It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.
– Jaron Lanier, from “You Are Not A Gadget”
In the canyon, one shoulders the pack, and the pack contains all that’s needed. Sleeping bag and extra clothes against the cold of the night. Lamp to light the way to our sleep, and a knife to carve in elder-bark our sigils soon to be old and gone. The October days beginning the arc toward winter, the slant-light in the canyons mirrored in the waters of the last flood, the walls high and narrow, no escape here in the bowels of the earth. My woman’s legs long and arrow-like, the footsteps precise, her face tanned – altogether, above all, her form noble: homo erectus, head high, navigating by stars, and in the carefulness of the silence, setting camp between the few trees that grow on the sandbanks above where the flood ran in the dark of the canyon.
Then back to the city and the human ladder to nowhere. It is not exaggeration to remark how vaguely demented is the physical life we “professionals” lead in our working hours. Mostly this life consists of sitting at the computer, tapping at the keys, checking the e-mail, looking plaintively at the cell phone. It’s pretty undignified and kind of sad. The constant prompting of lights and flashing boxes and bells, the acceptance that one is supposed to interact with a machine as if this is quite normal and indeed how things are meant to be. If one could hover out of body over the creature bent obsequiously to the manipulation of the flashing boxes, one would ask: What kind of a man is this? Has he lost all self-respect? Is he insane?
Or here behold, on a city street, the creature walking head-down with PDA or cell phone or iPhone or iPod or whatever will be next marketed for the improvement of the species. Always the electro-plastic appendage demanding service. It rings, it cajoles, it buzzes and blinks in blues and yellows – it screams, it must be answered, fidgeted with, and, after, gripped the more so in expectation. Even if this means walking into lightpoles, falling down manholes, running into parked cars; a daily recurrence, reported in every city in the world. I see the infant with his rattle: On a subway to Brooklyn, all eyes bowed to the techno-toys, all else is out of focus. I remember when I was 20 I gave up walking around with a Walkman. It seemed a thing of childishness, to be encased in the music of self when the noise of the world in its actuality called out. There was a crushing aloneness in the Walkman.
Now the technology demands this aloneness – which is ironic, given the promise of “connectivity” in the wireless revolution. The delusion is that one must be in connection at all times, to be tethered for business and pleasure both. Mostly the connection is with one’s clan. A friend tells me how his brother moved to Seattle but made no new friends there, because he maintained all the friends he needed at his fingertips. His interactions became perversely closed-in, shut out from immediacy. The self-announcement in the public use of the cell phone, the conversation imposed in the supermarket or on the sidewalk, the head low over the little machine texting, declares that I am apart – removed to the voices, signs and secrets of the wireless clan. The act of talking and texting in public is the act of becoming a ghost to everyone else. In New York City, this has resulted, I would argue, in the near-disappearance of serendipitous encounters with passersby, fellow train and bus riders, all those shy (or not so shy) hellos, smiles, eye contacts, pickups that happen less and less because we are ceding ourselves to the ubiquity of the tyrant machines.
Now to leave home without the electrical appendage is as if you have forgotten a portion of being. Perhaps you have. The mind corrodes with dependence, it devolves, and a creeping senility sets in, an Alzheimer’s in middle age. I used to know dozens of phone numbers by heart. Now the numbers are encoded in the devices. The digital hive mind, faith unto Google, becomes the storehouse of knowledge. And all this, we are told, in the name of the kind of efficiency where the sloped and debilitated figure tap-tapping on the keyboard is considered the zenith of human progress.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY, is working on a book about U.S. secession movements. Find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.