When I was a kid and rushing around with my head cut off, my mother would always ask me, “Where’s the fire?” I often wish she were still on the planet to ask the same of what’s happening in our world. Last week I was checking in for a flight and noticed an interesting development: there were no actual people at the check in stations for the airline. In place of humans however, were kiosks that allowed us to check in electronically. But what made me laugh was that the people who used to check us in were now helping passengers figure out the kiosks. So we successfully removed the humans and gave the job to a computer, in order to make the task faster and easier, but now we need humans to speed up the process of using the computers that either we cannot figure out or simply do not work. Fantastic, a brilliant innovation!
The companies that are making new technological advancements brag that the new toys can make things go faster, streamline our lives, and save us that most precious commodity: time. Teenagers interviewed report that that conversations in real time take too long, go too slow. Why waste the time? Friendship is faster and more to the point by text. Relationships are easier on line without the boring in-betweens and pauses that come with real conversations. Everybody is busily talking about saving time, as if time is something we can stockpile and cash in at a later date. If only we could save enough time to get something we really want. We are so delighted to be able to spend less time doing what we used to do. Who knows, perhaps soon there will be an app for making love without having to waste the time getting to know a partner, investing the time in dinner and a movie. Maybe there already is. But the question remains: where’s the fire? Where are we all rushing to? What are we frantically saving time for, in order to spend on what?
Everything I have ever really enjoyed in my life took time… everything I am skilled at, took time to learn. every important relationship, took time to grow. Time is the vitamin of meaning, and well-being. To invest time in something is nourishing to our spirit. Real time reaps real benefits. So what’s the rush to do away with spending time on anything?
Lastly, from a practical perspective, don’t we have to do something when we wake up in the morning? Our body has to be somewhere, doesn’t it? If we’ve completed everything we need to do by 8:15 AM, where are we supposed to go? It seems that we are busy saving time in order to free ourselves up to sit on the couch and play solitaire on our iphones. Well-being, this is not. Is this what we have created all of this innovation for? Is this the new purpose of life, to be thoroughly idle or distracted? It seems that we would be better off trying to make our tasks more satisfying and interesting rather than speeding them up so that we can get free to… At the rate we are going, there will soon be nothing left whatsoever for us humans to do. Then, with all the activities on which we used to spend our days ground down to a moment or two, we will at last be free to play angry bird from morning till night. Hallelujah, the Messiah has come!
This weekend I attended a performance by a variety of different young artists, singers, poets, comedians and such, a fundraiser for a new film. It was the last in a long series of such performances that I have attended over the last six months. The artists were all in their twenties and early thirties. I was struck by the experience of listening to these young artists, most of whom are at the budding stages of their careers, and how very different young artists are now from when I was in my twenties and thirties. It is not only the choice of material that has changed, but their very essence, and most troublingly, the kind of experience that they offer through their work. Naturally, since it is the “lens” through which I am looking just now, I could not help but think about how technology is contributing to the experience that I was having as I sat there watching this performance.
What I experienced is that these performers were not trying to say something with their words, to express something important with their art, but rather, desperately needing me to watch them, to notice that they were creating art, see their uniqueness, and in so doing, to make them and the whole thing we were doing at that night’s performance into something real. As opposed to artists of an earlier day, who were seamlessly IN what they were doing, expressing it, and being it, like an image in sync with its frame, these young artists all shared a desperate element of self-consciousness, of being OUT of their experience while watching it and commenting on it. But it was more than that… these artists seemed to share a desperate need for us, the audience, not only to see them, but to join them in being outside of ourselves, watching ourselves, and simultaneously, watching the experience that we were creating together. All of it felt like a bizarre and unreal narcissistic adventure: them watching us watching them, and everybody celebrating the creation of some kind of new unreal real. I felt manipulated as they used me to make them feel like they existed, and worse, demanded that I join them in this hyper self conscious state, as if I needed that from them as well, needed their mirror of my mirror in order to feel real. It all felt a bit gross, and I have been pondering ever since, as I am inclined to do, what exactly is going on in this young generation of artists and how technology plays a part in all of it (which I am sure it does). What I knew at the time was that I did not want to be there. I had been unwittingly lured into something unseemly, and frightening, as if we the audience was seduced into collusion with the performers, I an accomplice in their phantom-hood, forced to participate in my own evaporation, recreating myself inside their life-by- proxy. By our watching each other, we were somehow trying to create something real. But the real real had slipped inside a matrix of the watching, the simulated real. What was real now was the experience of trying to create something real. I tried to reassure myself that it could all be explained by the fact that these were well-educated, sophisticated young people, (Columbia film school types), and so there was bound to be a certain self-conscious over-therapized nature to the whole thing, but something continued and still continues to haunt me about all of it. It was not just the ever-familiar, privileged, navel-gazing quality of the event that was disturbing, there was and is something else, something far more insidious, scary, and dare I say prophetic. More to come…
