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Waking Life

by RANDALL AMSTER

With each passing day, the news grows increasingly grim. In recent weeks alone, we’ve seen women’s rights under assault as reactionary forces seek to turn the clock back by decades. Half a world away in Afghanistan, corpses are defiled and more are brutally created, without even their ages or innocence sufficient to protect them. Meanwhile, back at home, Congress passes and President Obama signs a new law that further restricts the ability of “we the people” to say or do anything that might stem the tide of the insanity. It’s all such a familiar tune, one that plays out with flawless precision in nearly every turn of the news cycle.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere buzzes along, chronicling the morass and the madness with vigor. The headlines read like an excruciating autopsy of democracy and justice in the late, great United States — and a horrifying blueprint for how to decimate that portion of the planet’s inhabitants who have the misfortune of living atop, amid, or around something that we covet. Naked fascism here and wanton destruction there, with each solidifying the other in our hearts and minds as the gears of consumer culture blithely grind about their business with clocklike precision. Tick: the Dow Jones goes up! Tock: another celebrity melts down! And hardly anyone seems to really know what time it is…

Or maybe everyone does, at least on some level, with a great many simply choosing to ignore the alarm bells in favor of the bells and whistles on their latest consumer gadget. The rising tide (both literal and figurative) that threatens to consume us all is best confronted by ignoring it. The blood on one’s hands comes right off with the newest antibacterial, sanitizing, scented concoction. The news may be forbidding, but it’s merely a minor inconvenience since there are so many creature comforts expressly not forbidden. Tales of disease, despair, and destruction are little more than reality noir stories told to occasionally add a touch of macabre and cinéma vérité to one’s halcyon Netflix queue.

Swipe across that touchscreen, scroll down with that mouse, click that ad banner, pull that lever in the booth, change that channel repeatedly, post a link to that viral video, accept that new credit card offer, text while in that drive-through line, gas up the car and eat up from the microwave. Modern life is a veritable hall of mirrors for narcissists, complete with the rush of affirmation from every “like” attained and text message received with a sonorous chime. It’s all so smooth and slick and seamless, how we’ve gone in less than one generation from people having time to ones being had by it. Yes, you can buy time, share it on vacation, put it on a sheet at work, use it for making a bomb, or turn it into an uncritical magazine — but at the end of the day, there is no longer an end of the day.

We are on the clock, all the time, everywhere we go. The line between work and play has blurred to such an extent that there’s a likely gym at your office and (if there’s not) people are closing deals on handheld devices while at the gym, giving new meaning to the notion of “working out.” Even on social calls one can hear the faint “tap tap” of keystrokes in the background, as an overworked friend multitasks while you’re busy baring your soul between your own multiple, endless tasks. It’s all just so routinely riveting, so crassly compelling, so miraculously mundane, so five minutes ago. Forever a step behind, never quite catching up, no bottom to that inbox, no time to stop and think.

Yet it’s strangely comfortable, after all, ceaselessly cascading from one inconsequential calamity to the next. Can we keep this up, culturally or individually? It’s a new survival-of-the-fittest motif: those who are more cognitively dissonant and functionally distracted will succeed in this brave new world, while those with slower chronometers, active consciences, or stop-and-smell-the-roses ethics are consigned to the breakdown lane on the information superhighway. The fortunate ones whizzing by at 4G (or more) might be tempted into rubbernecking as the broken-down vehicles pile up on the side, but they’re probably too busy texting while driving to notice.

And so it goes. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but we’ve got him beat by a micro-processed mile. The apocalypse is already being televised, routinized, digitized. It’s not coming; it already came and went, and hardly anyone even looked up to take notice. The world ended not with a whimper but a tweet: #IMoverIT. Heck, there’s not even time for punctuation anymore, unless it’s part of an emoticon. theres prolly no need 4 an ! aftr yr doomsday anyway LOL :>)

Seriously? It’s like everyone is pushing toward the bow of the Titanic to snap a photo of that massive iceberg up ahead with their cellphone cameras. Yeah, post that iceberg to your profile, and caption it something ironic like: “Super chunk of ice, way cool!” No matter that the Doomsday Clock stands at five minutes to midnight — that’s an eternity when things move at the speed of micro-circuitry. It’s all an abstraction anyway, a live-action film version of reality; even war is played with joysticks like a cutting-edge video game. There’s no there there anymore; it’s all right here in the palm of your hand. Hickory dickory dock, just mouse over the clock icon for a free music download!

Hey, I love science fiction as much as anyone, and I’m not averse to technology altogether. But technology should be a tool for us to use, not the other way around. Let’s face it: we’re losing the texture of reality, and not even the blatant brutality of ongoing genocide, ethnocide, and ecocide is able to shake us free from our self-imposed slumber at this point in time. Is it too late, in any event? I think not — but the day is dawning and time is running out. We can still correct our course, by learning to use technology for liberatory rather than repressive ends, and by striving to decouple our actual selves from our virtual selves more and more each day. Go on a digital diet, and stick to it.

Ultimately, this move by itself still won’t turn the tide, but at least it puts us back in the mix. The impetus of “forced obsolescence” is a contrivance of the power-mad in our midst, yet we need not stand idly by while their actuaries place us in the “liabilities” column. Come on folks, Christmas morning is over and we need to clean up the living room and put the toys away for a while. Read a book, take a walk, tell a story, share a home-cooked meal, converse with friends and family — anything but the incessant, obsessive, stupefying machinations of the virtual veil. The clock is ticking, the hour is late, the alarm is sounding, and it’s time to wake up and meet the world anew.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).

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