A lmost thirty years ago I was a movie projectionist. Sitting in a projection booth, the rhythm of my work day was dictated by the 20-minute movie reel. The time between reels was free time and, most importantly, paid time. For a while there was a similar sense of freedom when I bought my first computer. This was a time when it had not yet taken over our lives. It was more of a hobby. It hadn’t woven itself into the fabric of daily living. Nowadays, life’s rhythms are the rhythms of the digital age. It is no longer a hobbyist’s plaything. It is the totality of our lives, the measure of all things. We attempt to fit the richness of daily life into these digital shoeboxes, and because of its limitations, we reduce our lives to digital bytes of ‘sound,’ ‘text,’ and ‘image’ and, in so doing, we have discard much of life’s richness.
So much of my life has been molded to the digital rhythm that my fascination with growing vegetables, with watching the plants grow and create ‘things’ that I can eat, has taken me by surprise. Am I fascinated by nature itself? Is it that I don’t need to ‘purchase’ this experience, that I can partake of the entire cycle from seedling to mature plant and then to the plant’s inevitable demise? Is it that it ties me to the slower rhythm of the seasons and not the relentless rhythm of the digital clock? I write that last sentence as I glance at the clock, noting that I must get moving along. I must stop this writing and thinking. It’s time to get ready for work.
Technology’s promise was to improve our lives, adapting to human needs, freeing us from the mundane. The reality is that our lives have been adapted to the technology. Our lives are spent maintaining that technology, forever repairing and upgrading, forever discarding old technology and replacing it with new technology. Technology has not adapted to us, has not adapted to human needs. Instead, we have adapted to technology’s needs. The fabric and rhythm of life has been digitized, transformed into tweets and posts and text messages and, in the process, so has our way of thinking. We are, on the one hand, dazzled by the ever flowing newness of technology, of the ever growing pace of change. We see the world through digital colored Google Glasses. Advances in medicine are advances in technology and while one would be hard pressed to argue against such advances, we have not made similar advances in personal growth. The technological body has grown strong but the soul has atrophied. It is not surprising, as Kevin Phillips pointed out in a different context in American Theocracy, that in a world of commercial and technological turmoil, many people turn to old belief systems, as if something conjured up by desert nomads a thousand or more years ago contain some immutable ‘Truth’ that can provide a feeling of inner stability during tumultuous times.
Esse est percipi – to be is to be perceived.
The Faustian bargain of our always-connected-digital-world is that you can enjoy the speed and near-simultaneity of communication in all its forms — written; spoken; image, etc. — as long as you are willing to identify your sense of self with your “digital” self. No one has literally signed on to such a bargain, yet as we participate more and more in the digital world, as I am doing right now, who we are becomes more and more a function of who we are digitally. My own participation in Facebook and Twitter, along with my blogging, makes me who I am as a digital person. Only a small handful of people have breached the digital wall — the digital persona — that defines me. Most people interact only with the digital me, so that if I disappear for a time from Facebook and Twitter, the digital ‘me’ disappears too. In other words, digital ‘Jeff’ ceases, momentarily, to exist.
In some respects, this digital death, this momentary non-existence, has echoes of childhood fantasies. How many of us wished we had the power to ‘kill’ our enemies or, at the least, the power to shape the world according to our whims. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the evolution of the digital world has been defined, in large measure, by the child-prodigy-CEOs of Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others like them. Like a child with a gun, they have been given great power before they have learned about the dangers of power, before their naivete has been tempered by experience. Aided and abetted by the viziers of finance, their fantasies have come to life in the form of technological-financial engines that makes them kings while giving them much the same latitude and deference in the digital and in the non-digital world as they would have had if they were a child of the Middle Ages who, because of nature or nefarious acts, have become the next to be anointed king. That ascension and assumption of power would have been blessed by a religious minister while sinister machinations occurred out of site of the child-king and the kingdom. The ascension and assumption of power by child CEOs is blessed by the ministers of Wall Street while sinister machinations occur in the hallways of elite country clubs and government security agencies.
There’s another aspect of the digital childhood fantasy, the one that devalues what everyone else does except, of course, what the child does. Advertising firms are not needed when Google can eliminate them by putting the power of advertising in the hands of the consumer, that is, the business who would purchase advertising. Supermarkets aren’t needed when Amazon can provide most of your supermarket needs without you having to leave your home. Publishers and editors aren’t needed to publish a book, and books themselves aren’t needed when you can be provided with the essence of a book — a bunch of words strung together, separated by punctuation — with an illuminated toy that can also let you play while you sit on the beach ‘reading’ a ‘book.’ Nothing is sacred in the child-CEO fantasy world. Nothing holds value. People are worthless and worth less. [note 1]
My younger daughter read a draft of this post.
- You sound like a grumpy old man.
- But I’m trying to tell you, describe how things have changed.
- I grew up with a computer and a keyboard.
- I know. But I’m trying to tell you that the way things are, are not the way they have to be. We make the world we live in and if we make it, we can change it.
She nodded. Closed her laptop and then went to her bedroom.