Sunday, September 15, 2013

Oh how I love Rebecca Solnit.

Diary: In the Day of the Postman

Where do I begin with this? At the beginning.

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago.

Now, "our lives have ratings."

The new chatter [of social networking, constant access to email, texting, constant internet access in general] puts us somewhere in between [solitude and communion], assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.

The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss.

I am one of those in the middle. In 1995, I had just transferred to 4-year university after a trip overseas where I "travel[ed] across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that." I remember the fear I had in signing up for a university email account -- my first email account -- and the class I took where the instructor grudgingly asked if we wanted to turn in homework via email, which was met with a resounding "no" from the class and a sigh of relief from the instructor. I remember "dialing up." And yes, now I find myself mourning even as I check my smartphone when the conversation lulls.

It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distractions.

I watched an excellent documentary a few years ago, Walking With Cavemen, about the evolution of man. The thing that has always stuck with me from this program is the idea that it was harnessing fire that propelled our evolution so rapidly. The why is what is so profound. Without fire, we were forced to live in a state of constant fear and hypervigilance to predation. Fire allowed us some sense of protection against those creatures that might make us a meal. It created down-time, introspection, a time to contemplate and think without the constant yoke of fear. A time to dream.

What has happened to our open spaces? We can dream, and this is the world we made?

Right now we need to articulate these subtle things, this richer, more expansive quality of time and attention and connection, to hold onto it. Can we? The alternative is grim, with a grimness that would be hard to explain to someone who’s distracted.

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