Monday, April 12, 2010

Radio Divination and Other Regressive Uses of Technology

L.G.C. Smith

Blogger ate my post last night, which seems apropos our topic this week, or I screwed something up. So here we go again...

Is there such a thing as ethno-technology? Sort of like ethnobotany where it isn't the plants themselves that are so much the thing as the ways people use them? If there is, that's what I find most interesting about technology: what we do with it.

I don't believe homo sapiens sapiens have changed all that much over the years. If we could see back fifty thousand years into the past, I'm pretty sure we'd find people dealing with technology in the same ways we do now. Imagine an old guy (all of thirty-five) and a young whippersnapper sitting on the beach in what would someday be pirate-ridden Somalia, discussing the relative merits of flint blades over whatever was used before that. "I can split a hair with this flint knife," the young buck would have claimed, to which the geezer would have snapped, "Why do you need to split a hair? Make yourself useful. Go cut up an antelope or something." The young guy would have done it in half the time the old fellow's old-fashioned blade could manage, and the old guy would have resisted using flint for the rest of his life on principle.

That principle is still around today in the sentiment that technology doesn't always make things better. Indeed, one day last year, one of my sisters was riding downtown to work on a crowded bus where everyone but her had iPod earbuds stuffed in their ears. Someone ripped a tremendous fart to absolutely no reaction. No grins. No giggles. Nothing. No one else heard it. I don't know if that's gross or just plain sad.

Lack of manners and resistance to change aside, one of the most enduring human traits seems to be attempting to forge God (or something like him/her/it) in our own image. Technology can be a handy tool in service of these efforts. For years I've joked that Google is God. You know, it's invisible, always around us in the air, capable of answering most any question you put to it if you ask the right way, blah, blah, blah. Well, come to find out, there are at least a few souls who actually think Google is God. For real. Google it and see.

Similarly, many technologies lend themselves well to divination. Our ancestors relied on goat guts, tea leaves, runes, and the I-Ching (among others). A lot of respectable religions frown on these sorts of things, but that doesn't necessarily stop practitioners from finagling the technology of the day into some sort of divination tool. A sturdy Bible -- in the form of a book, a technological wonder that's lasted a good long time as tech toys go -- can be used for things your pastor might not approve.

In my youth, I recall hearing people talk about praying to the Lord about something important to them like whether or not to buy a new turntable, for instance. To avoid waiting for what might well be an ambiguous answer, or risking non at all on what the Almighty might consider a low-priority concern, they'd flop open the Bible to a random page to see what the Big Guy (or Gal, or whatever) had to say to them.

Suppose they landed on one of the Old Testament genealogies. Hathpashet begat Leviticus, who begat Mahooticus and on and on and on with the weird names...hey, just like a record turns around and around and around! Buy the turntable! Now it would be really clear if you landed in that part of Ecclesiastes sampled in the Byrd's song. You know, "To everything there is a season, Turn, Turn, Turn." Of course, an observant devotee using this method of divination might have a pretty good idea where exactly Ecclesiastes is in the Bible and subtly influence the flop. This may not be the most technologically sophisticated form of divination.

Which brings me to Radio Divination, the jewel in the crown of technology turned to superstitious practice in the last half of the 20th Century. This is where you have an important question on which you wish to consult the Higher Power of your choice, and you use songs on the radio as your medium. A car radio is best. Not very many things are better done in the car, but Radio Divination most definitely is.

You frame your question. If you are young and affluent enough to be on the loose in a car, it often takes a form similar to: Should I drive past Eric Vondermeyer's haunts to see if he's home or out with that skank Tiffany Babbo? You know you shouldn't, stalking is bad, etc, which is why you seek the sanction of a Higher Power willing to speak through your radio. (I leave open the question of what sort of Higher Power has any interest in speaking through radios.) You must then designate which song will have your answer. The next one to start on a particular station, or just press presets until you hit a song. There's variation here. Just be clear.

