks.
The learning from my grandfather was visceral. It lived in my body indelibly imprinted through the sights, sounds, smells, and of course, my grandfather’s presence.
I hadn’t thought of this story in years until a recent conversation with a friend – a younger man with a huge heart building his own house in a nearby town shared that each morning he starts his day watching instructional videos on YouTube. There he learns whatever task he plans on accomplishing that day. That week he was watching videos on how to install wood flooring. My heart sank. I felt a deep well of sadness open up inside me.
Where are his grandfathers? There are no grandfathers on YouTube.
So much of my own practical this-is-how-the-world-works learning took place in the presence of others – not just my grandfather but in the presence of my grandmother, father, mother, other family members, teachers, musicians, artists, healers, programmers, mentors, lovers, and the list goes on. There’s an indescribable, unmeasurable quality of knowledge transmitted through physical presence. It moves from body to body and that knowledge takes up residence and lives in the body and soaks deeply into the soul. It’s rich with nuance, embodied feeling, and lived history. There’s a depth and timelessness to it and it might be years (if ever) before you fully realize what took place.
This is not a commentary on my friend, who’s a highly accomplished entrepreneur and this is not his first house. And it’s also not to say he doesn’t have his own cache of grandfather (or grandmother) learning. And it’s not a criticism of YouTube as a highly useful repository of learning, especially in emergencies or when there are no grandfathers. The sadness i felt was a form of grief, the culmination of recent thinking around the shifts we’ve experienced as a society in how we connect and relate to one another as the river of progress entangles us in its sweep.
It’s about grieving poverty – a unique visceral poverty created by scale.
I’m using “scale” in the sense of number or extent, specifically with regard to capacity. For example, in another era, if my friend wanted to learn how to install wood flooring he would learn it from another person. Now he, along with thousands of others, can learn it from YouTube at their own convenience. Scale (or scaling up) is associated with progress which often presents itself as a series of choiceless choices.
A new technology comes along and it’s somehow better – cheaper, faster, or more convenient – so the choice seems obvious. Ultimately, everyone has adopted it and now you have no choice but to adopt it. The choice has been made for you, hence the “choiceless choice”. Often these choiceless choices result in layers of technology being inserted between us and the world, or others, or even between us and our own selves. There are undeniably advantages, otherwise, we wouldn’t be so quick to adopt them. But they’re accompanied by not-so-easy-to-capture impoverishments – often in the form of subtle shifts in how we relate to self, others, and the world around us. These are ambiguous impoverishments that taken singly don’t seem significant but cumulatively they eat away at the fabric of rich human connection.
Poverty is a big word but that’s what it is. To be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the reality of financial poverty and the tremendous human suffering that accompanies it. But there are other forms of poverty in the world as there are other forms of wealth – and not solely those we measure with money as our capitalist orientation would have us believe. What i’m proposing is an expansion of our definitions of and concepts around poverty and wealth.
In the example with my grandfather, there is a rich exchange happening in the context of lineage, knowledge, wisdom, and love. It is the opposite of poverty. Apprenticeships and mentorships work this way. Teacher/student relationships can be this way when the teacher actually has the time and resources to share with their students the power of their knowledge, attention, and witnessing.
Watching a YouTube video or taking a self-paced online course can be powerfully effective ways to learn in terms of gaining knowledge and sometimes this is the best and perhaps the only option available. But it’s a one-way interaction – learning as consumption rather than a rich two-way exchange between people, generations, and even cultures. It’s a learning that has lineage linking past, present, and future.
In the presence of my grandfather, i felt welcomed, nourished, and nurtured. And although he’s not here to confirm it, in my bones i know he cherished that opportunity to share his time and wisdom with me as i soaked in every bit he had to offer.
In the richness of this human exchange – who’s giving and who’s receiving? Is this complex intertwining not a form of love? When we share of ourselves and our sharing is authentically received, all parties are enriched. In this richness of human exchange, the lines blur between teacher and student, mentor and mentee, healer and “healee”. We also experience this rich exchange in good conversation, dance, making love, and even in the connection between live audience and performer. We could even say this sort of exchange is more than the sum of its parts – that through consumptive exchange we are fed for the day and through rich transmission, we’re nourished for a lifetime. When it happens we know it in our mind, body, and heart and a two-way portal opens.
As valuable and necessary as the scale of progress is to maintaining our modern society there is a shadow scale that’s ambiguous and impoverishing.
One example that demonstrates this is the decline of letter writing. With the dominance of email and texting (both now choiceless choices), letter writing is rare these days. When was the last time you sat down to hand-write a personal letter? Emailing and texting win out when it comes to immediacy, convenience, and saving time and money. Yet the act of sitting down with pen and paper to write a letter requires a completely different state of mind. We compose letters. There’s a different level of presence, intention, and attention that the process of letter writing naturally evokes. When Marshall McLuhan said the “medium is the message” this is what he referred to – how we express ourselves and what we express (and therefore how we connect) is highly dependent on the medium through which we do it. Thus letter writing sends a different message and meaning than emailing or texting.
