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 cafés 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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dreaming of Christmas

In this Buddhist country where I now live, Christmas has become a major holiday, at least for the shoppers.  Even in my large neighborhood mall, where seldom is a Western face seen, the stores are littered with fake trees, colored lights and misspelled displays like the above.  Christmas carols can be heard on the PA systems, beginning in early November, and the only thing missing is a Salvation Army Santa.  I try to be cosmopolitan, but there's just something so wrong with "Jingle Bells" in Thailand.

Last year there was still snow on the ground when we left Seoul on Christmas day after a week's holiday.  The day before, on Christmas Eve,  I had seen some Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells in the crowded shopping center of Myeong-dong, but I assumed that's because a quarter of the Korean population have embraced Christianity.  Here in Thailand they are less than one per cent; missionaries have always traveled an uphill road among the Thais.  In Seoul we saw street corner preachers and even a man on his knees praying while pedestrians swarmed around him.  The snowfall a few days before had been delightful. The possibility of experiencing it had been one of the reasons for our visit, but throwing snow balls failed to resurrect in me the Christmas spirit.

As a parent I tried to recreate the Christmas rituals of my childhood. The bigger the tree (and we had to chop it down ourselves) the better. I accumulated tree ornaments through two marriages (and left them behind in the divorce settlements).  On Christmas eve, just as my father had done with me and my brother, I read my children "The Night Before Christmas."  One holiday in Connecticut, when my brother-in-law's family traveled from Ohio to join us, we were without a copy and had to recreate the story from our collective memory.

My parents loved Christmas.  Every year they put cards received up on the wall and outfitted themselves in red.  When my brother and I were young, we went to bed without a tree and awoke to find a bejeweled fantasy surrounded by mountains of gifts brought by the Santa who had consumed the milk and cookies we'd left for him.  My mother would never let us see it until she'd made coffee and gathered her note pad to record who gave what for future thank you cards.  Our aunts, uncles and cousins on the West Coast combined their presents for us in a large barrel they sent overland weeks before.  In the evening, with the wrapping paper neatly folded and put away for next year, we'd play with our toys in the living room around the TV set where Perry Como would be singing Christmas songs like "O Holy Night" and "Silver Bells."

Bing Crosby's singing of "White Christmas" (seen here from the 1954 movie of that name with George Clooney's aunt Rosemary) is one of many musical triggers that evoke the Christmas spirit for me.  He first sang it in the 1942 film "Holiday Inn."
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the tree tops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
Whose heart cannot be moved by those lines? Well, it might be pretty meaningless to my neighbors here in Bangkok.  "White Christmas" is on every holiday compilation album and all popuar artists have sung it at one time or another, even Boy George and Lady Gaga.

When did it all go bad?  When did the Christmas dream become a nightmare?  It didn't happen with the realization that Santa Claus was only a fairy tale and Rudolph had no red nose.  For years I listened to the songs I loved each December, sent cards to my friends, cut down and decorated the biggest tree that would fit in my house, and bought more presents for my loved ones that I could afford.  I tried to replicate for my four kids the marvelous Christmas I spent at my father's cousin's farm in snow-swept Ohio when I was five just after the war.  They were rich and the tree in the entrance way was two floors' tall.  Or the Christmas when we traveled in a blizzard through Pennsylvania to my wife's brother's house in Cleveland.  Those Christmas dreams are sustained by the presence of children and the promise of peace on earth and goodwill towards all.

What turned me ultimately into a bah humbugger was the ever increasing necessity for more and costlier presents and the fear that they would never be good enough to please the recipient. Nothing changed, since Christmas has long been an exercise in consumerism.  I grew up and became less of a dreamer.  Snow was a paradoxical consequence of global warming and probably carried noxious chemicals or even radioactive particles.  We tried making rather than buying gifts, and that wasn't appreciated by the kids.  With friends in California from Denmark we celebrated their traditions of dancing around a tree lit with live candles followed by the drinking of aquavit and the eating of herring (this is the Christmas my two youngest kids will dream about and try to recreate some day).  But as the shopping season drew near ever year I would retreat into my shell and leave the decorating, buying and cooking to others.  It didn't go over very well.

The Christmas spirit didn't totally die for me, it just got less parochial.  In 2005 I celebrated a cold, drizzly Christmas in an Anglican church in north London, in 2007 it was in a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, India.  The world now owns Christmas, even if it has lost its moorings in the birth of Jesus.  Back in the U.S. the Tea Party claims there is a war on Christmas because many have replaced "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays."  Some in the religious right have always thought Santa a dangerous pagan.

Pagan Pattaya is all dolled up for the holidays with decorated trees and Christmas messages, many of them in Russian and Arabic.  In 2008 I spent my second Christmas there surrounded by poinsettia plants (not a native species) and naked Santas.  In the hotels there and in the supermalls of Bangkok there are trees taller than the tallest redwoods back in California and like the sequoia sempervirens they will last almost forever. I've been taking pictures of Christmas trees and decorations this year and this is perhaps why it seems a more popular holiday than ever before.  My wife growing up in a small village in Phayao only knew about Christmas because her aunt's boyfriend from Belgium decorated a tree and handed out presents to all the children.  Today, however, the internet and social networks have made it a -- if not THE -- universal holiday (sorry Tea Party folks, I have yet in my travels to see a creche with a baby Jesus and mama Mary outside of Christian precincts).

Nan and I have Santa hats and a reusable tree to which I added this year a string of colored lights.  There's a big tree in the condo lobby.  I have 80 songs in my iTunes in a Christmas folder and recently added "A Motown Christmas" and "Phil Spector's Christmas Album," two classics. Fortunately Nan has tomorrow off from work so we're planning to pick out presents for each other at the mall (nothing closes here on Dec. 25th) and have a holiday meal, perhaps a Japanese buffet.  I haven't sent any Christmas cards since I moved to Thailand since mail in the age of email and the internet is passé.  But I've filled my Facebook timeline with YouTube videos of my favorite Christmas songs along with the photos I've taken for the Christmas in Bangkok album.  There are a lot of good wishes swirling around the Net.  And if it weren't for the current insurrection in Bangkok, I might assure everyone of peace on earth and goodwill toward all.  It's only a hope now in Thailand.

Bah humbuggery, of course, coexists with a nostalgia for the Christmases in our (often false) memory.  The dream of Christmas promises much but rarely delivers, and disappointment is the seedbed of cynicism. The holidays are a time of sadness and even suicide.  My son Luke was as sentimental as me but he dreaded the Christmas season which made his chemical dependencies so much more difficult to control.  Fortunately my perennial sadness is now offset by a wonderful life. This song always puts me in the Christmas spirit wherever I am.