I hear an ongoing chatter that online engagement is taking us away from “real” life. For a while you couldn’t turn on NPR without some fear-essay about how significant portions of our lives are increasingly being played out in the digital space. These warnings are always severe and begin with some horrible story about a couple in Korea or somewhere who neglected a child because they were playing a video game. I love NPR as much as the next thick-framed glasses pseudo-intellectual but…um…guys…seems like you’re stretching it on this one. Kids get left in casino parking lots all the time right here at home. People get addicted to weird stuff and just because some very sick parent abandons their kid to attend Stamp Expo 2014 is no reason to damn all philately to the deepest pit of Hell.
We all know the media has a weird obsession with ‘balance’ in stories that don’t have two equal sides: “We’re going to talk to an expert in the early career of The Beatles for the upcoming 50th anniversary of their first world tour and for counterpoint, a man who believes all reality is instead a construct created by Satan. Mr. Dick, we’ll start with you…” Yet for all the tongue clucking and finger wagging alongside their obsessive tweeting and attempt to get in on the digital revolution, the media seems to rarely if ever ask the question: “Hey, what things are things better now?”
You know what’s better? A lot of stuff. For one, people are less lonely. There are way fewer isolated folks now. That, friends, is a major fucking achievement. The media always seems to focus is on the terrible communities of the Internet, the crazy-ass women-hating sites like that weirdo murderer belonged to. Racists, fringe sexual groups, conspiracy theorists, Bronies. But never so much on the vast numbers of people who discover each other through a love of something totally obscure: Bridges in Poland. Pickling weird vegetables. Making little hats for ferrets. Each of these connections is a point of contact between actual humans.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote a book in 1976 called “Slapstick or Lonesome No More.” It’s not his best work, even he gave it a “C” later in life grading his own books. But the central conceit was excellent: The President of the United States decides to give everyone a new middle name. So I might be “James Chipmunk-13 Dowd.” The middle name is random, there are a few hundred of them, things like “Uranium” and “Oyster” and “Chickadee”.
The point of the novel was now that now that our society is so mobile and people have left traditional family villages where everyone takes care of each other, assigning random citizens the same middle name would make them a proxy for relations. If you meet another Chipmunk or Oyster if that’s your new middle name, you’re supposed to say hello, agree to help water their plants when they go on vacation and lend them your lawnmower. If you have the same name and the numbers are close you’re considered an immediate relation so you should visit them in the hospital, lend them money you don’t expect to get back and say nice things at their funerals.
I am sad that Kurt V never got to see the full fledged Internet. He died during it’s early stages and is oft quoted as saying, “The Internet is proof that an infinite number of monkeys will not write Hamlet”, then it turns out he didn’t say that, but said he wished he did, which sort of sums up the problem. But I think he would have been pleased at the way things have turned out.
For all it’s foibles, we are less lonely now thanks to the Internet. I used to travel all over the world for work with just a shortwave radio and BBC World Service as my singular companion. Now I can be in one of those desperately long midnight cab rides to a business hotel in a business park and I can see what my wife, my kids, my family and friends are up to right from a device in my pocket. They can make me laugh, show me a funny thing, even follow-up on an argument we had and I’m no longer stuck in the suburbs of Columbus, Instead I’m part of a matrix of relationships that spreads all over the world.
And that’s where it gets weird, I now have friends I’ve never met. We’ve been introduced through other people on the web. This has been going on for a long time. For instance a guy with the same name as mine out in California has a similar construct to his gmail address. Years ago he started emailing me with, “Hey man, you’re aunt is sending me pics of your kids. They are pretty great shots, I thought you’d want these.” We started a conversation and eventually friended each other on social media. At the time we both worked in medical devices and we ended up talking to each other about a few things. He’s cool.
