Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Virtues of a Lonely Planet

Humans, for the most part, are a gregarious bunch. In the beginning we needed it to stay alive. For humans, with intelligence and endurance but limited raw fighting power compared to animals that can take a man's head off with one sweep of a claw or clamp of a jaw, strength and safety came from numbers. An intelligent species that didn't have that drive to build communities, where members could survive and thrive on an individual basis, might never build up enough inertia to lay down civilizations.

Technology has only brought us together more and more steadily. The last ten years, in particular, have seen interconnectedness spread like a restless spider's web. When I graduated from high school eight years ago nobody had a mobile phone, and now they use them to cheat on tests. This interconnectivity is becoming more and more of a social need. The Transhuman Space supplement Broken Dreams had among its offerings an urban legend, popular in 2100, of people dying of shock when they were cut off from data networks.

With the way things are going, I'm surprised that sort of legend, maybe revolving around an inopportunely broken BlackBerry or iPhone, hasn't already gained substantial traction in reality.

On July 4th, Australian time, the Sydney Morning Herald carried an opinion piece by Brigid Delaney entitled "It's a lonely planet out there - get used to it," which held up modern networking tools as "symptoms of the death of our ability to be alone." Ordinary people have never been in a position to share as much information as widely and as frequently as they do today. In the article, Delaney takes umbrage with the increasing abandonment of solitude, and asks if "the 11pm call from the boss [is] better than nothing, silence, being disconnected - and perhaps missing out?"

This is one issue I've been worried about myself. I don't have a mobile phone, nor do I have any particular interest in getting one, which seems to make me a definite freak of nature when compared with the rest of my age group. For now, mobile phones remain in the "accessory" stage, and while they're far more commonplace than they were ten years ago, culture has yet to substantially shift toward the assumption of 24/7 availability for everyone, or at least mostly everyone.

How long do we have before this changes? It's probably sooner rather than later. It might already be here, and I just haven't realized it. What concerns me is that inevitable moment when the system flips from one state to another, when a mobile phone ceases being an optional device you carry to assist you with your life and instead becomes an expectation, and if you don't have one there must be something wrong with you. I read a story like this recently - though I can't, unfortunately, remember the title or author and don't have it close at hand - in a world where "bugseyes," the logical conclusion of smartphone evolution, were universal, and a character who did not wear one fell under police suspicion for no other reason than that he did not wear one.

I'm worried this is where we're heading. That in the crowd's headlong stampede toward connection, away from solitude and toward the endlessly yammering, clamoring din of the world, the pendulum will be pushed too far and get stuck. No matter how much of a social butterfly a person may be, in the end there's always a necessity for a pause, silence, and reflection. Constant communication is constant distraction. It interrupts. It can very easily be like trying to play Jenga during an earthquake.

Perhaps it's because I'm a writer, and I need long stretches of solitude to put my thoughts in order and come to terms with the world, that I tend to think this way. There's a discipline in self-reliance, in putting distractions aside - and if we discard that, what else will become of us, in the end?

Also, the Fourth of July. I know there are at least a few Americans reading this, so here's the flag of the United States and also Ohio's. Now go drink and attend barbecues and watch fireworks. Your media gives me the impression that doing so is your patriotic duty.

roughly luddite ranting concluded; thank you for your patience

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