Today, I had the slightly unusual and, admittedly, slightly queasy-making experience of seeing my name set aside in print (if we can call a blog, “print”) for praise, I guess, in a review of the book I have touted here over the past nine months, the collection of food related writing called Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal. It features, among many other contributions, a poem of mine called “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich.” This poem follows a brief reminiscence by the fabled food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, which ends with her aunt’s fried egg sandwich recipe (the exact opposite of mine as it is, as she admits, unchewable and indigestible). The reviewer happened to like Ms. Fisher’s effort, as who wouldn’t? Unfortunately, she attributed it to me. Several commentators chose to add their thoughts, including one who admitted never having heard of me, and several much sharper readers than the blogger noticed striking similarities to what was described as my effort, to the work, justifiably and correctly, of Ms. Fisher.
Whatever the consequences of that, it’s hardly important. But I did find one thing mildly striking. The name of the blog is “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” and is meant, I think, to be resonant with a certain spirit of the age to convey, ironically, an exactly opposite set of sentiments. The women, of course, aren’t bitches, and the books, singled out for praise, are hardly trash. It does leave me wondering yet again what exactly is it that induces women to refer to themselves, to one another, and generically and universally, and I think with an air of bravado, defiance, and rueful humor as “bitches,” whereas any such usage by men—and it is usually so in far more mean-spirited, if not downright misogynistic contexts—is excoriated and faulted to an inch of its life and rightfully. Yet, there’s that usage by women themselves, without the slightest hint that the user of the epithet is aware that this can only encourage it further.
I suggest that the sensibility intent on being hip and au courant sufficient to refer to her sisters in spirit as bitches, as a truculent badge of honor, inviting challenge, has lost its attention sufficiently to make the kind of error, inconsequential as it is, that confused the work of a male poet for an iconic female writer of deathless prose, now considered part of the canon.
I am both bemused and, yet, hmmm, I just don’t get it. Nice review though, full of solecisms as it is.
This is a response, at the request of my friend Phil Mathews, to a blog entry in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman, which appears here: http://hdin.in/1PAOPYk
First of all, I’m glad for the opportunity to opine about the Apple Watch publicly as it’s a solicitation rather than a personal impulse (the response to which, never mind the receptivity, is virtually impossible for me to gauge; as far as I can tell, I have about three fans, and those not consistently). I do have opinions about the device, which I’ve shared, in pure speculation, because it has not been available for viewing or handling by the hoi polloi, of which I am a decided fixture. But I’ve shared them privately. Just to give a context for whatever else I might have to say, I did agree with another friend here on Facebook that one of my first reactions to the announcement of an actual product, with photos and some cursory explanations as to functions and functionality, was, thank God, finally a gizmo from Apple I don’t want and, when you come down to it, I really don’t need.
I think it’s interesting that Krugman has a point of view about the Apple Watch, of course. However, I’m disappointed that he decides to take a personal perspective, instead of doing what he’s done so well in other regards so often—though not always—that is, to step to one side, figuratively speaking, and look at the phenonomenon of the Apple Watch and the category it represents as the trained scientist he is. More pointedly, it’s possible, in fact, that the Apple Watch will actually end up defining that category, as Apple is wont to do with emerging consumer product technology. They invent very little in that regard, the genre aready exists, i.e., a wearable multi-function computing device. In the same way the portable digital music player was defined by iPod, or a highly portable entertainment, consultative and reference device, with facilities for rudimentary record keeping, similar to both a laptop, for the size of the screen, and a smartphone, for its lightness and compactness by the iPad, of course, and so forth.
Rather he has taken a tack, perfectly legitimate in this world of media wherein anything goes, even in the name of news, analysis, and factual reporting of the truths derived from statistical data and double-blind experimentation on live subjects in actual conditions. If he wants to speak for himself, who’s to stop him? As he says, what the heck?
He does, in the process, break a cardinal rule, as I have always understood it, in market research and analysis, even of a speculative sort, and that is, never to assume that you are yourself representative of even a tiny valid statistical segment of prospective markets.
In the end, I beg to differ with Mr. Krugman (disclosure: I too wear a fitness band, though I gather a different brand than his, and I have always been a small-time aficionado of the art of the horologist, that is, I love watches, and own several; in the past 50 years I’d guess it’s rarely that a day has gone by that I have not been wearing a watch, and for most of the past 20 years or so, it’s been the same watch, the acquisition of which was a purely personal attainment, it had been an object of desire for me for some time and, as it was, at the time, costly (to me) required extra long deliberation about making the ultimate purchase… though once I did I never looked back, and I also never stopped looking at other fine specimens of the watchmaker’s art—none of which I indulged in acquiring).
I think of the Apple Watch, still sight unseen except in dazzling, augmented images mainly on the Web, in the same way I think of the iPhone, as well as of the iPad, and that is, one way or another, they are computers that have been designed to a particular set of applications, in the broadest sense, and in a form that makes them suitable and adaptable to a particular set of highly specific computer programs, or apps as they’ve come to be called.
The first unfortunate observation Mr. Krugman makes is the one he asserts at the very beginning, setting the tone, but more importantly defining a polarity that I think is not even factitious. I think he’s made it up in terms of his own highly circumscribed needs and the uses to which he himself puts these devices to meet those needs.
I’ve gone out of my way to describe the phones and the tablets and even the watches (as well as the music players, and a whole variety of hybrid devices: phablets, lapbook/tablets) as computers, because that is, ultimately, the genus of each of these species of cybernetic creature. Alan Turing, the fathering genius of the age in which we find ourselves, posited in what he called “the universal machine,” or in plain terms of today, a computer (a word which originally meant, when applied to a device designed to a specific task, a machine to do calculations). What Turing meant, and what the whole industry spawned by his idea has set about to make actual—even to defining the epoch in which we conduct our daily business—was that such a machine or computer could use a calculating engine to perform almost any task, including a universe of tasks (like talking in real time to another person over extreme distances in a simulacrum of voices that are unmistakably those of the speakers) that seemingly have nothing to do with calculating numbers. It’s because all tasks can be understood, using the legerdemain of converting physical changes, of even the most minute dimensions, into sequences of numbers that, reinterpreted by a reverse process of conversion back to something resembling the original physical changes, to be mere sequences of coded symbols, called programs. Even the stuff of life, in something of a misnomer—as the real stuff of what we call life remains a mystery—DNA and RNA are understood best as sequences of replicable codes of a deceptively minimal number of constituents.
What I’m getting at, with all this beating around the bush, is that Mr. Krugman can use his fitness band and presumably an Apple Watch, or a competitive product (and I predict he’ll own one, probably sooner than later) any way he likes. I use my fitness band differently, and I needn’t go into it as it’s irrelevant, and I do so mainly because I have a different set of personally important objectives to attain by doing so, than he does.
