Who sits this side of the computer terminal, tapping out words that shoot out across the web? Nobody knows.
It is unsettling that I have a daily routine almost as regular as my five prayers: to peruse the online press for the latest reviews of the latest Netbook computers to go on sale. I am amazed by these little machines: attracted by their looks and fascinated by their form.
But just as the full force of this addiction kicked in, carrying me to Comet and Dixons to see numerous examples for real, a subtle realisation dawned… Actually, I have no need for a Netbook. I have an aging, second-hand laptop, which though far from perfect, serves my needs satisfactorily, and a desktop computer too. The truth is I’m suffering from technolust.
Over the years I have made myself deeply unpopular with acquaintances by voicing my fears of technolust aloud. Though undoubtedly irritating, every plea is heartfelt at the time. In a discussion on the merits of the iPhone vs the Blackberry, I will be found remonstrating that last year’s phone will suffice. My acquaintances respond in anger, demanding to know why I must inject irrelevant ideas into their discussions. Why don’t I just bog off, is the gist, though it is expressed with far more elegance.
Yet in truth I seek not to be a thorn in their sides. It is just that such discussions remind me of my own technolust. Yes, I really, really want a Netbook… but actually I have no need for one at all. It would just be a bit of a toy. Sure, we can all talk about the need to post our Twitter updates, to check our email and to post to our Blog wherever we are in the world. But actually that isn’t a need at all. It is a want and it is technolust. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true.
I have always had this fear of gadgetry, or more specifically the cost of gadgetry. In my youth I was found yearning partly after a romantic past of subsistence farming and partly after a clean future harnessing the power of river currents. At university I studied environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, seeking out low impact technologies to carry us forward.
And then I became a Muslim and learned that the best of our community lived lives that had minimal impact on the world around them. Some of the rulers of the early Muslim ummah shunned stallions to walk on the earth with humility. At night they slept like paupers. Their garments were unpretentious and their possessions few. Their lives mirrored the great sentiments of the gospels I had been raised upon.
And so what is the cost of our technolust? To the earth, the cost is great. To regional peace and stability, the cost is huge, fuelling mineral wars and civil strife all over. To our spiritual growth, only God surely knows. Our deen encourages restraint in terms of the food that passes our lips, the words that slip from our tongues, the gaze of our eyes and our craving for the delights of the world. For me, technolust is a modern extension of age-old trials. Yes, my injections into many a conversation are irritating, but they come from these thoughts. Ultimately the cause of my discomfort is my accountability before my Lord.
Nowadays such fears are quite inconvenient for I am paid to build websites and web applications, to keep abreast of the latest technologies and push boundaries. Websites — like this blog — depend on servers, and vast server farms exist to keep today’s internet running.
I believe I am a realist. Technology brings us great advantages, from CAT scanners and digital x-rays at the hospital to the washing machines and cookers in our homes, or from the video messaging allowing families scattered around the world to communicate face-to-face to the mobile phone enabling one to call for help in an emergency. Tis great and wondrous indeed.
But there is a line — I believe — somewhere here, but it is one that shifts constantly, blurring benefit, need and want. Many humans live comfortably without access to washing machines, but for those of us who have never known the world without them, such machines are considered a necessity. To speak with certainty about technolust is difficult in such shifting sands, but I believe we do retain a measure. It is our heart.
When the heart whispers that it is technolust, it probably is. When the heart whispers that we cannot justify spending all that money on yet another gadget, it is probably true. And when we look in our cupboards and see all of those other gadgets we thought we needed before, we can surely consider this a guide as well.
The cravings for the Netbook — or whatever the next gadget of the day would be — are certainly strong — but I am not going to fool myself with talk of some great need. I love shiny gadgets as much as the next man, but truth will always prevail. Though what I want is great, what I actually need is little; with the realisation that I suffer from technolust comes the recognition that somewhere in-between will suffice. Eat from the good things of the earth, yes, but do not go to extremes.
I’m not really sure about this Web 2.0 malarkey. I’ve just deleted my Facebook account again. Last time it was because I imagined a fantastical conspiracy in which key investors were databasing our identities for unspeakable ends. I can’t remember how the account came to be resurrected, but somehow I delved back in and rebuilt my global empire of friends. I found old classmates, connected with the Turkish relations and found myself sought by people who knew me from somewhere, or who were a friend of a friend, or who were just trying their luck.
But as of two nights ago, my Facebook account is no more (well technically, it will be no more in 14 days time; in the meantime I can change my mind and pretend this never happened). This time the reason was closer to home. Learning of another marriage on the rocks in which Facebook had played at least a part, I found myself heeding the alarm bells going off within. If this could happen to folk likes these—far better believers that I—it could clearly happen to me.
Although Facebook for me was just a glorified address book—as I shunned the invitations and applications that appeared on the dashboard when I logged in once a week—the analogy that sprang to mind was that of the marketplace. Now I can understand why sitting in such a setting without purpose is discouraged. ‘The nafs that walk the street,’ as a friend said recently, oblivious to the fallen relationships, ‘are the same nafs that surf the net.’ The face in a crowd that appears much more beautiful than that of your beloved is no different to the virtual contact who appears far more interesting than them.
