When I was younger, I went through a phase where I read a lot of Richard Brautigan. During that time, I found a couple books of poems that he wrote while perusing the shelves of a used bookstore. Anyway, I pulled the books off my shelf today and opened to the first poem in The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, which is “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.”
Click here to read the entire poem online.
This is a pretty unusual poem, particularly because it deals with cyber issues that seem more relevant today than they would have been when the book was published back in 1968. The poem describes a utopia, or dystopia depending upon how you interpret it, where nature exists in balance and harmony with technology:
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
On one hand, it evokes images of nature being protected and nurtured by technology, existing in balance. But at the same time, there is a sense that something is not quite right. The imagery feels juxtaposed, like nature and technology don’t really belong together, yet somehow, they have come to accept each other and co-exist in spite of their inherent differences.
The closing stanza of this poem really gives me the chills.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
So we have this idealistic vision here, where technology frees us from our labors and provides us with the opportunity to return to our natural state, allowing computers to handle our mundane affairs. But as we all know, this is not the case. We are watched over by the machines of loving grace, but not in a beneficent manner. Our actions are tracked and the information is used, at best, by corporations trying to influence how we spend our time and money. Our smart phones, instead of allowing us freedom to walk in the woods, end up being digital shackles that keep us ever at the beck and call of employers who demand more and more from us.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love technology as much as the next geek. But let’s take a step back and look at our “cybernetic forest” and think about it. Do we really have more freedom as a result of computers? Have our lives really become easier and simpler over the past 20 or 30 years? Is the cyber-world we’ve created a utopia or a dystopia? There are no easy answers to these questions, but this poem challenges us to think carefully about those questions, which is something we all should do.