Further, and truly to get into the meat of the matter, he misses the boat entirely, in my opinion, because he fails to account for what is an indisputable set of phenonmena that have emerged as more and more people use more and more smart devices. Most people have a streak, wide or narrow, it’s there in most of us, wherein two seemingly very human impulses are served.
It is important, in increasingly complex ways, for us to stay in touch with increasingly larger circles of individuals with whom we either share an affinity—even if its only an affinity for staying in touch with increasingly larger numbers of people—or can at least pretend to have an affinity, again if only on the strength of having formed a connection in the first place. And what we share in the actualization of that continuous connection, is information, some of it, probably most of it, of a personal nature, and essentially trivial, banal, and, without using judgmental qualifiers such as these, most certainly quotidian. We tell one another, on a full-time basis, if not, indeed, 24/7, what we’re doing, what we’ve done, and what we plan to do, even so as to subsume all of our habits, including eating habits, sleeping habits, fitness habits, leisurely pursuits, passive entertainments, and game-playing. Many people, doubtless, share even more intimate details of their emotional states, their loves, their hates, their fears—or why would people keep doing it and yet express such outrage at the prospect of having all that information captured by the government?
Smart devices have made it easier and easier not only to track our own activities, but more importantly, or at least as importantly in a different context, we can not only share the record of those activities with others, but we can count on the computational and analytical capabilties of these really amazingly powerful computers that fit, now, on our wrists (and there has been talk for years, to varying degrees in response to the prospect of horror and wonder, of embedding computer chips into our bodies, with nary a lump or a shock) to allow us to compare our “performance” and achievements with those of our cyber-families.
If anything, because they are more literally more intimate, actually contacting on a continuous basis our skin, the largest organ of our bodies, and tap into the wealth of data obtainable via this means of connection, even to more deeply embedded organs, recording by ingenious means, respiration, perspiration, heartbeat, blood pressure, and, if not now, then no doubt imminently, fat-to-body mass ratio, rate of caloric intake, rate of caloric consumption, etc., and I’m just listing somatic data (mainly because Krugman set the pace, so to speak). There’s also neurological and specific brain wave activity somewhere in the future…
And no doubt, there are many of us for whom, as for Krugman, this is of some level of vital personal significance to know, if only for the sake of knowing as a touchstone for maintaining honesty with oneself about how responsible one is being about keeping fit (as if that were all there to it). I have to wonder, do we even need a minimally 350 dollar aluminum watch, assuming we are desirous of the status of the Apple Watch (a status it has apparently already begun to accrue to itself, still two weeks before the first orders are fulfilled for the first customers) to help us be honest with ourselves?
Krugman mentions only monitoring his personal fitness stats once or twice a day. Sometimes for me, as long as it’s confession time, I rarely consult the gizmo at all. I did far more often when I first started using it, as it represented an indisputable, highly accurate frame of reference—a reality check. I don’t need a gadget to know I’ve pretty much done my duty by myself to get in some physical exercise sufficient to preserve whatever pitiful level of fitness I enjoy at the moment. Whatever it’s merits, or lack of them, to me, I share this information, about sleep habits, steps, exercise, etc. with no one, except my wife, who has a more avid involvement for her own legitimate reasons with her own activities, and a legitimate fond conjugal concern for my state of health. I don’t compare my “performance” with norms established and maintained by the manufacturer of my fitness band. The last thing I would do is share any of this information with my friends. My universal motto, in that regard, as regards all matters of social intercourse insofar as its constituted of the exchange of news about daily activities, physical or intellectual, is “It’s not a contest.” Even less than I am interested in the minutiae of my own behaviors, as measured by these devices and wondrous gizmos, I am not interested in how many steps my buddies have taken that day, or how long they spent on their rowers, treadmills, elliptical trainers, etc.
However, unlike Krugman, by inference from what he says in the Times, I don’t suppose in any way that I am a typical specimen, subject, or consumer. Very much the contrary. I think, contrary to his conclusions “A smartphone is useful mainly because it lets you keep track of things; wearables will be useful mainly because they let things keep track of you,” that both are parts of some larger universal machine that allows the aggregation of data, instantly retrievable, automatically transmitted and shared, and rapidly analyzed for comparative, if not strictly competitive, purposes.
The chief complaint about the Apple Watch in preliminary reviews allowed by Apple to be conducted by a selected band of “power users” and professional industry watchers is that though the functions of the iPhone, especially by way of tracking and notification of one’s own agenda, schedule and itinerary (the framework of a busy life for a particular tribe of people engaged in a particular set of occupations) are no longer an annoyance as manifest on the phone, they are an immense annoyance on the watch, because it not only makes small annoying sounds. It actually buzzes, vibrates, tickles, pokes, and otherwise prods your epidermis in a way that is, by their almost universal account of it, distracting and, in the presence of others, invasive. I see all this not as a sign of a different function for these devices in the Krugmanian formulation: “they let things keep track of you.”
As I already said, I think this is an utterly shallow misreading of the actual gestalt of increasingly personal cybernetic extensions of our conscious preoccupations. And the initial complaints are merely a sign that the necessary adaptation of the always elastic set of protocols and behaviors (what used to be called manners and etiquette) are due for another revision, like a new release of a major operating system. The iPhone, with its beeps, whistles, vibrations and blinking and winking, was thought to be a distraction and rudeness personified. An individual’s attachment to their iPhone, even in public, even in social scenarios, involving as few as one other person, and as many as a conference room full of many others, has become the basis for a normative set of behaviors that people my age find at best amusing, and at worst painfully rude and offputting.
I predict in not too long a period of time (as the Apple Watch seems destined, indeed, to be the best next thing, and an expansion of the armamentarium of gadgetry with which large segments of the population will equip themselves) that wrist consulting, and various otherwise comically impolite sound effects and reflexive behaviors (haptics are a new set of phenomena to which people will have to become acclimated), will become the newly revised norm that in a couple of years we’ll all wonder was such a bother.
Krugman’s got it wrong, because, for once, he’s not looking at a big enough picture.
What disturbs me about the current Curt Schilling brouhaha that’s, as the au courant term puts it, “trending” is not that he took the bull by the horns and decided to leap… No great risk for him as he’s clearly of the John Wayne “Searchers” school of vigilantism. It’s not that he loves his daughter, is proud of her, laudatory, and, as is now obvious, protective just short of a fault. I hope it’s short. In fact, one way of looking at what I find disturbing is a kind of falling short in the protective department.
He is, by his own characterization (and it reads like a pre-emptive rationale, to those who might question the rigor with which he pursued his daughter’s tormentors), a public figure. To many people, especially Red Sox fans, and to the electorate of a more conservative persuasion politically who take any notice, he’s a hero. He is clearly outspoken, and possibly even brazen in his stated willingness to confront all comers mano a mano.
