03 May Author Unknown
In our technological obsession we may be forgetting that circuited interconnectedness and individualism are, at a primary level, inimical notions, warring terms. Being “on line” and having the subjective experience of depth, of existential coherence, are mutually exclusive situations. Electricity and inwardness are fundamentally discordant. Electricity is, implicitly, of the moment – now. Depth, meaning, and the narrative structuring of subjectivity – these are not now; they flourish only in that order of time Henri Bergson called “duration.” Duration is deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing. Until quite recently – I would ont want ot put a date to it – most people on teh planet lived mainly in terms of duration: time not artificially broken, but shaped around natural rhythmic cycles; time bound to the integrated functioning of the senses.
We have destroyed that duration. We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. Immersed in an environment of invisible signals and operations, we find it as unthinkable to walk five miles to visit a friend as it was once unthinkable to speak across that distance through a wire.
My explanation for our blithe indifference to the inward consequences of our becoming “wired” is simple. I believe that we are – biologically, neuropsychologically – creatures of extraordinary adaptability. We fit ourselves to situations, be they ones of privation or beneficient surplus. And in many respects this is to the good. the species is fit because it knows how to fit.
But there are drawbacks as well. The late Walker Percy made it his work to explore the implications of our constant adaptation. Over and over, in his fiction as well as his speculative essays, he asks the same basic questions. As he writes in the opening of his essay “The Delta Factor”: “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?” One of his answers is that the price of adaptation is habit, and that habit – habit of perception as well as behavior – distances the self from the primary things that give meaning and purpose to life. We accept these gifts of technology, these labor-saving devices, these extensions of the senses, by adapting and adapting again. Each improvement provides a new level of abstraction to which we accommodate ourselves. Abstraction is, however, a movement away from the natural given – a step away from our fundamental selves rooted for millenia in an awe before the unknown, a fear and trembling in the face of the outer dark. We widen the gulf, and if at some level we fear the widening, we respond by investing more of our faith in the systems we have wrought.
We sacrifice the potential life of the solitary self by enlisting ourselves in the collective. For this is finally – even more than the saving of labor – what these systems are all about. They are not only extensions of the senses; they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others. The ultimate point of the ever-expanding electronic web is to bridge once and for all the individual solitude that has hitherto set the terms of existence. Each appliance is a strand, another addition to the virtual place wherein we will all find ourselves together. Telephone, fax, computer networks, E-mail, interactive television – these are the components of which the hive is being built. The end of it all, the telos, is a kind of amniotic environment of impulses, a condition of connectedness. And in time – I don’t know how long it will take – it will feel as strange (and exhiliarating.) for a person to stand momentarily free of it as it feels now for a city dweller to look up at night and see a sky full of stars.