Let's say you land on your mother's oldies station and "Jesse's Girl" in playing. You know your answer is that Eric secretly longs for you the way Rick Springfield longs for Jesse's girl, so yes, do it. Drive by his house, the sportmart where he works, and Tiffany's house. If Eric's car is there, seek solace in more Radio Div. You may find that Eric will soon leave Tiffany and find love with you. Should any other outcome be hinted at, feel free to ignore it. For God's sake, it's just the radio.

Sometimes the Higher Powers may begin communicating with you via the radio of their own volition. If this happens, get back on your meds. If it continues happening, I'm not sure what to tell you. When I used to drive back and forth between my house in Mission, SD and my parents' house in Rapid City, every time I drove by Eagle Nest Butte Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass" came on the radio. It happened 22 times in 16 months. Planned trips, spur of the moment jaunts, any route, any and all radio stations (although there were only three than reliably came in the whole way). By the time I moved back to Berkeley, I was half afraid of both Eagle Nest Butte and Annie Lennox.

I never did figure out exactly what the point of that was. My brother says there is no point, other than something explicable by playlist dynamics, but he's a techie and a scientist, so he's invested in proving things. I'm more into interesting stories. The ways I dumb down technology to accommodate my own wistful purposes seems to baffle folks like my brother.

Technology is only as advanced as we are, and we don't appear to be in danger of radical changes anytime soon. Pundits may spew about the evil potential in technologies, or the great good that might be done, but most people are using it to look at porn, play poker, do tarot spreads, project their net worth fifty years into the future, or discuss what they barbecued in their Big Green Eggs. We are endlessly trivial, most of us.

I find this banality as reassuring as I sometimes find new technologies disconcerting. I also still find Radio Divination amusing. I urge you all to unplug your iPods and give it a try the next time you're stuck in traffic.


Unknown said...

I use parking divination for shopping. :) If I can get a parking spot right in front of the store, then I'm meant to go inside (because of course I have a very limited time window to actually shop) and look for new shoes/jeans/top/makeup.... :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

I have a parking fairy song I sing to the tune of the old Meow Mix commercials, but I'll have to try parking divination, too. I like it. :)

Juliet Blackwell said...

Radio divination! I've done it for years, yet never knew it had a name! My son asks me why I don't use an IPod so I could just hear my favorite songs, not understanding that serendipity is a big part of my car listening experience. Of course, when the radio is way too lame, I fall back on CDs. Just sayin'.

And I love your reference to "dumbing down technology," which I always seem to do. You're right, it drives techies insane.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I'm one of the least woo-woo people I know, and yet even I look for portents in the mundane. And I mix it all up with my prayers with not one whit of misgiving, like, "Oh God, is that you in the wheat field, sway in the breeze so I know you're listening to me - oh, you *are* listening!"

I think that speaks to the universality of our hunger for signs. People who say they don't practice radio (or some other form of) devination are lying.

Adrienne Bell said...

Oh, Lynn, I used to do that all the time when I was teenager. We called it Radio Future. And we would drive by Eric's house! Oh, the memories!

L.G.C. Smith said...

Juliet, so many young people just don't get the random joy of a true Radio Divination moment. Its power lies in the fact that you have no control over what comes to you, as opposed to an iPod full of music chosen by you. You could do a shuffle, but you're shuffling in a much smaller box. As you take up more room, there's less room for the Divine. It's harder to sustain the, um, ecstasy.

Adrienne, Radio Divination is my own personal name for this practice, but, in all humility, it is the One Best and True Name. I've always thought it would make a great book title, but I haven't come up with the story yet.

Sophie, the art of the God in the Wheatfield Wind genre of Deity Confirmation/Divination is in the way we tell the story. With you telling, I would believe you completely.

Rachael Herron said...

LGC, it WOULD make a great book name. It would! Wow. I would buy that from you. :)