Out of Time: Progress and Modernity
Huma Ahmed

I recently read this article 100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About which talks about things like dialup modems, dos, letters, library books and numerous other things kids of the next generation will have no idea about and never experience. I felt unaccountably sad reading it. Not old necessarily but no doubt I’ve crossed the mark where I’m now ready to say “back in maaahhh dayyyyyy young whuppersnappers…” !! lol , but I just feel sad that all this progress and modernity is taking away things that really made us appreciate life and developed our character.

Someone recently called me a traditionalist I guess it’s true… I certainly do feel sometimes that I’m living out of time and should have been born in a different era. But then I think I like some things of now, but want to also keep some things of the past. As time rushes forward, let’s look at a few specific examples of how far we’ve come in just the last 20 years in my own lifetime:

From phones to mobile phones. While I agree cell phones are greatly convenient for meeting up with someone at the mall, sending a quick amusing text to someone or emergencies, there’s just so much we have lost by having this ‘always on, always connected’ device. Ever try to pray Taraweeh at the Mosque? Or any prayer for that matter? Or any lecture? Or let’s say TAWAF AROUND THE KABAH. Yes I heard one guy chitchatting to someone in Arabic during Tawaf telling them ‘I’m making Tawaf’. 😯 Oh really!? Hmm. How about eating at a restaurant or just walking around the mall or the grocery store or texting while driving or oh yeah walking down the sidewalk!? People just can’t seem to stop. It’s like it’s become a crutch now. I’ve seen people texting other people at an Islamic retreat in remote mountains!! Uhhh what are you gaining exactly. And what are we losing; the experience, the normalness of life, regular interactions. As a society we’ve never thought about what we were losing by the absolute proliferation and ubiquity of cell phones. Even in remote villages in India the latest rage is to have video/camera cell phones. What are they improving and what are they destroying?

From books to e-books. Really? I hate e-books and I’ve read plenty. There’s just something in the idea of a book being so totally portable. While we have kindles and ipods it’s just not the same. Can you curl up with an ipod on a rainy day, or read an electronic novel on the beach, or drop your kindle over the side of the bed when you feel sleepy? Just not the same. There’s something too in owning a physical book, having a bookshelf of books, giving them as gifts, passing them on, borrowing them, finding a rare book, having references. I have tons of Arabic references on CDs but I still reach for the shelf. Books were never meant to be long pages of electronic text. Maybe it’s the way we process information, pages at a time in our mind as a story progresses or something, but losing out on traditional books is truly a loss for society. It highlights how we’ve become so information/soundbyte driven. What we do now is type in google, gloss over wikipedia or listen to a youtube clip, never really learning anything in comprehensive/completeness.

From regular TV to 1 billion all the time DVR channels. I know the next generation will have no idea what it meant to anticipate a show or have fewer choices that might make them actually learn something or watch something they wouldn’t have otherwise or maybe watch less, period. When’s the last time kids have watched something with their parents or as a family. Gone the way of VCRs eh. I always see these kids switching from channel to channel to channel and even watching 2 or more things at the same time. And then they complain there’s nothing on TV and we wonder why our kids are so messed up lol! I saw one kid at an Islamic school secretly pull out his illegally downloaded collection of DVDs, of R-rated movie after movie. Yup technology is great. We can watch as much as we want all the time. Luckily there’s been so much written on the effects of TV, mostly negative, and on how it has changed how we process/learn by Western authors that I don’t have to go into it.

From Makkah to new Makkah. If you’ve been unaware, one of the most startling changes to our holy places has been occurring within our own lifetimes. Those who went to Hajj or Umrah just 20 years ago remember colorful souks, seas of diverse humanity, meeting Muslims from all over the world and open access to the special sites of historical significance. Those of today? Remember: Huge megapolis hotel/designer boutique complexes, grand buffets, faceless people covered with surgical masks and being in the Haram numerous times in their lifetime. No doubt it is a blessing that more Muslims can be accommodated but we’ve just lost that once-in-a-lifetime Malcom-x life transforming type of experience Hajj used to be. I remember a time not long ago when someone came back from Hajj and everyone in the community would go to visit and welcome them and ask them about their wonderous experience and stories.

Seeing digital computer animations of what the Haram will look like in a few years is like seeing a modern Jetson city of humongous skyscrapers, hotels and cars. Yes we can build it, we can be modern and shiny and whatever. But why? We have lost something so precious. Our link to the past. The feeling of being in the Holy cities, of following in the prophets-of-old’s footsteps, of any historical significance. It’s just been wiped clean. It’s like a dystopian utopia!! Dubai or Makkah? Will we even know the difference?