He has been using personal computers, he says, since 1981 (quite possible; the IBM PC was introduced that year. Of course, he was 15 in 1981, and possibly it was with some hobbyist version of the PC that he became acquainted with the technology. No matter. I know it was possible even to have begun to have some acquaintance with connectivity, as there were communication networks for the public, accessible using personal computers, that predate the Internet going back at least as far as 1981. Whatever the case, he portrays himself as a man well versed in the ways of the social media.
He makes a great case for being a man, now mature and responsible for his actions, taken prudently and thoughtfully, and before that, a fairly typical teenager, reckless and daring, and more than willing to do regrettable stupid things. He says he understands the impulses of men in groups, having been one for most of his professional career in sports, certainly in the Major Leagues of baseball and in other leagues as prelude to that. He knows the braggadocio, the manly preening, the boasts and the longings and the lusts.
After congratulating his 17 year old daughter, whom he names in the post, on Twitter, for having been accepted at Salve Regina College, both as a freshman and as a member of their varsity softball team, he was, he claims, non-plussed by the less than kindly well-wishes of what grew to be a mob of scurrilous cyber-bullies, and would-be sexual predators, stating explicit sexual assaults intended for Mr. Schilling’s teenage daughter.
I have no quarrel with his vehement and aggressive stand against such behavior. I have what may or may not be a quarrel with his tactics (though not his motives—which are understandable; even not being a father, one can understand his sense of protectiveness) in outing and setting up her would-be assailants and threat-mongers for retribution through perfectly legal channels. By bringing their behavior to the attention of their managers, bosses, coaches, et al., Mr. Schilling instigated the dismissal, firing, and expulsion of many of these transgressors from their appointments to college and professional athletic teams, from their jobs, and so forth. In the end, I guess—again my feelings are not sorted out, and hence are kind of equivocal, if not ambivalent altogether—justice has been meted out, and, in addition to the immediate punishment inherent in their loss of status, or even of a livelihood, they face the possibly life-long prospect of having been branded as offenders as one of the most reviled sort in this country.
But for all that, here’s what’s bothering me. Mr. Schilling, by all accounts, but especially his own, a responsible adult, taking very seriously his role as provider and protector of his family and, in particular, any female offspring, was not sufficiently mindful from the start, or not, in my book, as he might have considered being. I don’t mean with his original proud innocuous “tweet” congratulating his daughter. But before that, when he took it upon himself to have a public presence, presumably for his fans, as well as actual personal friends and family, on the most visible of social media. On Twitter, in particular, which has become a vetted conduit for fast-breaking news, among whatever other more frivolous uses to which it is put, he has 122,000 followers. We can’t expect that he knows all these people personally. We can’t imagine, when it comes down to cases, that he would consider it a comfortable proposition that they be privy to all matters concerning his personal life, not to mention those of his family, and greatest of all those of his children.
Many other public figures go to great lengths to preserve their privacy and shield their loved ones, despite the exertions and no-expense-spared tactics employed by the world at large, not only the media, but all self-styled media, including commentators, hangers-on, and those, in the case of celebrities, who consider themselves somehow colleagues, if not peers, because they are engaged in the same business (other athletes in the case of Mr. Schilling, from junior high on up through college; in the case of the performing arts, all those who are studying those arts, or performing them, even at the amateur and community level). People do want to feel that kinship with those who have proven themselves, especially if they have received accolades and the world’s recognition. In practice, people still have to earn trust though, one-by-one and on a personal level.
Some public figures go to unusual lengths, expatriating themselves, or living behind ultra-secured gates, and enrolling their children in private institutions that have been dedicated to do everything possible to protect their privacy. Perhaps the parents are fair game—that’s the way of the world for public figures of global recognition and stature—but I have yet to hear an argument, except from people who are clearly tainted with perverse interpretations of appropriate ethical and moral standards by which to live, that the family and children of public figures are equally fair game.
Many public figures also go to great lengths not to make other members of their families, especially those under legal age, also a member of the professional act, so to speak. I’m not talking about the “stars” of reality media, who are largely famous for being famous, and being famous and making as many blood relatives, or those tied by marriage, famous in the bargain.
Curt Schilling, I don’t believe, is part of this latter category. He is, nevertheless, a genuine sports hero and icon to many.
If anything, I would argue, he has a greater responsibility to be mindful of what he shares about himself and his life—but in particular his personal life—with the world outside of what amounts to a small circle of friends and family, as is true for anyone. Anyone. He is entitled to be as proud as he can stand to feel about the accomplishments of his children. He is entitled to feel all the positive feelings any normal person has regarding loved ones, and those held dear, by blood or friendship.
I am not sure he is entitled to expose them, if he can help it, to the attention of the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, to the wanton, lurid and often perverse, sick and criminal curiosities and fantasies of some small portion of a public as large as theirs is likely to be, and as large as Curt Schilling’s demonstrably is.
I don’t think he owes one word of apology to anyone who, through his or her actions directed at Mr. Schilling’s daughter, jeopardized their participation in a normative way with the rest of society. They have made themselves pariahs, and they must find their own strategies for extricating themselves from that status, if that’s even possible.
What I do think Mr. Schilling is obligated to do, is to think, or to think again (assuming he gave thought to these matters in the past; he is clearly outspoken, and just as clearly an intelligent thinking man who arrives at his point of view only after due consideration), about the repercussions of offering up what should be private communications intended for the bosom of his group of nearest and dearest, and keeping those offers of his, of praise, or whatever else, out of the eyesight and earshot of the rest of his world of admirers. They are simply bright flames to countless moths who never stop coming.
The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.
In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.
My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.
Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.
Our government, representing us as a nation, is quick to chastise, sometimes menacingly, other countries against some strict moral standard. Occasionally the merest hint of an encroachment on the civil rights of citizens in some far-flung place and we speak out (though usually it’s not just a hint, but the latest in several rounds of continual flagrant violation—sometimes it takes us awhile to decide to rise up on our hind legs) expressing, often in sanctified tones, our indignation and disgruntlement. We are particularly disposed to do this with countries outside the sphere of de facto white majority nations and the ecosystem models of Western democracies. Moreover we are not timid about threatening or actually applying the sanctions of throttling the economies of these miscreant countries, quizzically, at times, our own trading partners or, more critically, the chief resource of cheap manufacturing labor for American branded goods. We exploit the citizenry while threatening that country’s government with measures that will, in fact, mainly cause harm to the same individuals whose labors we are exploiting to our profit. Leaders, except for their reputations internationally, go unscathed. Tyrants persist, not only staying in power, but often acquiring more. With an exquisite sense of where it will be most judiciously applied, as measured in self-interested vectors on the axes of geopolitical hegemony and financial leverage, we actually impose those sanctions, especially if we can inveigle our equally sanctimonious partners—the usual suspects, numbering seven very rich and powerful countries or, in a different grouping, 20, a mixed bag of very rich and not so much, depending on which economic cabal we call upon—in an exercise of the powers of democratic rectitude. Usually the worst sufferers of such economic strangulation—choking, but never quite killing, the victim—are the citizens of the miscreant nations. Yet these rogue governments stay in place, the world spins, and we move on to monitoring for the next outrage. And in the meantime, people die, one by one, or en masse, by degrees, or, in the language of Gilbert & Sullivan describing (comically) a beheading, with a “short sharp shock.”
