Suffering a more-than-usually long electric cut in my mountain fastness far, far away, I had been enjoying one of the better Sherlock Holmes' knockoffs (by Laurie King) downloaded onto my iPad when, in a old mansion of one of Holmes' friends, the fictional power went out just as my real juice did. Holmes complains of the irritating blue-white light of electric lights, and applauds, with great relief, the subsequent use of candles in the dining room.
Very well. Floundering around—flashlight, matches, the candles one keeps in this part of the world for such an occasion— I light several. My eyes adjust to the candle's flicker. Battery still charged, I finish the book—crime solved, now what?
Ah, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and The Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey Smith, a book we at The Wall recommended for 2018 summer reading. In it, the author warms up to a scientifically-based philosophy of other consciousnesses, and mulls on how these fascinating cephalopods make great displays of color and the suggestion, on that part of some researchers, that their entire skins see. Mind, that particular mollusk's brilliance is generally short-lived, as the majority of octopi live only two years. But what a life!
The woodstove burns slowly and steadily. I mull some more, then find a paper and a pen, and start writing. Sitting here in the glow of candlelight, no hum of electricity, only the rushing sound of the river that flows by my house, this peace invites rumination and, despite being among the dwindling population who still know how to write in cursive, some rather bad handwriting.
The lights snap on.
No piddling around with handwritten whatsis; my first impulse is to grab the laptop and start working seriously. It has been three hours—and there is always something to be done. The mere thought of being torn from that constant pulse, from that serve-yourself-anytime communication— But then the realization washes over me: many of the great books I have loved were composed by their authors in longhand, a bit later on an unelectrified clacking machine. Now, with the soft-shoed pitter-patter of a programmed keyboard, we have NO downtime. It is as if we ourselves were a "device," plugged in, uploaded into the system (as all our data is, without our permission, etc.) Wireless but always connected.
Come now, this is the 21st century; we're digital, not analog now! Think of the convenience, the time we save!
Analog—hmmm. Analog by definition means metaphor, a most inclusive use of metaphor, the esential unit of imaginative writing and critical thinking. Digital—fingers are good for lots of things, but "digital" in itself is an inadequate and sloppy adjective—signifying what? data entry? twiddling our thumbs on a tiny screen with the image of a keyboard? Yes, we primates do like to manipulate. But our current vita digitalis seems oddly drab. That adjective cannot describe the diffused "brain" of the octopus who perceives via neurons disseminated throughout its eight legs, not just its head. Whose perception, we might say, is multiplied by its dispersion. Would that this were where human mentation in the era digitalis is headed--Era Cephalopodiae—rather than towards an autonomic, perception-free physical response. A diminution of perception. In giving up our neurons to an external operating system, are we perhaps desensitizing ourselves rather than the opposite?
Some time ago, Haitian writer, Rene Depestre wrote The Festival of the Greasy Pole a novel which satirized Haiti under its brutal Papa Doc regime, with a brief foray anticipating Baby Doc. If you know nothing about the Haitian religion of vodoun and the metaphor of the pole representing the center of sacred space down which spirits may travel from their world to this, some of the metaphors and analogies may escape the non-Haitian reader. More likely, however, the Haiti-challenged have [mis]heard about zombies. Zombies, of course, are not what Hollywood offers audiences who enjoy dumpster diving into the world of dimwitted horror flicks. The actual occurrence happens because persons are drugged to the point of simulating death, then exhumed, awakened by the poisoner and/or his minions, and then enslaved, generally to perform
some form of farm/grueling manual labor. Anthropologist and ethnobotanist, Wade Davis, has written about this in his Serpent and the Rainbow.*
Depestre used the image of the zombie as a metaphor for the mental and emotional state of vast numbers of Haiti's citizenry who either put one foot in front of the other and went about their business determined to ignore Papa Doc, dictator du jour, and what was happening in their country OR who actively bowed and scraped and, in some rarer cases, actually adored the sonofabitch. Though mistakenly—and stupidly—conflated with vampires, it is no accident that the idea of zombies has taken hold in U.S. imagination. One may be ignorant of metaphor and the way it works, and still not be immune to its influence.