In the past when my wife recounted yet another article describing a family torn apart by a blossoming relationship across the keyboards on Facebook, I felt able to dismiss it, pointing out that these things have always occurred, that it’s only the technology that’s changing. Why single out Facebook, I would ask? It was a valid argument, but it missed the point. She would condemn any forum where people were losing their senses and falling headlong into sin. But media accounts always carry a different weight to those of people you know. It is scary, to be perfectly honest, to realise that real relationships, real families, real spouses and real children are indeed reaping the consequences of our abandonment of the sunnah when we venture online.
I have enough experience of my own to learn that the Internet can be an addictive drug. There is something rather unsettling in the routine that sees one repeatedly checking back to an old favourite to see if it’s live again at last, even though it’s become perfectly apparent that we’re stuck with visual commentary for the rest of eternity. Such a habit is, of course, the least of the problem. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is rather more intrusive.
The weeks I spent offline, bringing the garden under control, were physically exhausting, but emotionally liberating. The world offline—for me—brings a peace to my heart (but often aches to my back, knees and arms). My return online soon has me spinning back into old, irritating ways. It is my curse.
And it is the curse of others too. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is taking over people’s lives, as they forget a multitude of sunnahs—the gaze of our eyes, the company we keep, our use of words, sitting alone (albeit with the intervention of fibre-optic cables) with those haram to us, and this list goes on.
‘What has happened to Tim?’ asks a friend. ‘Why such extremes, so suddenly?’
Is it an extreme, or is it the dawning of reality? Today ‘extreme’ is where Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 led two friends, but tomorrow I may change my mind. Today I am thinking out loud. Tomorrow I may make the hard choices.
At work I am involved in the local implementation of a complex government-driven national computer programme. In my particular region, every surgery and health centre has been kitted out with the latest technology, delivering over 300 new PCs, 50 printers and 20 servers. The aim of the national programme is to connect thirty-thousand doctors to three hundred hospitals for the benefit of patients. The goal is to create an efficient patient-centred health service, wherein high quality information is shared effectively between different teams and organisations.
Without a doubt, these are all very admirable aspirations, but there is a question which keeps on recurring in my mind… “What happens when the oil runs out?”
I’m not being funny — although whenever I ask this question at work, I find myself the immediate target of mockery. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?” a colleague asked me sarcastically, prompting those around us to snigger at my ridiculous statements. I am the irritating voice in the office who must always inject a historical or futuristic reference whenever some piece of technology is not working exactly as it should. I have the misfortune to sit beside the noisy, clunky photocopier and am thus the first recipient of the expletives when the paper jams again. “I hate this thing,” is a frequent refrain; “This Bloody Machine” another. As I sidle across to assist the huffing and puffing victims of copier fart, I cannot help asking — as I retrieve the crumpled rogue sheet from flap five — how we got by in the olden days, why everything is such a hurry. The last time I told a colleague who was lamenting how long it was taking for the machine to wake up from its power-saving slumber that at least waiting on a monk with a quill could have been worse, the “you’re an idiot” glare was useful confirmation that my “it’s not that bad” optimism is getting on everyone’s nerves. Still, whenever there is a problem with the computer network and patience begins to fray, I continue to ask what we are going to do when the oil runs out.
No, I’m not being funny. I’m serious. “What, this computer runs on oil, does it?”
Well yes, in a way. The American Chemical Society (http://acswebcontent.acs.org) estimates that the construction of a single 32MB DRAM chip uses 1.5kg of fossil fuels in addition to 32kg of water, while the production of one gram of microchips consumes 630g of fossil fuels. Most of the keyboard, mouse, CPU case and monitor is made from plastic, which is a polymer derived from oil. It is estimated that the construction of the average desktop computer consumes ten times its weight in fossil fuels, while the US Environmental Literacy Council (http://www.enviroliteracy.org) states that the energy used in producing ten computers is enough to produce a car, largely due to the purity and sophistication of materials required to produce microchips. All electrical devices make use of silver, copper, and/or platinum, each of which is extracted, transported, and fashioned using oil-powered machinery. The production of one ton of copper requires the equivalent of 17.8 barrels of oil, while the energy cost component of aluminium is twenty times higher. In other words, the production of computers is an extremely energy-intensive operation throughout the cycle.
Take yourself off to the website of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (http://www.peakoil.net) and sober up. While I am sure that everybody is aware that oil is finite resource, what this means hasn’t really hit home yet. Every time we hear that production is peaking we learn that a new oil field has been discovered and so we relax; it seems the oil will just run and run. Last time I was in Turkey I met a BP engineer heading off to Trabzon. My wife laughed: there’s no oil down there. “Oh yes there is,” he replied with a smile, on route to his connecting flight. Out on a rig in the Black Sea, off the northern Turkish coast, they are drilling for more black gold. Why don’t the scaremongers just quieten down? Probably because they are right. We don’t know when the oil will run dry — in 1956, Marion King Hubbert incorrectly forecasted that world oil production would peak at some point between 1993 and 2000 — but we can be certain that it will. Hubbert was correct in his prediction that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s.
