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Contaminated Tap Water & Technology We Take For Granted

When 300,000 people are forced to go without running water for 5 days, the word catastrophe doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Most Americans take clean running water for granted and assume it will always be there.

In this post Nathan Palmer asks us to consider our relationship with the technology around us and what happens when it goes away.

Imagine if you couldn’t take a shower for four days in a row, you couldn’t turn on your faucet to brush your teeth or wash your hands, and you couldn’t drink anything except bottled water. What would you do? Tragically, the residents of Charleston, West Virginia don’t have to imagine this scenario, because they are living in it.

Last Thursday a tap water ban was put into place for nearly 300,000 people after the chemical processing company Freedom Industries alerted officials that up to 5,000 gallons of MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol had leaked out of a container and into the local river. As the New York Times reported MCHM, “can cause headaches, eye and skin irritation, and difficulty breathing from prolonged exposures at high concentrations, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists.” Nearly 5 days later, the authorities announced that fresh clean tap water would be coming back slowly.

This crisis brings up so many questions. We could talk about how social institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to protect us from situations like this. We could also talk about how human made natural disasters can shred the connections within a community. However, I’d like to talk with you about something more basic: technological somnambulism.

Technological Somnambulism: Sleepwalking Through Life

Do you have any idea how to feed yourself? If tomorrow you awoke and every grocery store, restaurant, fast food joint, and every other food outlet was gone, would you starve to death? I’m willing to bet that most of you would answer yes. Stop and think about what this means. For millions of years every human being was taught how to feed themselves, but today we live in ignorance.

In fact, if you think about all the technological systems you use everyday (e.g. a car, computer, indoor plumbing, electricity, wifi, etc.) most of us have a very limited understanding of how these work. If they break we either call in an expert to fix them (e.g. mechanic, plumber, Geek Squad, etc.) or, if we can afford to, we throw them away and replace them.

Despite not knowing how these technological systems work or how to fix them if they break, each of us is able to use them in everyday life (e.g. I can log onto a WiFi network even though I don’t know how WiFi networking technology works). This is largely because we learn technological routines that help us accomplish our tasks. We learn a way of accomplishing a task and then, for the most part, repeat that routine anytime we want to accomplish that task again. This is what Langdon Winner Describes as Technological Somnambulism[1]. We sleepwalk through life using our technological routines, but the moment those routines fail us we are forced to wake up.

Winner’s larger point is that the complexity of modern life often hides from us in plain sight. We take for granted how complex the world around us is. We take for granted that the systems we depend on will always be there for us. But they moment the fail us we are suddenly awake to the fact that we have taken them for granted. When these systems fail us we are awoken from our technological sleepwalking and often this makes us angry. All we want to do is go back to sleep- back to the way things were before. All we want to do is to stop thinking about these technological systems we’ve taken for granted.

I don’t want to minimize the catastrophe that happened in Charleston, West Virginia. Losing your community water system isn’t a mere inconvenience. It can be a matter of life and death. But with that said, it is moments like this that reveal technological somnambulism to us. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Charleston resident Curtis Walls who reportedly said, “[You] can’t do nothing without water… You don’t miss it till it goes away.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Write out a list of all of the technological systems that you have used yesterday. Start from the moment you woke up until the moment you went to bed.
  2. Look at the list you created for question one. How many of those systems do you understand well enough that if they broke you could fix them? What does this say about your relative dependence on technology?
  3. Think of an example of when the technology you use everyday failed you. How did it disrupt your life? Does your experience fit with the description of technological somnambulism above?
  4. I convinced my friend, who was a life long windows user, to buy a Mac and she hated it. She said, “I don’t know how to do anything on this damn machine.” Describe how this is an example of technological somnambulism (Hint: you probably want to use the concept of technological routines in your answer).

  1. FYI: Somnambulism is the medical term for sleepwalking. Why didn’t Langdon just say that in the first place? I dunno.  ↩