As is typical of a world view borne of over three centuries of military and political domination of the entire planet, we white nations are contemptuous of the culture and mores of these countries we throttle—some of them far larger than us in geographic size, and certainly far more numerous. Some of them, of course, are the contemporary manifestation of civilizations that predate ours by millennia. We browbeat, lambaste, or outright bully countries as diverse and geographically widespread as Egypt, China, or Sudan, though the list is far longer. China is never far from being astray, by our measure, in navigating a world defined by our superior moral compass.
In the extreme we withdraw diplomatic representation to these countries, rendering any opportunity for diplomatic leverage impossible, while forcing continuing (and conveniently deniable) negotiations into the backrooms of clandestine contexts and venues. One other consequence often is to drive the offending individuals and their governments that represent threats to the moral stature of mankind further into the arms of opposing groups—alliances of the perverse—truly renegade and often stateless: our redoubtable enemies, upon whom we are disposed to anoint whole peoples with the morally charged titles of opprobrium speechwriters delight in fabricating, like Axis of Evil, who immediately demonstrate they are far less scrupulous than we in putting stakes in the ground of civilized nations. Indeed, if anything, there is a greater consistency in the behavior of those nations we brand as outcasts, or threaten to so brand, than in the company of the league of morally righteous countries we represent.
Far better to adhere to the tenets of our code, spelled out emphatically at the first sign of transgression, when the civil rights of a potentially rogue nation’s citizens are in peril. It matters not to us, smug in our uplifting prosperity, that theirs is a way of life—good or bad, by whatever standard—and their struggle often merely a recapitulation of a process that history has shown is not only repeated, over and over, as mankind seeks painfully to acquire the virtue of the imposition of civilization on its savage heart, but recursive. Sometimes nations now in the grip of misrule, chaos and violence were, in the past, the model of some now ancient world order of how civil societies should behave.
The United States is now the preeminent avatar of that elusive concept: the world’s best hope for imposing peace, order, tranquility, civility, and fairness (above all) as a doctrine the entire world can embrace. The land of the free and home of the brave being the rhetorical touchstones to which even well-meaning immigrants, or first- and second-generation children of immigrants, invoke, just before casting aspersions on the real life on the American streets that belie this shining dream: yes, on the one hand America is great, because it’s the land of the free, but, let me tell me how I’m actually treated in my (job, town, college…).
We are careful in broadcast messages—sometimes merely stern, sometimes homiletic—however, in holding up as a standard our own moral codes, not to draw any attention to the ways in which, almost on a daily basis, anyone following the news in what remnant there is of an organized free press, assisted by the growing ranks of ad hoc witnesses and reporters of injustice in our own country’s streets and byways and broadcast on a still free Internet of communications and information outlets, can see reported transgressions equal to, if not exceeding, the guidelines for behavior informed by such codes. It’s like a parade where huge banners with inspiring slogans are carried by platoons of authentic defenders of our principles, whether in uniform in the obscure and dangerous mountain passes and wadis of the unsettled Middle East, or on the streets of our major cities, in honest civil protests, while at the back of the march anti-protestors are beleaguering the ordinary common citizens demonstrating their sense of common cause, with hate speech, or possibly even bringing down fists and hard blunt instruments on their heads.
The metaphor does not address the alternative, and prevailing reality that it is as likely that a different uniformed, increasingly militarized force, I mean the police of our fair cities and towns of course, are dispatched to quell civil protest, which is otherwise perfectly lawful, but represents a menace to the larger order, the real world order of the tiny set of corporate interests and uber-rich individuals whose hegemony is in some inchoate way threatened. That the threat never gathers force in a concentrated way, or never confronts the powers that be with violence (unlike criminals, terrorists, and society’s alienated emotionally disturbed youth, who actually do act, and are barely contained) represents the anguished reality that any veteran of an Occupied action, as one example of many, can attest.
Other countries, after whatever form of what we call due process, indict, try, and convict perpetrators of crimes under their codes of justice. They often do so, even in this universally troubled world, in an entirely orderly way, holding court, swearing witnesses, prosecuting guilt, and dispensing justice, not by our lights, but theirs, for sure. Nevertheless they do it with order, and not in some summary way.
We don’t like the usually swift meting out of justice, sometimes Biblical in its severity, mercilessness, and inhumanity: worse than beheadings (which are the current benchmark for barbarism and perverse justice, the justice of evil intent; yet, a fact easily forgotten, the state means of ending a life in France until all forms of capital punishment were ended, as recently as 1981), worse than hanging, which, after all, was still the standard of execution in the United Kingdom, only 50 or 60 years ago, there is stoning, which horrifies even devout Christians, who daily read the manual, I speak of the Bible, for such a mode of punishment appropriate to the class of transgression congruent to its application.
We prefer to prolong the agony of prisoners—including growing numbers proving to have been wrongfully indicted, prosecuted and convicted—by drawing out the appeals process or delaying parole as we debate the moral niceties of the differences between punishment and rehabilitation (with no regard whatsoever for analyzing the incongruent nature of policies and methodologies, never mind facilities, for carrying out the one vs. the other) or allowing the lopsidedness of American justice (blind in theory, including the tenet of that particular form known as color-blind vs. the de facto condition that finds six times the number of African-Americans imprisoned against the number of whites, even though, according to 2013 U.S. Census data, whites outnumber African-Americans in the U.S. general population nearly by the inverse of that ratio). In plain language, there are just shy of six times as many whites as African-Americans, yet there are six times as many African-American men incarcerated in this country as there are whites incarcerated.
Clearly grand juries and juries are busy with the grim business of finding African-American men guilty of crimes calling for imprisonment, i.e., the most serious crimes in our criminal code of justice. They certainly are not, and never have been busy holding the police, from the precinct to the state level, accountable for their violence against civilians not actively engaged in criminal behavior, never mind already in custody, unarmed, or behaving obediently and in a civil and non-violent manner. Like our penal system, there is a lop-sided ratio of victims of police violence in terms of skin color. Rarely is a white-skinned individual murdered, or even merely injured, though there is no differentiation by skin color, ethnicity or race when it comes to quelling non-violent protests, especially those conducted en masse.