From normal interaction to Facebook, twitter, etc. This is the biggest change I think we will see most of the effects of in the next decade. Social networking was supposed to bring us more together, help us keep in touch and somehow help us in our lives. But it’s designed a new kind of social strata and society that makes normal friends and life look simpleton. Numerous studies show that ’social networking’ is only making us into anti-social dysfunctional inhumane beings and yet we continue to plug away driven like a nerdy 10th grader by some kind of peer pressure trying to get a date for the prom! :p Ack! We’re not closer, our relationships are not more real and social networking has brought forward a whole host of problems that we now have to deal with.

Do we really need to know what everyone is doing each second? Do we really need to compete over pictures and statuses and how many ‘friends’ we have? Is being witty in 140 characters really progress for humanity? Do we really need to share so much of our lives with high school friends we knew a million years ago or an acquaintance we just met? There seems to be no end to our connectivity even while it is increasing our narcissism, jealousy/envy, passive-aggressive behavior and drama in our lives. Apparently, we didn’t have enough drama in high school and need more! 🙄 Why don’t we just implant a chip in our brain that just connects to all the other chips in the collective. Oh wait, I thought we destroyed the borg, not are the borg!!

Anyways, just some offhand examples I thought to mention. I’m not saying I don’t like technology. I love technology and I love that with it, some things can become easier and better for us. That some things really have a lot of benefit and have made life so much more interesting in many ways, more than any other time in the past. But why aren’t we aware of the choices we are making and realize that with bigger, better, newer we are losing precious things in the process.

Sometimes living in the US we don’t even understand or know what we have lost (like this next generation will not know what we loved or experienced after us). Living overseas in arguably one of the most preserved societies ever, I came to realize there were so many little things that we should be mourning the loss of. It was like living in a different world there without all these ‘modern conveniences’, low technology, hardly any internet, hardly any telephones for that matter. There were many people there who did not even own phones! People live in simple ways, in small homes, connected to real people and connected to the environment around them. Everything is old and in their own way they try to preserve certain things of importance: historical places, their old Mosques, their good cultural traditions, their societal values of hospitality, generosity, politeness, welcoming of strangers, learning, preserving institutions, giving to the poor. They also just didn’t covet material things like us. They buy what they need and use and no extra. If you exclaim over something they have, they will turn around and give it to you! They reuse and recycle everything because they just don’t see the point of waste. They want to preserve the things around them for their children.

Satellite television and popular culture was at that time slowly making a dent but nothing like the influence it has on the rest of the world; so they were protected. Just walking through the souk and buying something from the person who actually made it or grew it, knowing the cafe owners by name, meeting and sharing with your neighbors. Even some very old traditions such as the closing down of one’s store when a coffin was carried through the souk on its way to burial, the Ramadan suhoor drummer guy, wedding customs, decorating the house of a person who went to Hajj, visiting the sick and the poor. Such beautiful things may soon be lost to ‘modernity’. Living there in the 1100s and living there now is different but somehow they have kept so much of their beautiful culture and traditions, you often wonder if you’re living out of time! Their etiquette and their interaction with other people, guests, store owners, their positive way of life, of family and tradition and religion, ethics, they’re all the same. Somehow they have kept them and they fight to keep them regardless of the encroaching ways of the world.

In all our progress and modernity, I just feel like we’ve lost so many of the beautiful experiences and traditions of the past. We can never appreciate the simple things. We can’t see the worth in the history, the tradition, the culture. We’re oblivious to the downside of any technology. We never say ‘well maybe we shouldn’t do that’ or ‘maybe this technology doesn’t improve my life’ or ‘what do i need that for when i’m fine right now’ or ‘do i really need to buy ……’ We can’t seem to turn it off, unplug or disconnect!

Again I’m not saying we should go back to living like we were in the 1100s, I like things like washing machines, modern transportation or Islamic lectures via internet but why have we lost our appreciation for having less clothes, horse back riding or learning in a Madrassa? Why can’t we keep and appreciate the good things of the past and adopt or limit the things of the future in a way where we preserve what we value and encourage a healthy and dare i use a buzzword ‘green’ way of life. Are they diametrically opposed?

Maybe we should take some time this Ramadan to unplug, let go of some of our ‘modern’ attachments and try to come back to a natural way of life and reflect on what we have missed living in all our progress and modernity