You really have to watch out for any feelings of wistful nostalgia that may creep into your contemplative moments. That’s a sure sign of getting old. It’s such a cliche to look back and believe it was better when we still had [blank], or before there was [blank]. And yet. And yet… I wonder if it isn’t worse to suffer under a strong conviction that positive transformation may be effected in the future, and (worse still) that one may be the agent of such change. That is the hallmark of youth; that is its central folly, and its occasional redemption.
From the perspective of age, those whose thoughts are youthful in this way appear naive. To the young-thinking, nostalgia (however sharp and bitter) always looks like surrender.
There are subjects in my mind of late, about which I feel somewhere between youthful and old. I can find within myself stirrings of desire to try to effect change and to influence things (at some important level) towards the better. But I am now at that length of life from which one may also appreciate a bigger picture, see a longer section of the overall trajectory of things, and feel (alas) diminished hope that the path we are on as a species will reach a happy outcome — at least not before some righteous terrible shit goes down.
Of the many changes I see about me that both inspire nostalgia for bygone things and fire up the radical social revolutionary in my belly (enough to make me want to do something about it, to warn people, at least to write a blog post) the change to Us that is being wrought by the Facebook Zeitgeist* is the most inescapable.
The reason for that is because I can see the effects out in the world around me every day, the changes to the ways people are behaving. We all see it. For being now so involved with the world we create and maintain in the digital, we are ever so less present in the Out Here.
Now before I go on, I should clarify that I am, in general terms, a huge fan of the Future, and of all the wonderfully transformative technological change it will bring. I’m an Aquarius. I love my iPhone and my iPad. So deep is the attachment, that Lauren my fiancee and I will sometimes communicate with each other through Facebook messenger, even when we are sitting next to each other on the couch. Attached to my technology I am. Transformed by it have I been.
Where I have concern is that some of the social skills we have developed over time, that are carried and transferred in the culture, that help us live together in cities and towns, may be eroding. It’s only logical, as our attention and over-riding sense of what is important shifts entirely to the devices in our hands, that some of the social pleasantries in meatscape are going to begin to slip.
We can each recall our own personal experiences where we felt ourselves slighted by someone whose attention was arrested by a smartphone. Maybe it was that you were walking on the sidewalk and this other person was so absorbed by the device in their hand that they bumped into your shoulder really hard and it hurt. Maybe you mourn the death of eye contact. Maybe you miss how strangers used to fall into light conversation when waiting in line for a movie. Alas, these experiences are disappearing.
Human beings have always been prone to disrespectful distraction and self-absorption. But this is different, because it’s happening to everyone at once. And because nearly everyone has recourse now to their own universe in the palm of their hand, hardly anyone is Out Here crying foul at the slights and the bumps.
The more we are offended by the lesser attentiveness of others, the more we burrow into the tunnel of our own news feeds, escaping the mounting awkwardness of being out in the world among strangers. How far are we now from being entirely unavailable social zombies? How long before it’s only crazy people who stop and ask you for the time of day?
Now that I have become so fixated on this idea, all I can do when I am out among strangers in the world is measure all the little infractions. Unwittingly, I have become an attention cop. I’m now the one who weirdly seeks eye contact, just to see what people will do if you try to get them to look up from their portable self-esteem system and acknowledge the close presence of another human.
For being so curious about what is happening to Us, I have inadvertently alienated myself in a profoundly disturbing way. It feels now like I’m the only person who’s walking around with his attention on the outside.
It does not escape my notice that this vertiginous feeling of alienation I’m describing is probably one of the defining sensations of old age. All the blackest thoughts could easily rush in to displace the bright, potentially revolutionary theory that something bad is actually happening to Us, rather than just to me. The title of this account exposes a happy conclusion, but only a few weeks ago, I wasn’t so sure. I was walking the streets afraid, all-but-convinced that what I had done was externalize my own fear of death and terminality.
After all, doesn’t every generation use technology to differentiate itself from what came before? Isn’t all this that seems so new right now just the most recent example of the endless sloughing-off of the incumbent generation by the next one coming up behind it?
Then one day, when my thoughts were quite dark, I saw an extraordinary thing. A young man in his twenties came out the front door of an apartment building on Sutter Street in a manner that I instantly recognized. There was something about the way he was looking around, up at the sky, into the cars that passed. He walked slowly and seemed to be trying to make eye contact with other people in that sheepish, testing way I myself had done when I first started thinking about the Change.
There was no denying it. Here, clearly, was another person who (like me) had stood up suddenly from behind his laptop, with a kind of self-disgust, closing the lid on Facebook, realizing in a flash the magnitude of what is being lost. The condition was unmistakeable. I recognized it both for having observed it in myself, and because it is such a very new attitude I had not seen anywhere else.
It’s only the people who’ve already over-immersed in the Meta-Present (to the detriment of the Present) that may experience the sudden and intense aversive reflux that drives them out into the streets in this open-eyed way, seeing the world and all the people in it as if for the first time.
The discovery that I was not alone in this was a revelation and a miracle. My greater fears about Us were confirmed (even as my less important but more keenly-felt fears about just getting old were allayed). It was like getting a reprieve from a fatal disease by way of learning that everybody has it. But I also saw that the path we are on collectively is not terminal, and that was a great relief.
Yes, it’s happening. People are becoming stranger to each other. But the digital well into which we can pour our attention Is not infinitely deep. There is a bottom, and anybody can touch it if they persist too long in their detachment. There comes a point when basic human reflex, acting at an irrepressible level, drives us back to the joys of connecting with strangers with our eyes and our curiosity and the timbre of our unamplified, undigitized voices.
I’m convinced now that we will miss these things and want them again. I take these signs I have seen as evidence that we are perhaps not so fundamentally malleable by technology as we may have thought, as I myself, until quite recently, feared.
*(There’s a lot more to this than just Facebook, obviously. It’s not just that Facebook exists. It’s also that Apple exists and that iPhones exist, and that apps exist, and that there is the whole new social modality comprising myriad interactions that are now enacted by way of the devices we hold in our hands.)