Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Friday, January 22, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 8

8: Resistance is Futile

Modern fashion. Yes, this is how we look.

If you are fifty or older, I would like you to do a little thought experiment with me (if you aren’t that old, you can watch): Imagine your 1960’s self, magically transported onto the streets of America today. What would be the first thing that would strike you as different and strange?

No, it wouldn’t be our sleek, shiny flying cars or the giant alien spaceships floating overhead. No, I think the first thing you would notice would be all the escaped mental patients wandering around the streets.

You know, all those sloppy, undressed people walking around in t-shirts and pajamas, even in the supermarket or at the bank… not smiling and saying hello or even making eye contact with you … many of them talking to themselves, loudly, and stare right through you if you try to respond to what they are saying. Has a rogue virus turned everyone into zombies? Have the commies poisoned our water supply?

But look closer and you notice these poor are not completely undressed – some of them are wearing jewelry – a large earring that only hangs from only one ear.  Some walk slowly, stooped over, staring at some little box that looks like a cigarette case that they carry both hands in front of them like a sacred object. Perhaps it contains some small items of great personal value.

Cleary, this brave new world has given up on mental hospitals and has drugged its citizens into near catatonia so they can put them out to wander on the open range. Young and old, they’re all pretty much alike, though the young ones seem to also be afflicted by a disease that afflicts their vision, because they have hideous fashion sense.

Okay, I know you know what I’m talking about – the world we are living in has become strange, so strangely different because we are now wired in, wired to each other, wired to the globe almost all our waking hours. (I’m writing this as I wait for a plane in Boston’s Logan Airport, checking Facebook and a listserve argument that I’m part of every five minutes… thanks to wifi.) We are always connected to everyone we know (and everyone we don’t know), yet… in the world around us we are strangely disconnected and alone.

Smart phone karma… or maybe bikema.
This happened relatively suddenly to our culture, but slowly enough that we didn’t “notice” anything unusual was going on, like the fictional frog who doesn’t notice that the water he is sitting in is heating to a boil. 

I say “notice” because of course we did notice, but decided to ignore it as an inevitable change going on in the world. (here is nice piece the NYT’s Tim Egan has written about his own struggles with this) I noticed when my teenage kids would sit at the dinner table texting their friends,  impervious to adult questions until parents got angry … and then would shout “hold on!” as if we were interrupting them at brain surgery (the phones, of course, were eventually banned at dinner, though often they snuck back, under the table).  I noticed when the person standing in the pasta aisle at the supermarket would seem to say something and when I’d turn around to ask “pardon me?” they would stare right through me and carry on their disembodied conversation with their virtual ghosts. I noticed the first dozen times I had to dive out of the way to keep myself from being killed by someone in an SUV,  talking on their cell phone (or texting or surfing…) as they cruised at 30 mph through a parking lot, only dimly aware of the wraith-like shadows of the actual human reality around them.  For those of us brought up in a more socially-dependent age -- where we were ferociously schooled in the importance of being polite to others and raised to feel self-conscious in public -- this change was jarring, as we found ourselves suddenly living amidst the half-present – people who looked superficially the same, but who wandered like zombies, heads and minds elsewhere, seeing things we did not see, hearing voices we did not hear, and nearly oblivious to people (us!) who were physically nearby.

At the same time I began noticing such strange public behavior, it also struck me that other, more subtle things were going on with the intellectual habits of the people around me, but it also seemed churlish to say so. I noticed that people stopped reading. Until they were well into college, my kids never read a newspaper article, unless it was given to them and required, and, to this day, I think, have never picked up a physical newspaper and read through it.  They aren’t completely uninformed – they read news snippets constantly online, in text alerts, on Twitter,  in Yahoo news alerts or on Buzzfeed, but they never read long, in-depth articles. They watch shows on TV or Netflix that don’t require their full attention – like the Kardassians or re-runs of something they have seen a dozen times before, a kind of video wallpaper, generally with a phone on or another screen open and some trivial conversation going on in the background. 

They are paying attention to everything and nothing at the same time. I notice that everyone, adults and children alike, are often caught up in the moment-to-moment news of the world, but generally seem to have no time to examine it, to think about what it means, to really understand it in detail, to have a conversation with someone else about it. Now don't get grumpy as I say this: I hear you. I hear that most people “don’t have the time” to “really get into that”…  though they seem to spend larger and larger chunks of their day distracted, doing things that are pretty meaningless or irrelevant. When engaged, these aimless strivers are easily bored and impatient. People get really annoyed if you demand that they listen to you say something for five minutes, like you have sucked them into some kind of unbearable vortex of emptiness and irrelevance, while they are engaged in some vital mission, like say dashing through the supermarket to buy chips and bean dip to be home in time to cue up the DVR for the latest episode of The Bachelorette.
Coffee shop conversation.

Think about coffee houses. Back-when-I-was-a-kid, the coffee shop (a venerable Western institution that dates back at least into the 18th Century), was a place where the central purpose was to get together with your neighbors and talk. Whether it was a lunch counter or a diner or a soda shop, it was a place where people went to be in public, to hang with people as much as the food. In some ways, the contemporary Starbucks still is this quintessential public space, but with one critically important difference – the store is as much required to have free wi-fi as much as it is to have coffee. Walk into any coffee shop you can find today and you’ll find most of the tables occupied by single people staring into their laptops, with perhaps a few couples having “business meetings.“ People want to be seen in public without actually interacting with other people in public, they want the sense of belonging to society without actually being social. “Social” takes place in virtual space, in vacuous text message interchanges, in Facebook lurking and occasionally the brief comment there (or on Twitter). Lengthy comments or extended exchanges on internet sites are somehow disturbing and troubling… like the kind of exchanges you might have had at the town coffee shop with your neighbors and friends. In those exchanges, you had to interact – they were there right beside you, talking to you. We used to like that but now it’s frightening and… creepy.