It is tempting here to launch into a rant about the abysmal state of the Union. Like Despestre's Haiti, it would be hard NOT to find numerous political zombies in today's body politic. But an old fashioned, thoroughly un-subtle analogy also seems pertinent: "zombification" and screen addiction, Dementia pantallae. In numerous airports, cafes and restaurants we have seen folks sitting together but not together, at table, staring at their screens rather than conversing excitedly—or with ennui—about their anticipated destinations, their lives, their ideas… One could invoke Depestre's metaphor, yes, in terms of our present political morass as well as in terms of the poor lonely sods who can't be without a "device," even in their sleep. But rather than blame the hardware—and at least partially, the amorality of the technological, nerdish Tom Thumbs who have stuck their digits into an electronic pie and pulled out a most remunerative plum—let's just not. For what I do not decry is the helpfulness of my laptop in allowing me to type without a growing surround of crumpled up pieces of paper, artifacts of my crappy typing. What I do not decry is the machine giving me relatively easy access to some, by no means all, information. The ability to contact friends without the stunning superficialities of social media, but through email. The low cost online phone contact. And though I love the printed journal, I am content with many of those online that I read or assist.
However, especially in the developed world, helpfulness and/or usefulness, let alone anything so dangerous as compassion, is not to be confused with convenience; and it appears that in the wealthier nations, convenience is all. Primates like ease at least as much as sugar. Neither in excess is particularly good for them or us, keeping us sitting at home, thinking in the box--ipso facto uncreatively—and making us fat. For those who know so little of what the rest of the world is going through, convenience is fatal. Click! Convenience offers breadth while robbing us of depth; over time (and not much at that) "entertainment" inveigles its way into substance. We lose that wonderful capacity of seasoned readers: the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another. Ah, the exercise of envisioning a world that print brings! The back and forth of putting image into word, and then, as reader, word back into image. Will we be forced to mourn the final passing of the public library? In fact, one study, conducted at a technical university where I once taught—a study subsequently, hurriedly and predictably buried—tested retention of information from a digital versus print media text. One retains more information from print than from the screen. Calysthenics for the mind.
Ironically, as public awareness of the use of articifical intelligence increases, we also face a progressive alienation from our own direct experience. You put those opposable thumbs into action, but for what? you send endless text messages instead of calling friends and relations, let alone speaking to them face to face. You turn things on and off in your home without even being at home—is there any genuine human need in that?—the separation of sensation, of physicality from experience. Perhaps we have lived in a hollow world far longer than it seems (Eliot's "hollow men"?) However, in a more contemporary critique of the current state of the UK written by two avowedly democratic socialist authors, The New Serfdom, by Eagle and Ahmad, the writers level a similar blast at social media and Twitter's influence:
…the richness of communication has reduced. Think about text messages and the number of times a recipient has misinterpreted levity for anger, opprobium or nastiness. A tweet is a geographically dislocated burst of communication to someone without a hint of context, mood or tone, and, morst importantly, the instant feedback you would get if you said something to someone else in person: a look of shock or hurt, tears of pain.
At the same time, writers need to pay attention to the depth of the world around them, to affirm the depth of fact and beauty in libraries, in real books, in one's lived, offline experience, in the quiet of one's reflections and the pleasure of face to face conversations. Frankly, we must reject the impoverished work of those who never do. We must stay awake in a world which, granted, is neither kind nor wise. We need the "luxury" of having one's own thoughts while homing in on the worlds others must, sometimes unwillingly, occupy. For if you create, you need to ruminate, to mull, to sense. Barring some medical emergencies, life does not turn off when the electricity does. Rather than relinquish all sensation and perception to someone or something else's pixels, Fellow Cephalopods, let those eight legs see. It is one thing to be forcibly cut off; it is another to become willingly detached.