Woke in my favorite hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in Kathmandu–power is only on about half the time. That is as much as I am roughing it back here in the city after my warm-up trek in Helambu. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. The deeper into the mountains, the fewer conveniences, the simpler the life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, will often describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. A farmer tilling narrow terraced fields with a short-handled heavy hoe is a scene that has been repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they are living in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, quallofil polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the true or larger modern world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our modernities. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modern world.
T. Hugh Crawford