Last week I went to a restaurant and the entree menu listed a grilled chicken salad. I wanted an entree-sized house salad, exactly the same thing as the grilled chicken salad but without the chicken. When I asked the twenty-something waitress if they could make that for me she told me that she would have to find out, but she doubted it. ”You have the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, right?” I asked. She nodded. ”You have the bowl?” She nodded again. ”But I can’t order that,” she said. ”What’s the problem?” I inquired in true Nicholsonian style. It was then that she informed me that there was no button on the computer for her to punch in the information and therefore I could not have the meal. She generously let me know however that I could pay for the grilled chicken salad and pick off the chicken, but that was the best the computer would allow. ”So the computer will “allow” me to pay $18.95 for a simple green salad without any chicken, which would be the same price as if I had the full meal? And then, I will have to pick off the chicken as well?” ”Precisely,” she said smiling and moving away from the table. ”let me know what you decide,” she called back cheerfully. Technology has rendered us helpless idiots. The monkey has locked the scientist in the cage and we are all behaving as if all is well. What happened to our human ability to make a decision, to determine what we want to happen? What happened to self reliance? Emerson wrote his famous essay on self reliance in 1841. It may have been over 150 years ago, but all these years later, my goodness does it still apply. As Emerson wrote, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true… that is genius. ….. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. … A conformist merely repeats the techniques discovered by earlier innovators, but a creator boldly claims that he can do something better than everyone else preceding him. A creator is essentially someone who doubts the alleged wisdom of the status quo and who has the courage to think matters through for himself.” So where have all the creators gone? How did we become a society of conformists, blindly accepting the information provided by some invisible “they” hiding inside a computer. We have become a society of sheep, allowing the computer to dictate where we travel, what we can and can not do, no longer sourcing our own authority, our own genius. We have given up on the human mind as our leader. In the process, we are becoming a community of fools, passive jesters who have turned away from our own brilliance in favor of a little box of chips. Emerson goes on, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. … His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit.” How true this is for our day. Technology has turned us into a nation of sloths, proud of the opportunity to do nothing. We have become disabled by the softness of our chairs, and disappeared into the easiness that we worked so hard to create. We have made ourselves so comfortable as to no longer be able to get up and actually move. And finally, Emerson writes, “A foolish consistency is the hobglobin of little minds… With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. Speak what you think now in hard words , and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today. Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” When we defer to our computers, our storehouses of already digested information, and turn away from our own intelligence, our own creativity, and most importantly the unknown and untapped, we are choosing consistency at the expense of greatness. We ask those who supposedly know instead of asking ourselves what is true, right now, even if it was not true a moment ago. What do those who already know know? I say nothing that we do not already, and nothing that we do. We are disappearing ourselves when we make information, the already known, the already decided, into the G-d of out time. To be misunderstood, to dig into the unknown, into our own wisdom, this is what it takes to keep growing, to improve and evolve as a species. We are losing this skill and even this desire to consult our own intelligence, as the consistency and ease of information becomes the commanding force in our lives. We are choosing what is dead over what is alive, and making ourselves dead in the process.
To be self-reliant is to know and trust that we have the answers for ourselves, that our own intuition, and intelligence is the source of our greatness, and that we can be trusted to guide our own destinies. It has always been the creation of new ideas, and thinking out of the box (pun intended) that has led us down the path of growth. To think for ourselves is not necessarily the path of ease, but the path of ease is, I am afraid, the path of death, and if not death then most certainly of torpor. Our willingness to turn our lives over to the computer and let this finite box stand in for our infinite wisdom is perhaps the most frightening of all the dangers that this technological age has brought. We must reclaim our own authority, remember that we (and not a bunch of wires and cables) can and should decide what is possible, what we want to be true. We must wrestle back sovereignty over our own destinies, over the rules of our lives, re-establish the importance of our own personal and human intelligence, and autonomy. I for one (and I imagine a bunch of chickens too) am not okay with a computer making the decision as to whether or not I can have a chicken salad without the chicken.