There is no apparent line of connection between the actions of our Federal executive branches and state or local law enforcement, between the Departments of State and Justice, and the lower echelon jurisdictions of prosecution and jurisprudence. Never mind conscious and interactive lines of communication between these entities; nor would I call for them. The lofty posturing of the one, like the dignity always accorded high office, whether in the Senate or the White House, is in marked contrast with some grittier reality. The police no doubt are the first to say, along with the demonstrators, their hands bound in temporary nylon ties that cut into their wrists, “you have no idea what it’s really like.” And surely, those who espouse, surely those who merely mouth, the pious platitudes that invoke, over and over, the high principles on which our country was founded, as the words condemn the actions of those far away and from another country, about whom we truly have no idea what it’s really like, are unconscious of the active hypocrisy of their words when weighed against the preponderant, no, the overwhelming, and mounting evidence of the injustices and disparities of actual life in our own streets, as it belies every syllable, every phrase and even the merest, most insignificant, mark of punctuation.
Having enjoyed the privilege of a brief—brief to me, but probably an incredibly luxurious hiatus for most people—period of rustication, first in the wilds of Provence, and then in the wilds of Grafton County, NH, virtually on top of the Vermont border, it has been a strange awakening to arrive back in Philadelphia. There was a bracing, very brief interval, between trips to the bosky dells of two continents—mainly I think to get our temporal sea legs to regain their normal status—but not sufficient to be a reminder of what we have escaped during our annual summer run.
But goodbye to that, alas. We are back in the thick of it. The main and prevailing thickness is the swampy weather that for some reason the founding fathers found so congenial here in the Middle Atlantic wedge of the great jaded northeast of the U.S. But there is another thickness, palpable enough, a dimension of the quotidian here in the urban milieu, though wholly invisible. I speak of the thickness between the ears of the collective inhabitants of the region.
In plain language, my friends and fellow commiserators, there’s a reason for that famous apocryphal epitaph of W.C. Fields, and, considering the alternative, which I am wont too often to do (and I don’t mean the Côte d’Azur), I unhappily agree. That is, I do, until, say, I sit behind the wheel of our car, which has taken us through thousands of miles in the north country in safe, largely imperturbable bliss, except for Route 84 in Connecticut. What I have been quickly reminded of are the only too predictable and thoroughly irksome habits of Pennsylvanians, or maybe it’s just Philadelphians, but they do a pretty good job of it in the suburbs as well. So here’s the beginning of an irk list. I am sure, in the fullness of time, as my brain further congeals and grows a defensive barrier, I will dispassionately add to this list in installments.
1. The car horns from the car behind you:
the horn for sitting a nanosecond too long at a traffic light just turned green, before flooring the accelerator for one of those quick Philadelphia Grand Prix starts from a dead stop
the horn for waiting, with your turn signal deployed, to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass safely on your left, before executing a left hand turn removing you from the path of the blower [that would be the horn blaster] who is, of course, tailgating you
the horn in the cramped parking lots, which are legion in the overpopulated suburbs, where life as we know it cannot exist without a strip mall every 1/5 of a mile on major thoroughfares, from the speeding vehicle racing for the exit, as you slowly, gingerly, and most of all anxiously, pull out of your parking space, watching, seemingly simultaneously somehow, the side mirrors, the rear view mirror, the rear camera screen on the dash, and the view through the rear window and side vents, keeping in mind always the deadly blind spots
the horn for actually coming to a dead stop at a Stop sign, instead of simply continuing your forward momentum, with or without the assistance of the use of the accelerator of your vehicle, at whatever speed happens to suit your own sense of urgency at the moment, executing, in effect, the maneuver, formerly known as The Boston Roll, called The Philadelphia Roll [cross reference here: Stop sign behaviors]
2. The car horns from oncoming vehicles, proceeding from either the right or left, and more often than not, both, even with traffic islands, separating traffic, because the Philadelphia driver is nothing if not anticipatory of what’s happening on the other side of the road that could potentially (with a .025% chance of probability) impede their progress, occurring usually at at least 20% in excess of the speed limit
the horn for standing, as a pedestrian, less than a yard (or meter, whichever is longer; just to demonstrate that I have no biases, I mean, the person behind the wheel invisible behind the tinted windscreen, could be British, or Canadian, or European, and also, at the same time, berserk) from the curbstone, especially with no intervening zone of parked vehicles, waiting for the traffic to abate so you can cross [cross reference here: irks for the less than brilliant road and street engineers of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, it appears, must park their brains along with their vehicles as they report for work to design the highways and byways, the streets, avenues, roadways, boulevards, and alleyways of our fair cities, towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and unincorporated IPCs (important population centers)]
the horn for daring to anticipate making a left hand turn across oncoming lane(s) of traffic at an intersection with a traffic control signal, and your own turn signal indicator deployed, by actually stopping the forward motion of your vehicle well short of the trajectory of said oncoming vehicles; special mention for the anticipatory horn blast as the blower approaches from behind you, but is still ¼ mile away from you, and extra special mention for the prolonged blast from the blower, especially after you have, in fact, executed your turn, and are exiting the intersection, thereby removing yourself from the blower’s vector without materially impeding their velocity, not that these people slow down for much anyway; this type of horn blast is always an excellent demonstration of the Doppler effect, in case you have any young students of the Principles of Classic Physics in the car.
I thought I could make this first installment a fairly good introduction to the subject, by making a fairly substantive list of perhaps a half-dozen to ten items in just the automobile horn category, but, I am sorry dear reader, I have to lie down now and rest for awhile.
I don’t get it. It’s true it’s been awhile since I was a college student, but I recall a wholly different experience… some might call it alien compared to what the norm is today. I’m reminded of the differences, and I always get astonished, though I shouldn’t, every time I come across real life accounts on the ‘net about what life is like nowadays in undergraduate education.
A Website called insidehighered.com seems designed to be a kind of teacher’s break room on the Internet, with a regular stream of messages regarding faculty-student interaction, both within and outside the classroom. The inevitable culprit in any perceived breakdown in decorum and academic protocol is traced to what are now accepted behaviors with digital mobile devices, if not more specifically social media.
It’s been three years and a bit since I was in a college classroom as a teacher (or “prof” as all students generously bestow as a title), but even cursory and only occasional glances at the chatter among working faculty today tell me it might as well have been a larger span of time.
In the current era there is a decided preference for mobile devices, as opposed to the organs for speech and hearing, to communicate. I’m talking about children, adolescents, and what I’ll call post-adolescents—mainly college and graduate school age students on the normal educational track; adults who return to school for re-education or a career makeover doubtless present a whole different set of problems to their educators.
Users will text, let’s say, with individuals in close proximity, sometimes in continuing intimate bodily contact: hip-to-hip, or shoulder-to-shoulder, never mind simply in the very same classroom, if not also contiguous desks or seats.