The Clam has introduced me to even more people I might never have found. Some neighbors, some fellow travelers in snark and love of our crazy little burgh. Ive found it’s weird to meet people you’ve been communicating with online for weeks finally in the flesh. It’s like, “Oh, hello. Nice to finally be in the presence of the flesh machine your brain is carried around in. Does it drink coffee?” And even weirder is saying “goodbye” to people you are online all the time with. I had lunch with some guys in Boston last week who I’m collaborating with on a project with. When our meeting was over we all knew we’d be back online messaging and editing the work we’re up to.
So it was odd to say, “Goodbye”. Even “See ya’ later” was wrong because as soon as I got on the train I knew we’d all be pinging each other with follow-ups. I wanted to say, “Adios to your meat- sack…” And what’s even weirder is that it used to be the primary reason for an in-person meeting was because conference calls and sharing documents are inefficient. Now, for the kind of work many of us are doing, not being able to share and collaborate on documents in real time is a limitation. Meat meetings are slower, less is accomplished and hard to schedule and get to.
Welcome to the future.
As a society we’ve crossed a certain threshold. Even KT and I, during the rare times we meet in a coffee shop to work on The Clam, sit laptop lid to laptop lid and communicate through our machines. This is going to only expand as things like virtual reality get better. Some balk at the idea of seeing the Louvre through VR, but you wouldn’t balk at a disabled kid being able to experience some of the wonders of the world tha he or she might otherwise not be able to, right? That means the technology will advance for the rest of us. In a way, because we all need air, positive atmospheric pressure, food water and bathrooms, we are all disabled compared to other sensing entities. Soon, in our living rooms wearing our goggles and connected to the network, we will all stand on Mars. Sending vulnerable human astronauts is inefficient and difficult. They die like goldfish in a dorm room tank. Sending sensors is something we’re already doing and when they die we don’t feel guilt, we just build better ones.
I run into objections disguised as philosophy. Will a trip to Disneyworld ‘count’ if it’s not experienced in ‘reality’? I counter with, Isn’t Disney already virtual experience? You have virtual castles, countries, characters. Going to Disney is an early attempt at virtual reality that few people seem to balk at. Why does it have to be inefficient? Isn’t virtual Orlando easier to get to, doesn’t use fewer resources and can’t I better ensure the kids are going to get quality time with Esla using VR? What’s the difference?
For those who feel like something essentially human is being taken away, allow me to relate an experience: My son loves Minecraft, a creative online game where and a million other people build things and where thousands of people create and maintain ‘worlds’ using the game’s software which they keep on servers with their own rules. The boy and a friend (having a ‘virtual playdate’ from their own houses) were on one of these worlds and they ransacked and wrecked a ‘house’ someone had ‘built’. This is allowed on some servers, it was not on this one. They were banned from the server for life.
He was heartbroken, and incredibly guilty and sorry. So I found the moderator of the server and had my son write a letter to the owner. In it he offered to return the ‘stuff’ (all virtual) he’d taken and to help rebuild the damaged ‘structure’ (which also does not exist in the physical world). He as as contrite and ashamed as if he’d thrown a rock through a neighbor’s window. The moderator, who by his language I assumed was an older teen, agreed on those conditions and gave him a stern talking-to about following the rules of servers and how upset the person whose ‘house’ was damaged became after discovering it had been pillaged.
How is that different from learning the same lessons in the ‘real’ world? What was lost? The ‘real’ rock? The ‘real’ window? And it’s not like he doesn’t play outside in real life, he does. We’re going to the beach this afternoon to splash around with some fellow meatsacks and to have the human amusement experience of watching me repeatedly fail to attain an upright position on the standing paddleboard. We will eat cupcakes and play guitars. Kids will play in the sand. Water will go up noses. All of this is good and it will be a long, long time before you can do that on a computer, which is fine by me.
But the difference from 30 years ago is we will post pictures on social media. Friends and family from all over the world will comment and post images of their own, we will send our connections out and bring others in. People who can’t join will be texted. Cupcake recipes will be shared. Alternate lyrics for ‘Tangled up in Blue” will be posted. Our small gathering will radiate out past the seawall at Niles to the far corners of human inhabitance.
We have built our own Chipmunks.