At some risk to the standing of our little website, as it holds on for dear life to a bit of asteroid out there in the blogosphere, I have in print and in person warned often about the looming hazards the internet has in store for literacy: cultural and spiritual and moral and written literacy. Years ago, I bent my foreboding to the point of stress fracture when I considered and finally bowed to the necessity and apparent fiscal wisdom of having a website at all. I figured then, and many times after, that that was as far as I’d ever go down that disembodied ghost road paved and maintained by the grey-glow square eyed cyclops sitting in the corner.
But, change being what it is, and obsolescence being what it ever is, I’ve now been obliged to consider the whole affair’s intent and direction and design. Here’s why: It is more than clear that the internet is already the de facto belief system of more people than not. More people than not are reading what I write on a screen the size of their palms. One consequence: I’m asked to consider writing ever more briefly, to contend with the little screen’s intolerance for anything much longer than can be seen at a glance. It won’t be long, it seems, before attention span will be dictated more or less entirely by the visual field of a personal device that can fit effortlessly into the breast pocket.
Sounds perhaps like the fretting of a dinosaur wondering if all that asteroid dust in the darkening sky is something to be concerned about, if it isn’t something more than an interesting change to the ‘same old same old’ skyline? Here’s the thing, though. I’ve had the privilege of travelling all over the world in the last decade and a half on the strength of what concerns me and what troubles me, much in the manner of a stand up comedian. And what I’ve seen is this: Everywhere that these personalized/personalizing devices have gone (and that is, increasingly, everywhere) they seem to have already changed the etiquette of person to person behaviour in those places, fundamentally. In other words, there is something in the design of these things and in the behaviour compliance they enforce that subverts local custom to such a degree that they are in the course of one technological generation conjuring a ‘smart device’ social and aesthetic moral order that is already in the process of fraying any cultural fabric that was there before them. That device is a more ruthlessly effective missionary than any door-to-door religion pitch-man that you have ever met or ever will meet. In support of this fret, three little, true stories, stories that really happened.
1. Some years ago, one of my kids was visiting me on the farm. These were early days for the so-called smart phone (how can there already be early days for something that just happened?). I’d never seen one, and I wasn’t clear that it was in fact a phone at all, and so I was mystified by the wild claims of photographic and communicative/interactive nirvana attributed to these lithe little packages. We were in the first hour of our visit, it’d been months since the last one, and the news of the day and of the heart occupied us. Obeying (I know now) a silent and unseen summons, my daughter raised her hand, palm facing out, and in pantomime fashion bid me wait a moment while she answered an incoming call on that device in her pocket. She was, I would say, only vaguely solicitous of my understanding of the matter. Certainly there was no hesitation in taking the call, no embarrassment, no apparent disturbance to her understanding of what we were doing sitting there together. The etiquette was clear, to her: I should – and would – understand the demands of the marketplace, the automatic, unquestioned and instant accessibility alleged by the device, the utter dread of missing a call, of missing out on the next thing. Because the one who’s not there has precedence, and ascendency, over the one who is there.
I’d never faced that social no-man’s-land before, as forlorn as that might sound. So, I did wait, though the sense I had that I was in the sulphurous presence of the tech-orchestrated moral near-future was palpable. And then she was off the phone, ready to resume our parent/child bon ami, breezy even. But I wasn’t. As my daughter searched for the thread of our unravelled conversation, I frankly risked it all. Assuming the voice of doom and destruction, I said to her: “Never again.” After some understandable recoil, she agreed: Never again. And to her credit, it hasn’t happened since. Not with her, at least.
2. I’m in Ciudad Oaxaca, as busy a place as I’m likely to stand anymore. I’m a pulmonary refugee now, on the lamb from winter cold, and it is mysteriously working out, slowing the tempo of my bronchial demise, I’m guessing. We’ve done a screening of Griefwalker, the first ever time with Spanish subtitles, and the discussion afterwards was superb and generous. The next day I’m feeling vaguely victorious and unguarded. We are in a grabado workshop/studio, the old and noble and politically articulate art form of wood block printing prevalent in this town.
There are half a dozen young men pulling a very large print. The artist is barking instructions, there’s an air of tension, expectation and devotion to the craft, everyone wanting this one-off moment to go well, and the room is crowded. Off the street and into this array walks a middle aged man with a camera. With vague hand gestures he’s asking permission to shoot the action. It isn’t clear that anyone has gestured back, ‘Yes’. These days that is close enough to permission, for some. So he squeezes himself into the action, shooting from every angle, dumping somebody’s stuff off a chair and climbing on it to get the money shot. Every once in a while he seems to point the camera in our direction – we’re well out of the way of the workers – but then puts it down again, maybe checking his f-stops, I’m thinking (if there are f-stops anymore).