Part of the difference is in the physicality that electronic communication lacks. Aside from the novelty of receiving a letter from a friend in the mail, there’s an aliveness and realness in what arrives in that envelope that is tangibly different had the exact same message been sent via email. And for those who are old enough to have some history of letter writing under their belt, you probably have a stack of old letters held together by a ribbon or a crumbling rubber band tucked away somewhere. To pull them out brings back a flood of memories. The physicality of the paper, the hand scrawl, and the envelopes, stamps, and postmarks all speak not only to a hand-wrought past but a form of communion whose scale worked at a different pace. In the digital age old emails, photos, and videos though they may be cherished are relegated to aging hard drives, obsolete deteriorating media, or some cloud storage where it’s lost in a slew of digitized “content”.
And there’s the magic word — “content”. There’s no way you would refer to that precious stack of love letters or the shoebox of childhood photos or 8 mm home movies in your mom’s attic as content. But YouTube and Social Media are content delivery mediums whose survival depends on a never-ending stream of new content - your photos and videos (i.e. your “content”) included. As we moved into the digital age the availability of voluminous amounts of information irrespective of value or validity coupled with the emergence of search engines and algorithms means that all information is reduced to a commodity we now call “content”. This content is now indexed, analyzed, and packaged. And on social media, it’s leveraged against the commodification of human attention to sell things. Your photos, videos, and words become divorced from their physical human source and their value is monetized by clicks and impressions.
An interesting aside… is a book content? If it’s on my bookshelf, i’d say no. If it’s on Kindle, it kind of is. I have a very different relationship with the books on my shelves than the books on my devices. If the books on my shelf are still with me they’ve stood the test of time. I pass by them daily. I can often remember when and where i read them. The pages might be worn and dog-eared and my margin notes and underlines are proof i was there. I might not be able to search a book the way i can a digital version but there’s a tactile memory where I’ll often recall that what i’m looking for was on the lower right page somewhere towards the middle of the book. And here it is! And while i can underline, highlight and add notes to an electronic version i tend not to as much and i typically don’t go back and scroll through the way i’ll often page through an old book.
You could ask, so what? What have we really lost? And is it important? We’re not going to go back to writing letters; online learning is here to stay; and a library on a Kindle has its convenience.
What is lost is connection – to self, others and the world we live in.
Connection is a quality, it’s a feeling, it’s a deeply rooted essential human need that is both invisible and unmeasurable – palpable when we slow down enough to feel into it. It’s what humans are made of. And when connection is lost it can feel like deep sorrow, grief, longing, anguish, rage or anger and can show up as vague, illusive, hard to define, or simply too painful or overwhelming to face head on. The more we unthinkingly inject technologies into our lives that don’t honor and value the natural flow and pace of human connection, the more we disrupt our ability to connect and exacerbate this disconnect.
Yet, scale and progress value quantity over quality.
Scanning over absorption. Facts over meaning. Knowledge over wisdom. Purpose over calling. Product over process. And consumption of content over contemplation. With the dawning of AI and its capacity to perform human-like tasks and fabricate its own reality, we’re on the verge of a momentous disruption in how we connect. And as we continue to disrupt it, without addressing what we give up we contribute further to social trends such as the epidemic levels of isolation, loneliness, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and other trends we can’t even predict yet. And with AI, the very grounds of human trust and the value of human work come into question.As progress continues to scale the world we live in – bigger, faster, and more efficient – our human-scaled bodies, minds, and souls remain as divinely exquisite, miraculous, and precious as ever before. Yet, for most 7-year-olds the opportunity to stand next to their grandfather in his barn on a warm summer morning no longer exists.
In the choices we make, when we allow our humanity to be dwarfed, displaced, or devalued by the shadowy power of an inhuman rate of scale, we unknowingly spiral toward an abysmal and ambiguous impoverishment.
Instead of trying to keep up with the newest model of the next upgrade, what if we “shifted the conversation” and engaged in a deeper face-to-face inquiry?
What if we slowed down and asked ourselves how does this feel? What am i gaining and what’s the real cost? In the face of endless choiceless choices, how can we value, honor, and celebrate our humanity? How can we connect, reconnect, and stay connected to that which the human soul thrives upon? And how can we be agents for the kind of world we want – where grandfather and grandmother wisdom isn’t discarded and forgotten but cherished, remembered, and woven into our learning as a precious gift for generations to come?
Do you have your own grandfather/grandmother story? Your own experience with ambiguous impoverishment? Leave a comment or write us and letter! I’d love to hear from you!
Read why i don’t capitalize my ‘i” here.
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