Vol 12, Num 9 :: 2013.04.26 — 2013.05.09
This past Saturday I made a new acquaintance while standing in his back yard with the late afternoon sun filtering through the cherry and crabapple blossoms. A large plastic watering trough was in the corner of the yard filled to the brim with dark water reflecting the trees from the previous week’s rain and dotted with white and pink blossoms. I simply took it all in for a while as we talked, but inevitably excused myself and returned to my truck for my camera.
I had come with a friend and he was talking to my new acquaintance and his wife while I took photos, so my temporary neglect of the persons present in order to get the shot was not overly rude. And after a short while I returned to my acquaintance and we struck up a conversation ostensibly about photography, but truly about the tyranny of perpetually mediated existence.
The question at the heart of this issue of catapult is whether we may not at times benefit from backwards movement in response to the constant press of our culture to move forward — to embrace the new, the faster, the more immediate. I can think of no more pressing area where this may be a desirable course of action than in the area of communications technology or the Facebook Industrial Complex — that collusion of social networks, phone carriers, hardware manufacturers and advertisers that demands a piece of every moment of our lives.
I am, of course, being too clever by half with that appellation, but who amongst us has not felt imbalance in our souls from time to time as we consider our relationship to these entwining technologies? I mentioned my new friend above because, as we talked, he noted how he and his wife did not participate in any social networks (a fact which might well be correlated with that beautifully gardened back yard), but that even they had felt the need to create a private blog so that they might post pictures of their five-month-old and distant family could see him grow. He said that some months, when it had not occurred to them to take many pictures (which itself was hard for me to fathom), they took a flurry at the end of the month to catch up. As we talked, I internally marveled at lives so unencumbered by the pressing need to document and widely share.
If you are worried at this point that this piece is about to become a Luddite rant, you needn’t be. I have too much at stake both personally and professionally in our electronically connected world to be able to condemn it outright. And, as I explain to classes in the library when teaching about the Internet, I really do believe that information technologies themselves (indeed almost all technologies) are morally neutral. I ask them to picture technology as being a bit like an accelerator on a car which principally functions to speed thing up. The Internet speeds up both the good and the bad aspects of our lives and society; on social networks, I can connect with my family on the other side of the world in Pakistan or a kid can post demeaning pictures of someone that can reach a multitude in seconds and ruin a life. Twitter can both supply me with a host of interesting stories about my city which might lead to meaningful engagement or supply me (via Reddit) with names of false suspects in the recent Boston bombings — a flow of false information which led to the media unnecessarily exasperating an already grieving family. Other more impactful ways that the Internet at large can be a force for good and evil are both too numerous and, in the case of evil examples, too distressing to mention.
There are, of course, numerous questions about what these advances in technologies are doing to our brains, and how they affect the ways in which we read and process information and what is happening to our attention spans and IQs. Indeed, how many information streams, how much information can we handle? Are there physiological and psychological limits? Such questions have been attendant upon the advent of every new type of information technology, yet it is hard not to feel that our own moment is special, different and deeper than it was, say, with the widespread availability of books and newspapers. And it is truly mindboggling to envision what might come next.
Even more interesting to me, though, is the question of what such technologies are doing to our souls and, yes, to our very creatureliness? When we are already prone to idol-making and to seeking diversion to pull us away from questions of deeper significance, what happens when the avenues for distraction become seemingly infinite, when the ability to numb ourselves metastasizes? How can it be that our ability to connect to one another every second via text messaging and to share the minutiae of our lives via Facebook often does not seem to work in deepening relationships or in making our lives more meaningful? And regarding our creatureliness — a word I use to describe our essential being as spirits ensouled in bodies, created to live in and interact with a physical world — what does the need to constantly copy facsimiles of experiences into a virtual world do to our enjoyment of the real one? If my first thought when seeing something beautiful or meeting someone famous or attending a concert is to thrust my cell phone or camera up to it, what do I lose by that transaction?
I ask these questions not from any sense of having answered them satisfactorily, but because being a fairly active netizen, these are live questions in my head and heart. I have been a blogger since 2004 and have created over 2,500 posts. I have over 25,000 photos on Flickr. I have over 1,000 Facebook friends and 160 albums (not photos), which document outings and parties and church events and concerts. In short, I like the “Likes,” I crave the comments, and reflect on ways to deliver a bon mot on the issue of the day or to tweet the clever tweet. I have recently been absorbed into the Twitterverse, and though I am chagrined at having only a few followers and retweets, I am delighted at the flow of local and customized information flowing my way which enriches my life.
I wrestle with the hold it all has on me sometimes, though. I wrestle with the way these things can work as drugs to numb and to distract, or as shiny fool’s gold to boost my self-esteem. And as a photographer I wrestle with the need to constantly seek out the image to pass along that will receive adulation, even when the end product may be a meaningful work of art and a good end. In fact, I largely choose not to have a smart phone because I don’t want such influences to have even a greater hold on me — though I would really like to get a crack at some regular Instgramming one day as an alternate art form.
The title of this piece is a reference to the opening voiceover in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer and describes the virtuosity of the great chess champion and then his baffling disappearance into obscurity (and quite possibly madness). I confess that there have been times when I have simply wanted to do that with my Facebook account, to pull the plug (if only temporarily) through deactivation. There are some friends I know who do this somewhat regularly when they need a break, and when they do they are quite simply gone, as if their little Facebook planet has been destroyed, like Alderaan in Star Wars. I admire their ability to do that and may one day give it a try, but I also know that, even though such abrupt, cold-turkey moves are usually my modus operandi when making lifestyle changes, these strategies rarely have the effect I desire. Plus, if I did do that, destroying my own planet in Facebook, why then hundreds of Facebook pictures of friends would cry out and be gone, like the people of Alderaan! And even if I flatter myself by use of that analogy, I do actually have some responsibilities on Facebook which are actually connected with my job as a librarian.
Instead of trying to disappear online in order to appear more fully in real life, perhaps a better and more proactive strategy is to do exactly the opposite, to simply try to increase one’s presence and creatureliness in everyday life, to be all there — body, mind and soul — whether eating with friends or watching a sunset or listening to a great band. And if we have responsibilities for younger ones, it may involve even more intentional practices like early and copious reading to them and, later in life, detaching them from devices and tumbling them out into the great outdoors and spending time, time, time with them there and everywhere, making sure to detach from one’s own electronic prosthetics. If we choose to be mindful to be in the world in such ways, then I believe that our electronic lives will begin to take care of themselves in healthy ways.
As the summer approaches and I contemplate some time off, I know that I will take pictures, of things I find in my back yard and in the park, of things I see on trips. I know that I will take time to post these on my blog, that they will appear on Facebook. I may even end the summer Instagramming away on a smart phone, as one of those two year cell-phone cycles that measure our lives comes to an end in August and I can get a new phone. And yet I hope that while I am in my yard, I will also get dirt under my fingernails from planting tomatoes. I hope that when I am in the park I will put away the camera to catch a Frisbee thrown by a friend next to the fountains, that I will make it to watch Twelfth Night on a glorious summer evening at Shakespeare in the Park. I hope my muscles will feel soreness from walking eight miles in Manhattan or Chicago or from riding 60 miles on my bike. I hope that I will be a better communicator when I am talking to people face-to-face, that I will simply talk to people face-to-face more, and a be truer friend. And through all these things, and through sitting in churches and standing to sing and kneeling at home, I hope that I come to know the creator of my creatureliness better, the one I so often opine about on Facebook, but need to know so much more than I ever have.
This is the kind of backwards movement I can live with…or, frankly, cannot live without.