Some reports now suggest that the peak of oil production — which coincides with 50% depletion of our oil endowment — has been superseded and we will therefore begin to see production levels drop my 3% each year. Thus oil production in 2020 is likely to be equal to that in 1980, although demand for oil will significantly outpace production due to population growth and more widespread industrialisation. As CEO of Halliburton in 1999, Dick Cheney stated that, “there will be an average of two-percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a three-percent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day.” Andrew Gould, CEO of the oil services firm Schlumberger noted: “An accurate average decline rate is hard to estimate, but an overall figure of 8% is not an unreasonable assumption.”
Those who only consider the implications of a decline in the production of oil in light of our transportation and energy needs, must awake to the realisation that petrochemicals are actually key components in a vast array of applications, from the production of medicines to the distribution of water, and from the creation of plastics to the production of food. Indeed, in the case of the latter it is estimated that industrialised societies use 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten. In addition to the energy used in farming, transportation and packaging of the food we eat, oil is the building block of many related resources. Pesticides are made from oil, for example, while fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is derived from natural gas.
We are running, but where are we going? The growth in the popularity of consumer electronics in recent years has brought with it an acceptance of planned obsolescence and the perpetual upgrade, without any real appreciation of the implications. Last year’s status symbol was the Apple iPod, this year’s the Sony Walkman phone, next year’s the portable PlayStation? We move from hyper-threading chips to dual-core offerings within a matter of months. The traditional conservative approach towards electronic equipment (such as the Hi-Fi and TV) that anticipated longevity has largely been superseded by the idea that a product will need to be perpetually upgraded (mobile phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players). Computers are vulnerable to this idea on two fronts: aging hardware and new versions of software. Indeed, the two link together in a perfect marriage: as computers get more powerful, so does the software, the next generation requiring ever greater hardware specifications. The result, unfortunately, is the creation of huge volumes of waste and consumption of limited resources. We know that much of this is unnecessary, but we just accept it as a fact of life. It is said that most of the consumer-level problems with computer software are not inherent in the technology. Rather, they are the consequences of user-hostile business models, which see the perpetual upgrade as its primary source of revenue.
But where are we heading? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org), which was drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years, concluded that human activities threaten the Earth’s ability to sustain future generations. The way in which society obtains its resources is said to have caused irreversible changes that are degrading the natural processes that support life on Earth, and it is believed that this will compromise efforts to address hunger, poverty and improve healthcare. Its authors say the pressure for resources has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth; fisheries and fresh water, for example, are now well beyond levels that can sustain current demands. Thus the report suggests that society must alter its consumption patterns and promote better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems.
We can communicate across continents in an instant for free, sharing files, sounds and video at ease. We can calculate financial forecasts faster than ever before using metre-wide spreadsheets with thousands of entries. We can share our thoughts with strangers in far-off lands. Our Doctors can view digital X-Rays on their computer as soon as a fracture has been photographed in a hospital twenty miles away. Software logarithms can now identify cancers within a CAT scan without human intervention. Technology is shrinking the world and allegedly speeding life up. Ears plugged into the iPod, eyes fixed on the computer screen, we are racing onwards as never before. But where are we going and what are we doing? My question is serious: what will we do when the oil runs out?
Those who are studying peak oil are not speaking about the last drop, only the downward slope of the bell curve. When demand outstrips supply, they say, the economy as we know it will probably collapse. And what will we do when that happens? How will we live?
Slow down. Learn how to live. Learn how to survive as those before us did. As another writer noted recently, some of us don’t know how determine when it is time to pray because we have become dependent on computer generated timetables. Some of us don’t know how to determine whether Ramadan has arrived because we are dependent on someone telling us on the phone. We have entered the on-demand age of e-Government, e-Banking, e-Commerce and e-Support, and we are apparently more connected than ever before. But do we know how to cook “real food”, or grow some vegetables, or conserve water and heat? Do we know how to conduct business? Do we know how to survive in the post-oil age?
It is possible that this apocalyptic vision is an exaggeration of our future reality – a dystrophic apparition more akin to that old film entitled Mad Max. I have read that scientist are developing new plastics based on polymers derived from corn and that theoretically circuit boards could be printed on sheets of lasagne pasta. Perhaps by the time oil is seriously on the decline, we will have developed efficient renewable sources of energy, or Mr Blair’s nuclear programme will be well under way. Perhaps today’s silicon based computer chips will have been replaced by organic processors. Perhaps the future will be rosy and my concern is misplaced. Perhaps.
But as we march onwards at an ever increasing pace, and I am invited to upgrade my computer and mobile telephone, to buy an MP3 player and download the latest version of Microsoft Windows, that question just returns. Our resources are finite: about this there can be no doubt. Isn’t it better that we slow down and question where we’re going? That we ask now, before it is too late? I think I can get by without an iPod. What about you?
When the thunder clattered and the rain lashed the ground, the power went off and SOAS library’s computer network ceased to function. There was no rain in Tanzania, the power went off, but it was more than the computers that suffered.