Towers of Babel
June 24, 2002
Cocooning on the Canyon
We live in a cocoon. That is a theory I have harbored for a long time. Modern men and women are totally shielded from the other element that permeates the world that we affectionately called Nature. Nature is nice, sweet, gorgeous, lovable and intriguing. Sadly, that is not the whole story, nature is far too difficult to deal with, and we do not want to live with her.
We want to be cocooned, shielded from nature with layers of insulation, fabricated from the harvests of science and technology. When we think of all encompassing technological things, today, we tend to think of computers. True, computers do run out lives—they control our production, supply the electricity, manage water resources, handle traffic, run the car engines, keep watches ticking and so on. But computers are a far cry from the real technology that shields us from the so-called Mother Nature.
The cocoon we live in, starts at home. Almost everyone in the western world, (and the rest of the world is catching up fast), live in climate-controlled homes. The indoor temperature is set at 75°F (or thereabouts). The mercury soars and the air conditioner kicks in. It falls and the heating chugs up. There is no sweating, no shivering, just comfort. All happens as they say, “auto-magically”.
Twist a tap and the water flows. Flick a switch and the lights come on. Depress a handle and the toilet cleans itself. Turn a knob and the burner heats the food. Look at the wall clock and you know the time. Click the remote and pictures flash on a screen and music fills the air. Punch a few numbers and you talk to a friend. Click the mouse and web pages dance. It is all part of what we are so used to, everyday. We forget that nature does not work like that.
Yet, we whine. A certain acquaintance was recently whining. “I just got the new-fangled, direct broadcast satellite TV system,” he said. “And now, for 24 hours a day, I am proud to have access to 500 channels of pure, unadulterated crap”.
To test the cocoon theory, I set out on an adventure, an adventure to venture out into the realms of nature, far away from the niceties of modern life. The modest plan was to spend a night out, way outside the reaches of civilization. The result was humbling; I just never managed to get away.
Sunday evening, I was behind the wheel of the trusty old minivan hurtling down the freeway bound for one of the twelve “natural wonders of the world’, the Grand Canyon. Hurriedly packed into the minivan was my seven-year-old son, Avi, along with one tent, two sleeping bags, a chest with some soft drinks and ice, towel, few clothes and several gallons of water. Note the irony, the foray into the great unknown called nature was taking shape in a six-cylinder, 3 liter, 200HP, cruise controlled, air conditioned vehicle capable of speeds greater than 90 mph and also equipped with a cell phone.
Two hundred and fifty miles of open, lovely, paved, smooth road (thank you, American taxpayer) lay between the Grand Canyon and us. As we got closer, the sun was fast setting throwing up garish hues into the desert sky. We are hurtling down a huge plateau, elevation 7,000ft and as flat as flat can be. The semi-arid vegetation is scraggly. The road is straight as an arrow disappearing into the horizon and the van is hurtling along with the speedometer pegged at 80mph. (It is an old vehicle that whines, if pushed any faster).
Finally, Avi piped up:
“So, are we really going camping, Baba” he whined.
“Yes, of course we are, why not, it will be fun (trust me)”, I mumbled.
“No, I would rather be hotelling”, was the crisp response.
“Hotelling? You mean stay in a hotel? Why would we want that?”
“Because, I want to watch TV”.
How do I explain to a child that we are here to commune with nature, and nature has no hotels? No nothing. No TV, no electricity, no water, no air-conditioning, no heating, no telephones, just pure gorgeousness. I guess he did not quite relate to such weird thinking. Probably genetically programmed via mom.
Finally, it was dark and the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park loomed. Soon we were at the campground. A strip of dirt with a picnic table surrounded by hundreds of people camping out in designated campsites. Thankfully, we had some tent campers besides us, other folks had behemoth moving houses, called RVs. These are mansions on wheels, complete with generators, water, toilets, bedrooms, kitchens, refrigerators, microwave ovens, heating, AC, satellite TV and yes, engines and wheels. They are also out to commune with nature, but they brought their suburban homes along for the ride.
It was dark and getting darker. My paltry belongings did not include a flashlight. Bad idea, this will not work. So we got into the car to hunt for some form of light. Maybe we could find some at the Grand Canyon Village.
The Grand Canyon is the largest hole in the ground that anyone has ever seen. At the top, the cleavage varies between about 12 to 18 miles across and the gash is over 200 miles long. From the top to bottom is a fall of about 5000 feet (1 mile), and in many places the drop is straight down, sheer. It was supposedly carved out of hundred of layers of varying kinds of rock about 5 million years ago. At the bottom is the once mighty, now tamed Colorado River, gushing though over 70 dangerous rapids. Humans had long explored its mysteries but its expanse, beauty and enormity was never really understood, till the invention of the airplane.
Most of the whole expanse is uninhabited and inaccessible. The Grand Canyon Village is a cluster of roads and hotels on the South Rim, overlooking the canyon, one of the few places where ordinary citizens with their cars can hop on over to peer down the brilliantly colored walls of the canyon. Of course, there are restaurants, shops and other tourist traps.
A gift shop had a flashlight so we returned to the RV infested campground to set up the tent. After eating a sandwich Avi lay down on his back with his head sticking out of the tent and looked at the sky.
And suddenly he saw the show. A show more spectacular than anything on TV. A show worth more than anything money can buy or technology can deliver. A show that glittered brighter than any Hollywood production.
The sky, a carpet of light, a brilliant web of a trillion stars. So dense and so bright that you have to gasp. The darkness on the canyon rim was darker than dark. Piercing this darkness, on a moonless night, the stars were blindingly bright. (The clear dry air and the lack of cities that cause “light pollution” make the stars really shine).
“Wow”, said Avi, “this is so cool, can we stay here another night?”
“No”, I sighed, “I have to get back to work”.
Gazing at the sky he yawned and soon his eyes closed and he went straight to dreamland. Soon it was my turn, and I retired into the tent under the sleeping bag, in the middle of the nature’s own backyard. But, there is a, “but”.
But, I was in a tent. It is an old cheap tent that came in a tiny bag, but opens out to form a cocoon large enough to keep two people, totally shielded. The fabric is designed to let enough air though so as not to suffocate, but it retains heat so that it is not too chilly inside. It protects against wind, rain, insects, creatures and other nasty elements. Even though the desert temperatures were zooming down to the freezing point, the carefully crafted synthetic fibers lining the sleeping bag would keep me warm. Was I really in nature, or still in the cradle of human ingenuity?
Even in the campground, in the middle of nowhere, far from human habitat, I was surrounded by infrastructure. No water or electricity in the campground, but a few minutes away there were bathrooms, showers, telephones, shopping, food and roads. In case I did not quite want to walk there, I had the car.
Supporting the infrastructure of the campground and the adjoining village is a huge machinery run by the National Park Service, an unit of the Department of the Interior, which is in turn a part of the US Government (again, thank you, American taxpayer). They build roads, set up campgrounds, run hotels, cafeterias, shops, tours, busses, and maintenance. They employ people to run the tourist facilities and provide housing and food for the stranded employees (most parks are far from human habitat). And of course they run websites.
Every dirty strip-like slot at the 323-slot campground, called Mather Campground, at the Grand Canyon National Park, can be reserved by anyone in the world, over the World Wide Web by following links from www.nps.gov.
Yes, I was away from my household cocoon, for a night but there was no escaping technology. Except for the view of the sky from the open hatch of the tent, and the nice memories, which are stored in my brain only, because I forgot to bring a camera.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at