Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Decline and Fall of Reality


The year ending today, 2013 brought a slew of articles on the death of conversation and the disappearance of face-to-face connections because of the onslaught of social media. People more and more to look only at digital virtual reality and ignore what's going on around them. Talking or sending messages on mobile phones is said to now be a major cause of traffic accidents (one woman texting on her phone reportedly walked off a pier into the water).  Sherry Turkle says we've replaced conversation with online connection.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference. 
Turkle, in "The Flight from Conversation," urges people to look up from their devices and look at one another.  The author of a book on how people relate to their gadgets, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, she advocates an understanding of and a control over technology that seems less and less possible.  Social media is a convenient scapegoat for many disenchanted with the way modernity (or even post-modernity) has turned out.  In some ways they resemble the Luddites in early 19th century England who destroyed labor-saving machines that threatened to put them out of work and became a symbol for anyone who felt threatened by new technology.

It's now fashionable to protest proliferation of digital devices and the networks of apps to which we've become addicted. We even complain about it on Twitter, Facebook and LINE.  But we forget that smart phones and portable tablets are only the latest technologies to distract us from "real life."  Thais don't read newspapers on the Skytrain but when I was a daily commuter by train between Manhattan and Connecticut no one was without their newspaper (folding it to keep it out of your neighbor's face was an art).  Every invention that threatened conversation was been bemoaned by someone, from the telephone and typewriter to the fountain pen and paper.

As an active user of various social media (though I've never gotten into Instagram and rarely attempt a call with Skype), I frequently find myself defending it against attacks from modern Luddites and promoters of a kind of realism that often seems to downgrade imagination and fantasy, at least off the printed page.  Yes, as I travel around Bangkok, every other person I see in caf├ęs and on public transport is looking at a small screen, taking a photo with their device, tapping out a message on the tiny keys or talking into a phone behind their hand (Thais are polite that way).  Today, at least in this Asian capital, digital devices are ubiquitous.  Is it a sign that civilization is crumbling?

I don't think so.  My argument isn't very sophisticated: This is the way it is.  This is what people choose to do in 2013. Accept it and quit bitching about it.

No one has to use the new technologies, just as no one is forcing the Amish to abandon their horses and buggies for gas-guzzling cars.  Many of my friends shun Facebook and Twitter and I know one or two who do not even own a mobile phone.  But even they might use the internet for email or research on the web.  You can pick and choose.  Some people of my advanced age, however, avoid the computer and all it entails.  They claim to prefer writing letters to far away friends instead of sending email. Hand-written messages, they believe, are so much more personal.  And they are.  As someone whose hand writing has always been illegible, even to myself, I always loved the more impersonal typewriter.  My father's secretary taught me to type when I was 12 on an ancient Underwood, and I carried around a portable Smith-Corona for years.

When I was teaching environmental philosophy back in California, I lectured on the unintended consequences of technology, and I have much sympathy for the old Luddites as well as the more recent activists who campaign against nuclear power (long before Fukushima proved correct their worst fears.  I know that chemicals developed for warfare were introduced into the environment after 1945 and the increase in use since then closely parallels the rise in cancer rates around the world. The consequences of new technologies are often not benign and impartial government and international agencies are needed to protect the public.

I'm not a very good Buddhist, but one of the messages that got through to me was that hoping that something might be different only brings discomfort and upset.  I wish that I were more handsome and leaner and that it wasn't so cold today.  The bird in the tree outside should shut up. Why is there so much conflict and misery in the world?  The Serenity Prayer is very good for this: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."  Friends back in my town in California would complain about how bad the traffic had gotten.  It was so much better in the old days, 5 or 10 or 15 years before.  I loved Berkeley in the early 1960's before hippies, drugs and street people changed the scene irrevocably. Today's music is terrible: boy bands and sampling have ruined it.

The Oxford Dictionaries selected "selfie" as the word of the year for 2013.  When cameras shrank to the size of a pocket and then were put inside mobile phones, the world changed forever. Go anywhere today and people are photographing it and themselves in it.  In every restaurant people are taking pics of their food (I do it all the time). According to Turkle's article (above) some people have developed the skill of looking in the eyes of a person they're with while texting on the phone in their lap to someone else. Impolite, yes, but the end of civilization as we know it?

Back in the late 1950s, Erving Goffman wrote about the performative aspects of social communication in his now classic book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life.  Goffman echoed Shakespeare in seeing the world as a stage and everyone in it as actors in different roles.  I believe that the internet with its apps and smart phones with their tiny cameras have given humans lots of new ways to present themselves to others.  If there is no essential self (or soul), as Buddhists believe, then our self is a continuing act of creation brought about when our brains encounter the world.  And the drama goes on as long as we are alive.  As for me, my Facebook timeline and Twitter tweets give me a stage in which to perform my dance.  It's both a newspaper and the draft of a novel, as well as an art gallery where I display my photos, and a confessional couch where I can reveal inner most thoughts to those I consider "friends" (and FB allows for extensive categorization of relationships).  I can be my "self," the person I think I am, or I can create a new identity with an icon and a set of fabricated  attributes.

Conversations online and on LINE may be different from face-to-face interactions but they are still taking place and something is exchanged between human beings.  I'm connected virtually with people I've known at every stage of my long life. We exchange thoughts, opinions about current events, gossip, movie reviews, pictures and birthday greetings.  This is REAL communication, even if I'm at my computer in Bangkok and they're halfway around the world. Definitions that oppose "real life" to what we do with our devices are just as misleading and damaging as an addiction to the screen that makes looking into another's eyes difficult.  It's all "real," not just your slice of it.


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