Without getting into the particulars of other kinds of behavior, which are covered well enough in the two blog posts I have listed as links below, the result of this constant digital traffic, combined with what I can only call a gigantic breach in what I think—I am pretty old, and the old memory, you know?…—used to be called things like etiquette, decorum, and protocol, all of the rules for which I also seem to recall we learned long before we got to college. And what we didn’t learn could be conveyed, and usually was, in a short speech, less than two minutes, by the “prof” at the very beginning of the first class meeting of a course. Rarely was there a question, except the inevitable, “does everything on the syllabus count towards our grade?”
Between the endless stream of attention diverting exercises, facilitated by all the apps, media, devices, etc. etc. and the complete breakdown of a common understanding of what is supposed to be polite behavior in any social setting, including the classroom—you know, conscientious regard for your fellow human beings, peers or elders—it’s a wonder any learning goes on at all. But wait? Does it? Well, of course it does, but I alway assume under great duress and stress at times for all participants.
Personally, I’m appalled, and I’d love to hear from anyone with a thought or two, including the current college-attendees (who might be able to explain in a plausible and rational way what could sit well with a humanist—you can look it up—what permits such carrying-on in civilized society).
The links, as I said, are below. I’ll just finish by saying that back in the day, for example, we could get through a semester of readings in the British and American Novel of the 19th century, let’s say, with the requirement that we read the individual entirety of each of about 15 novels, attend lectures, participate in class discussions, hand in an essay of at least 20 pages, take two exams: a mid-term and a final, and somehow manage not to miss more than three un-excused class meetings. The classes, incidentally, met three times a week for a semester. The syllabus usually consisted of a typewritten sheet, mimeographed, with all the book titles of required reading, dates, class meetings, and any pertinent rules printed on one side of the sheet. We already knew not to cheat, plagiarize, or lie. The rest of what we needed was in something called the Official Catalog of the University. There was no email. We knew our professor’s office hours. We didn’t know their home phone numbers, and we knew never to call them at the English Department (in this case), because we had to run the gauntlet of the department secretary, who conducted herself more or less as a combination of Gorgon and Cerberus. To be completely fair and forthcoming, I do remember when necessary exchanging actual hand-written correspondence, usually in the form of notes, with faculty. The mechanism was a pen, paper, an envelope, and the faculty member’s “mailbox” in the English Department offices. Do students still use pens?
Today, apparently, a typical class requires the distribution of a syllabus booklet, often in PDF form, but often as well printed out for the student’s convenience, and sometimes easily exceeding 20 pages. It consists of the usual rundown of the curriculum for that course, with a class by class agenda as to what will be covered each meeting for the term. The rest is administrative detail covering every conceivable protocol with regard to academic behavior, within and without the classroom, what, in precise terms and with as little ambiguity as possible, constitutes plagiarism, what defines an excusable absence from class, the penalties for late arrivals, late assignments, etc., and so forth and so on. Having taught as recently as three and a half years ago, I know it takes quite a bit to fill 20 pages with the sort of minutiae that any intelligent 18-year-old, with a reasonably civilized upbringing, and the ability to read the university (or college) catalog, where the general underpinnings for proper academic and social behavior on campus still are already spelled out, and vetted by the institution’s office of the general counsel, as well as several bodies of academic administration.
If I had the time, and any deeper curiosity, I’d delve deeper into what possibly could have happened in a little over 40 years—I mean sociologically, psychologically, and anthropologically—to determine such a sea change, and I don’t mean merely the length of the in-class syllabus. In the meantime, read these two blog posts, and ponder it for yourself.
Like it or not, many of us are spending non-trivial amounts of time on-line using social media, most likely Facebook, but whatever. I’ve decided the time’s long past due for having a way to choose with greater subtlety exactly what we get to look at once we log in, and for as long as we can tolerate being there. I think most of us are aware there are ways to control what we see and what we don’t, at least in crude ways. However, after that, sometimes using even these tools is a bit like learning how to use a new operating system without a manual or an instruction video.
Within the social media in general there have always been coarse means for filtering the continuous stream of data that reaches our information devices. Facebook, being the paradigm because of its size and ubiquity, provides a rough template for methods of distributing or disrupting any part of the flow. Other services may do it differently. We can “unfollow” this person or that (to use the no longer curious, but merely stubbornly ignorant usages of the semi-literate—if it makes you feel better, consider “unfollow” a term of art; in all events, to resist is futile). As a middle way, we can elect to receive messages in some hierarchy of alleged personal preference—like so much else, not only not very precise, but essentially not defined anywhere either—as to the significance of any sender’s declarations appearing on our feed: you can choose to receive “all” of them, “most” or “only important” ones. Who decides? Who knows? We can be sure there’s an algorithm for it. And that Zuck put his stamp of approval on it.
That sort of takes care of incoming. As far as outgoing content, in a drastic, but not extreme, step we can “block” undesirable correspondents (usually originally linked for political or social expediency), simply to prevent the temptation, theirs, to imagine they are chums, or, to avoid the embarrassment, ours, of saying something, anything, these not-quite-soul mates in an unwary and unknowing limbo might consider improper, imprudent or, simply, “fightin’ words.” And of course, there is the radical tactic, the social equivalent online of exercising extreme prejudice, the act of “unfriending.” This, however, is not sufficient to keep the barbarians on their side of the gate.
In one of the protocols of what must be a whole lexicon of obscure rules and terms of engagement, even if you “unfriend” an individual, they are automatically relegated to the status of “follower”—we may assume unbeknownst to either or both parties not paying attention—and they will still receive your wholly “public” utterances. Presumably, Zuckerberg has decided, with his genius for embracing a kind of nincompoop psychology, that having a lot of followers is akin, sort of like a first cousin once removed, to having a lot of friends. However, before I go too far in the gleeful enterprise of making fun of the current supreme idiot savant of technology, I’ll add simply that, despite his protestations that he’s not interested in the money, the Zuck always has his eye on the prize of as many eyeballs as he can sell to prospective advertisers.
Look. It’s clearly deliberately made hard to understand how to use Facebook, and it’s equally hard actually to break with anyone with whom you have even the most tenuous connection to begin with, because the more people who follow you (and you them, of course), the more opportunities there are to sell the myth of affinity. If it were easy to drop people, you’d do it. By the same strategy, this is why, if, for example, you made the mistake of giving Facebook your real baby boomer birthdate, let’s say, you’ll be seeing ads, offering dating opportunities with eligible “mature” women—even though you’re married, which they won’t actually know if you don’t tell them, perhaps out of a vestigial tender regard for your own privacy—and the ad is illustrated with a photo of a comely large-breasted woman whose maturity consists in being able to remember the most poignant moments of passing through puberty as if they occurred yesterday, because, in fact, they did. But, in that immemorial cliché, I digress. In fact, this is related to the dilemma of truly managing your cyber-social life, and so back to that. In the meantime, in your off-hours and I mean off the internet and with nothing better to do, convince yourself you’re not being manipulated.
Now, aside from somehow wanting the power instantaneously to render all of the arcana of Facebook, and of its myriad competitors, transparent, I have in mind something even more desirable. I find myself wishing that there were more precise ways of monitoring and, optionally, diverting the stream of messages so that even my most precious relations can be preserved while I am spared being exposed to every single atom of a personal datum they deem significant enough to mention it—every snapshot, every progressive development, sometimes hourly, of their baby (human or hamster; it really makes little difference, not to me, outside the immediate vicinity… cute is cute and love is love).
Currently, I have a very short friends list on each of the rivals, Facebook and Google+. I believe this microcosm is sufficient to form certain inferences. For one thing, even among a group of only 40 or 50 people, there is great individuality. Simply, we’re each of us different, and, of course, hooray for that. However, one result of our asynchronous traits is a divergence of interests. More critical than that is the way our differing values, however subtly we measure the distinctions, affect the course of daily life: what we think about, concentrate on, share with others. Naturally, we expect our values and preferences may differ. We forget that, until we’re reminded when a best and dearest friend talks our ears off about, say, their latest addition to a collection of antique quilted tea cozies. Yes, yes, I know. So what? If you collect antique quilted tea cozies, I apologize. In private and in person, I smile and listen myself. Online, of course, to paraphrase that famous “New Yorker” cartoon, no one knows you’re yawning uncontrollably. And no doubt there is in each of us the ability to evince the same degree of mute tolerance in others.
What’s trivial to you may be vital to me. What’s compelling to me may be inconsequential to you. What makes me laugh may leave you dumbfounded or nonplussed. We accept all this, usually without comment, especially as we tacitly accept the social contract revisions inherent in adopting the now incredibly expansive entitlement of “friendship.” Friends, after all, accept. They don’t judge. Judgments are frowned on. And we surely don’t comment, if we’re experiencing even the slightest pangs of disquiet. Even nay-saying might be seen as encouragement. Irony is completely out of the question.
All this makes for an interesting mix of exchanged content in a feed, as it develops organically on a web of usually spontaneous utterances. We tell ourselves we are merely sharing news, often personal. We’re letting a large set of people know what we’re up to, essentially that we’re all right, and all with greater ease than by meeting the burden of informing each and every person within the group directly and intimately with some other form of contact. We also use these forums as a means to convey the formalities that constitute vestigial social protocols, like invitations, pleas, and exhortations. As well we can make, with one click, a universal call for the requisite or tacitly expected acknowledgments, specifically, say, an rsvp or at least that diffuse and inarticulate form of encouragement or approbation, a “like.”
Indiscriminately, these generally ordinary, if not banal, and certainly almost all purely quotidian, messages and posts get broadcast, largely wholesale. As it’s simply not worth the effort—and what is these days, aside from signing that consent form agreeing to, oh, I don’t know, chemotherapy?—to spend the time deep in the weeds of deciding which group or list should get what message, we send every message to everyone. The bigger our friends list, the more recipients of the same messages. Concomitantly, with our precious time being a critical factor, and with a reciprocal and mutual number of messages being shot our way by that same mass of “friends,” we do take the trouble to exclude all but the slimmest stream of posts from people we are really interested in hearing from. What describes “really interested?” Likely an honest assessment of one’s gut; and an algorithm is not possible, not in the current state of the art—if you’ve ever had limited space for wedding guests, and you had to decide who you wanted there, you know what I’m talking about. So we have to screen, at least once, and in each direction: incoming and outgoing.
As I’ve pointed out, there are only the crudest tools for including this group or that in a communiqué. That sort of discrimination is only slightly more refined on Google+, with its adaptable taxonomy of self-defined circles. Facebook takes, as usual, a more authoritarian and controlling approach, defining the categories you may use: “best friends,” family, acquaintance, with all the apparatus of discrimination and class distinction inherent in the language–the objective, as everywhere else in almost all social media, seems to be some enforced (or possibly coercive) conformation to some kind of norm. Of course, in my cynical way, I have to note it’s also a gauge of your probable level of compulsion. Most people believe, for example, that blood is thicker than water. If you designate someone as family, it’s likely Facebook can get away with murder telling all your relatives about your sincere, warm and personal recommendations. Like for sources of antique quilted tea cozies.
Beyond that, there is always the danger of committing what has evolved in the second decade of the 21st century into the present-day blunder of making a message “public” that was really intended for that special group of three friends you formed, and which you have to remember to address each time you create a post. It’s all for the sake of getting warm and friendly with three by sending out only a single cozy, so to speak. You could send an email and copy all three at once—and thereby ensure you will get a private response, instead of the compound blunder of having yourself and your friends airing your cozies in public. But email is so 20th century, and it also requires you to get off Facebook. And that might take a whole minute.
What this all means, to me, is that we are bombarded on Facebook, say, (and even outside the confines of this blue zone, if we happen to allow notices to reach us on our phones and in email boxes, each and every time there is activity among our friends). We are cluster bombed with messages and hails sometimes terse, sometimes barely coherent, sometimes wholly pictorial, sometimes by way of linkage or transfer from yet other sources, making the locus of virtual affinity sometimes so wide as to encompass the globe. Notions like nearness, like neighborhood, like geography and boundaries lose all meaning. Next to an image of a squalling infant is a photo of flowers budding improbably in the Antarctic, and immediately next to these, yet another photo of an impossibly cute puppy, next to an endorsement for a brand of rare bicycle parts hand-crafted of military-grade titanium… It’s not only a triumph of mid-cult, as if suddenly a billion people were subscribers to the old Life magazine, or Reader’s Digest, wherein matters of life and death take on, or are reduced to, the same magnitude of importance as which stars of the original Star Trek are appearing at this year’s ComicCon. It also removes from our personal control the right to decide not to pay attention. It degrades the expectation that it’s all right to accept that some person, even among your nearest and dearest sometimes, at least to you, is a crashing bore. Or worse. But allow me to take you back a step or two from this bit of corrosive editorializing.
The inherent faux sociology at work behind these hypotheses aside, let me add, as a personal rationale, that I love my friends. Truly. That’s why the visible and publicly declared number of them is so small. To call each and every one friend is to say, at least, that I willingly give them tacitly and freely the time it takes to hear them out. I may be naive in assuming, as I do, that there’s also a tacit agreement that they will not waste that time unduly, with the constant mortar fire, say, of innumerable links they have uncovered online. I end up being dubious that there is equal significance to each link, each datum, each tidbit of information, each tweak, bon mot, and epigram (classic or contrived). But I pay heed, because they are friends, all of them, after all, and like a parent with a small child, I owe them that attention, and maybe even some interest, even if at times it’s feigned. Friendship, even consanguinity, is never an excuse not to be polite and mannerly. But then, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.