Print pulled, the young men make their way to the ante-room of the studio. His reluctant subjects now gone, camera guy wheels around and makes to shoot us instead. My wife tells him, quickly, firmly, clearly and unmistakably, “No pictures, please.” He doesn’t desist. She tells him again, and he, with more than a little belligerence, demands, “Why?” My tolerance is gone now. I step between them. I point to my face. I say, “I own this. That’s why.” And he, without missing a beat, all self assured and sneering and unperturbed, says: “Really? Are you sure?”
3. We’re in Chiapas, lucky to be there. It is the anniversary of the unvanquished Zapatista rising, and things are a little tense outside the capital city. Brigands are using the circumstances to hold people up on the highways, and worse: that’s what we’re being told. We take a collectivo to a smaller town, arrive without incident in front of a church of immense scale, dating to the same decade as the Entrada, Cortes’ invasion of Old Mexico. We’re properly warned in writing: No pictures, no recording in the church, on pain of certain and serious punishment. Of course, I think. Inside, real old-time religion. The indigenous people have taken almost every Spanish Catholic attribute away, and it’s a pine scented, altar-less profusion of family-made ceremonies and offerings down on the tile floor, hundreds of candles amidst the boughs, a remarkable privilege to behold, a wonder that they mysteriously do not keep to themselves.
We’re outside the church now, and I notice an older native mother selling chocolate and a kind of biscuit. She’s glad enough to make the sale, makes a bit of small talk with us in Spanish, surely her second language. All the while, beside her, a teenage daughter makes no eye contact, doesn’t look up, doesn’t stir from her utter single minded devotion to the smart phone she has her head bowed to. You could say it’s no big deal. You could say that if these women’s culture resisted Cortes and the Catholic Church and is still here, there’s nothing much to whatever challenge that gizmo brings. But there was something about the young woman’s apparent willingness to be gone inside the thing that was, to me, hauntingly, harrowingly and instantly familiar. She was a global citizen and glad of it, and her mother was not and would never be. And that was the little canyon opening between them. In another generation, her daughter’s children – if she has any – might have more in common with my daughter’s children – if she has any – than with her own people, thanks to that globalizing little device that will soon enough be the right of everyone to have and to hold.
So, no, I don’t think any of us have seen anything as implacably, deviously capable of insinuating itself into the social and intellectual and personal creases or our lives without raising so much as a tremor of concern from its millions of acolytes as these devices (and I like the metallic, bloodless, conscience-free sound of that word to describe them). As it seems already, more of us are talking to each other through these things than not. Or soon enough that will be so. Shortly after that, more of us will be talking to them than talking to each other, probably in the same way that more and more people are preferring the companionship of small domesticated animals to that of other cantankerous, obstreperous, unruly humans.
And its already true that if you go out of your house and take to the street, for a walk, you have forsaken any previous claim you may once have made to anything like privacy, or to the ownership of your likeness and your face, and you’ve volunteered to be a bit player in the penny opera productions of the selfie brigade, for whom everything and everyone is fodder and fair game. Ask permission? They already have permission. That personal device in their hands granted it to them some time ago. You being out there, on the periphery of their lives, granted it to them. The change is so utter now that nobody needs a camera with them to have that entitlement, that access to you. It’s permanent. You are on-call now. So am I.
These are meagre things, you might think. Small stuff. Nothings. Nothing to prompt serious doubt about the near future of the species, surely. Well, I agree about the ‘nothing’ part. There’s nothing there, a lot of it. And it looks like that nothing is increasing, and that more and more people are welcoming that nothing into their lives and their ways, gladly, the way naive people welcome a thief into their house.
I’m old fashioned, for now. Soon enough, if I’m spared, I’ll be minus the ‘fashioned’ part: just old. I like the face to face of life. I believe in it. I love the teaching gigs. I love the farm apprenticeship we did last year. We could do it again. I love the Orphan Wisdom School. I love the Nights of Grief and Mystery we did last fall. So we’ll do them again this year in Ireland and Scotland and England, and in Canada and the U.S. I love the band I did them with. I love that you come to these things, that we get to lay eyes on each other, and hear each other. More often than not we threaten, for a while, to get that old village feel going. And life seems good again, and things are possible. If there’s any ‘liking’ to be had, any ‘friending’, it should be had there, it seems.
I tried to make this letter to you fit onto that little screen, so as to not ask too much of you. But I didn’t try very hard, or for very long, I guess, and it didn’t work out. I thought about you, and the thing grew. I’m told that more and more of you are giving up on these notes, and unsubscribing, walking away, mainly because everything here is too long, takes too long, asks too much. To the rest of you, the ones with staying power: Here’s to longhand. Here’s to duration, and to the time it takes to linger for a while in the marketplace of what’s left of our mutual life. Here’s to the wander, and the saunter, and to lingering over life. And to reading something over, twice at least.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom