"The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes," wrote Goethe.
Seeing this quote the other day, I vowed to take a look at what's right before me. Now, having done so, I wish I hadn't.
Have I been blind? How else to explain my failure to perceive the ubiquitous emergence of creatures half-human, half-machine? While people talk about the coming post-human future - when man and machine morph into one - that moment is here, and we have the post-humans to prove it.
I find myself surrounded by people attached to machines, and vice-versa. Lacking my own handheld telecommunications device, in the midst of people engaged with their gadgets I experience a distinctly modern solitude. This spectacle conjures childhood memories of John Glenn in his Mercury spacesuit, almost indistinguishable from his cockpit of his spectacular shiny vessel, "The Age of Heroes." But unlike John Glenn, the digital devotees aren't going anywhere: They are nowhere.
Cyberspace is aptly named: What it lacks most conspicuously is what Romans called genius loci, or spirit of place. On the web, this space that is no place, we migrate to a sensory deprivation chamber. Click by click, we sacrifice so much of what makes life life: physicality, the human touch, voice, gaze, gesture, fragrance, dimension, weather, spontaneous dialogue, light and air.
There exists an antidote to the web's anhedonic, sense-numbing, data-driven dystopia: the garden. Here, right outside your door, is the very essence of genius loci, the realm where your senses are fully engaged and gratified.
Goethe's tragedy, "Dr. Faust," tells the story of the eponymous scholar and magician who, in a pact with the Devil, exchanges his soul for boundless worldly knowledge and limitless personal adventures. Sounds like the Internet, doesn't it? Like the Devil, the web preys on our all too human foibles: our idleness, restlessness, curiosity and voyeurism.
The Internet promises a Faust-like omniscience and a diabolical cloak of anonymity that lets us become anyone or say anything with no concern for the consequences. But online experiences are ephemeral phoniness. Like a gambler, we are left with, at best, nothing. When we use the web (or vice versa), we lose our most valuable possessions: our time, our perception, our senses, and intimacy with others. Since 80 percent of human communication is non-verbal, on the Internet we become shrunken versions of ourselves.
Isn't the role of technology to streamline our work, so we have time for others, and the off-line pursuit of happiness? Our "mini-Fausts" say no. On average, Americans spend more than five hours on the Internet each day, in addition to four and a half hours watching television. Add it up and the average media diet equals 147 24-hour days, more than a third of your year.
Dr. Faust should have grown vegetables rather than pine for time lost and experience missed. A garden gives you back time, real real time, reconnecting you to the seasons. Indeed, with the winter solstice on December 23rd, time snaps back in place, lighting the way to the new year and new life. This coming year, look up from your screen for a moment and step into the anti-Internet, the reality show that isn't fake. Welcome to the garden: a vibrant web of beauty, color, fragrance, space and time, the wellspring of what we and our nation so desperately require: authenticity and truth.
The gardener resides, not in virtual space, but on terra firma.
Attuned to the life of plants, the seasons, sunlight, soil, weather, you're kept company by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. In creating and nurturing a garden, you can see and taste the results of your efforts, and share them. The garden is, quite simply, Paradise - the original and ultimate social network - right in front of your eyes.
George Ball is chairman and CEO of the Burpee Company and past president of the American Horticultural Society.