Those who are sufficiently mindful that they are well aware that they are only one of many making the same regular broadcasts, including the status of their personal state of mind, and the rise and fall of their welfare along with that of their immediate families, must always be aware what the consequence of their flow is, added to the flow from other sources (some of which we share—and sharing of friends is encouraged; the next most used word on Facebook is the qualifier, “mutual” with the strong implication that you should also be friends with your friends’ friends), flow added to flow, until there is a veritable Mississippi River at full flood running down the middle of your news feed.
Every item calls out for your attention, even for the fraction of a moment it takes to decide to ignore the details. Time spent is a drum beat, a blunt blow to your consciousness. The very action of coalescence of all that data, post by post, from myriad sources, also necessarily levels the significance of any one datum. I propose to you, reader (friend or not), that whatever your resistance to the idea, everything becomes the same when it comes to importance. For starters, there’s just too much to take in. I have only 33 friends on Facebook and it’s too much. Perhaps it’s just me, and I wouldn’t deny it, but there’s enough of the everyman in each of us that leads me to feel it’s not. Water constantly flowing, or even continuously dripping, is eroding, if not actually corrosive. Witness the Grand Canyon: we should all live so long.
First consider that in addition to the license granted by Zuckerberg and his confréres to you to pop off, spout, or declare whatever happens to be on your mind at the moment, there is also the tacit invitation by you to each and every one of those individuals you have dubbed some species of “friend” to say whatever they please in response. Hence, there’s the potentiality that attached to your post will appear a spontaneous growing appendage of commentary. Often these addenda are from those who may feel either the pressure of declaring their feelings of affection and attachment, whether deep down through fear of alienation if they don’t say something, or perhaps merely because spending any significant amount of time within the blue zone, say more than five minutes a day, induces an uncontrollable reflexive response, the expression of which is not merely enabled, but facilitated by a whole new orthography of faux-expressive verbal gestures and symbols… LOL OMG ;-D, ad nauseam. Before asking the not-so-rhetorical question, “do we really universally care–even focused upon the corral of our ‘friends’–about each and every one of these matters?,” I’ll ask another question. Can we live with accepting some limits to our sense of closeness and intimacy with loved ones–family, or certain members thereof for sure, but the extended family of people we love for no other reason than some attachment has formed that we don’t question or analyze it?
There is a simple solution of course, even within the specialized context for conduct created by a social network, the blue zone of Facebook, the Googleverse, the Twitter-sphere, the Instagramathon, the Tumblrversity. Like life itself, each of us may exercise the easiest coping mechanism of all, especially in response to what are, after all, the most innocuous of effusions of the sort everyone on earth expresses during the course of a random day. That is, we can ignore any one, or all, of them. For sure. But, I wonder if I am alone–even with my collection of carefully selected cohorts, trivial in number, that, between Facebook and Google+, still falls way short of a hundred souls–if anyone else does not feel, even briefly and sporadically, overwhelmed by the aggregate effect of receiving messages, often, if not usually, accompanied by visual stimuli in the form of original and borrowed images, from every point of the compass.
It’s a rain, an unending relentless precipitation, of the mundane, particular and peculiar in each instance to the special and unique life attached to the name of the sender, but, taken together, coalescing into a thickening layer of the stuff of which each human on earth creates a buffer, insulation against the inescapable realities of existence. We bother with these things, no matter how small and insignificant, because they keep us from thinking about the existential dilemma. And, while trying sincerely to convince you I’m not being cute, I’ll say no more about what that dilemma is than to suggest to you that if you believe, in your quietest, deepest, darkest moments suffered in solitude that you yourself don’t have one, you might consider making a call to your physician to confirm that you still, in fact, exist.
We all, we each of us, are certainly entitled, as far as I’m concerned, to seek, to find or create, and, finding or creating, embrace anything and everything that fulfills our sense that some part of us finds pleasure and meaning in being alive. Moreover, we each are entitled to seek and tenderly clutch whoever and whatever there is in life that comforts us when that other, the inescapable depredations and deprivations that impoverish our experience of being alive, seems more than we have the capacity to bear.
I worry, and have done for some time since, even long before the universal emergence of Facebook in 2007, from its laboratory of usage among a highly circumscribed privileged set of users. What I worry about is that a false sense of homogeneity permeates a significant part of the developed world, like the artificial banding of commonality and amity fostered within the enclaves of Ivy League institutions where the blue zone was first formed and incubated–a way for those of like mind and interests, at least nominally so, could bond, commune, and manage their social engagements.
Each of us posts alone. Why not? For the few seconds it takes to compose and send a message, we lose all peripheral vision. May I not presume that if it’s a singular and concentrated thought for me on the sending end, it’s the same for you receiving it. It takes work after all to realize, and retain that insight for a bit, that for you—even as for me, when you come right down to it, even with my measly list of friends—it’s a pile of singularities arriving in a stream that never ends.
I began this extended contemplation with the simplest intent: to suggest, in what I originally and foolishly imagined would be a simple, brief “status update” (well, brief for me; a paragraph is as good as an emoticon) suggesting that we need better ways to filter posts from others, to avoid very fine categories: photos of cats, let’s say, or announcements of events taking place more than 10 miles from where we live. As so often happens, the thought grew wings, and took me to a much loftier place. That original idea remains buried somewhere in this essay, which, with a certain irony, reflects precisely the phenomenon I’ve decried. One thing just leads to another, and another, and another into a great mass that may seem to you like just another reason for a grouch like me to grouse. But I think there is something worse going on.
Take it all away. Shut down the internet. Turn off the servers at Facebook. Stop every feed. And we each of us, alone and collectively, will be left once more to ourselves. What I fear is that what may be required for us to regain a sense of being in a world where there’s a chance of remaining upright even as innumerable forces, chronicled in the news and demonstrated daily on every street in every city in the world, seem to conspire to efface any sense we have of any value, beyond the material. I am sure that one of the most insidious of the effects of so-called social media is that by the very mechanisms that make it attractive and easy to use, not merely as needed, but compulsively and reflexively is the numbing of our senses. The result is a slow, almost imperceptible, paralysis, a loss of sensation in a world that remains, even as polluted and altered as it has become after so many thousands of years of so-called civilization, one that cries out to be experienced with immediacy and mindfulness. The chief allure of Facebook is the simulation of immediacy. But is it not mediated, as every transmission and exchange passes through a network of such complexity and opacity, that any instant is a lifetime and every seeming touch is robotic, or like making love in oven mitts—not a real world, nor immediate, but a simulacrum?
Is it really a place to live? Game of Farmville anyone?
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