I chew on this strange disconnectedness and muse and complain about it fairly frequently, but the reaction of my friends and family is that I am just being a grumpy old person, telling everyone to getoffmylawnyoudamnkids. Until recently, I accepted this wisdom, knowing that it is a fact that every generation thinks that the generation after it has gone-to-hell. But now, suddenly, I’m reading everywhere people saying the same things I’ve been saying and thinking.  In particular, Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, has a book out about how technology is messing up our ability to think and interact with each other, including a fairly incisive piece in the New York Times. Turkle’s basic argument is that multi-tasking is a myth, and that we act like it’s not when we play with a cellphone, allowing technology to interfere with our ability to interact with each other, to think deeply, or even to mature as human beings and feel empathy with other people. Among the crotchety older faculty in academia, there has been a fair amount of similar comment, frequently filling the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education with screeds arguing for banning technology from the classroom because it keeps students from paying attention and participating.

But even as I nod my head and agree with this cranky worrying, I also begin to see my friends’ point that change is just change, and, well, inevitable. What’s so precious about complex thinking and human interaction when we can have SnapChat and… all those cool game apps! Old Babylonians probably whined and moaned about how people were losing their fine memory skills when cunieform was invented and everyone just played with clay tablets rather than memorizing night-long stories to sing over the campfire. Besides, it’s not really so much that technology is changing us as it is that technology is fulfilling what we really wanted after all. If we wanted to spend our time talking to each other rather than texting, internet surfing and playing Candy Crush, well, these thing wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t buy them and use them. We really want this.

I remember moving to Arizona and being struck by the fact that though every house had a pool and a deck, it also had a yard just large enough to contain these, walled off from the neighbors by a cement block fence, at least 8 feet tall. Inititially, that seemed unattractive and I mentioned this to our realtor, saying it felt a little claustrophobic to me, and he quipped back that the developers only built the houses that way because it was what people wanted. I have to admit that in the 20 years I lived there I was perfectly happy to be secluded from my neighbors and, in fact, the only neighbors whose names I learned were those whose kids played with my kids. We are perfectly happy being left alone to do our own thing, un-observed, un-commented upon, un-social.

What technology has allowed us to do is to move our minds freely into the vast empty spaces of the internet where we can be like that, looking at only what we feel like looking at, interacting only with those who we want to interact with and only as much as we feel like, keeping it light and undemanding, keeping it fun, keeping it private. Our real selves, we keep to ourselves. We aren’t ambitious, and the technology makes it so we don’t have to be – we can play easy, undemanding games, watch easy, undemanding shows and movies, and have easy, three-misspelled-words-at-a-time conversations with our friends and those very things, in fact, are what is most popular. Whenever we are bored (which is nearly always), we can just switch to something else. You can be yourself and lose yourself in this.

“Resistance is futile.” The title of this essay, you may have noticed, is taken from the (now terribly dated but nostalgically remembered) TV show, “Star Trek: the Second Generation.” It’s a bit of geek clich√©, the phrase The Borg -- a threatening machine collective intelligence, a society and culture where individuality does not exist – use to threaten humans. Back when the show was first created, this is what we imagined was the coming threat of technology – that it would conquer us and our individuality would be lost in the powerful machine singularity.  In a sense, it is what has happened – our tools have grown powerful and have conquered us, but only, ironically, by giving us exactly what we individually all want. We want to be free and left alone to be ourselves… and that leaves us lost in the nearly empty shells of ourselves. It’s the curse in that old warning: be careful in what you ask for – you won’t be able to resist the gift once it’s given.

There’s a temptation to see this self-isolation as a pernicious feature of the internet age and information technology, but I think there is evidence that it runs deeper and older than that. 

One of the first people to look closely and think deeply about American culture was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, in his two-volume work, “Democracy in America,” begun in the early 1830s and finished in 1840. In volume II, book 2, chapter 2, de Tocqueville goes on a brilliant riff about the culture of “individuality” that American democracy has fostered. De Toqueville, who (as I said) is an aristocrat, admires the self-determining power of American individualism, but he sees problems for long term health of a society where individualism is a defining value. He concludes the chapter:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (the italics are mine)

Sound familiar? Well, the rugged individualist is, of course, in our national character. Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener or Captain Ahab. Henry David Thoreau.  John Wayne. Clark Gable. John Galt. Politics and advertising recognize this as a given: “you deserve a break today,” “have it your way.” And so we now live in a country where a good (and ever growing) chunk of the population doesn’t understand why they should have to pay taxes, contribute to the welfare of others or even bother to have a government. With public narcissism growing, they live in what we metaphorically call “echo chambers” or “bubbles,” where basically all they hear echoed back to them are the sounds of their own narrow thoughts, with their own un-examined, self-validated perspective steadily amplified. They really are, as de Toqueville says, “confined..,entirely within the solitude of (their) own hearts.” It is interesting that de Toqueville, speculating about American culture almost 200 years ago, could see this coming so clearly.
 I guess, in many ways, that’s because this solipsism was inevitable. In a sense, it’s our core national character. It’s what we really most wanted when we first came to this be ourselves in this “empty wilderness” (the fact that we couldn’t acknowledge that it was neither empty nor a wilderness says volumes in itself) and it is what we have asked for all along… and it’s what we have been given. Even our tools, our technology now are designed to enable it. Resistance is futile. God bless us, each and everyone.
We are Borg, though not together but alone, each and everyone.

From Walt Kelly's great ode to solipsism, "The Prince of Pompadoodle." The last two panels.

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