Swimming Against the Stream

Strange New World

As the year comes to an end I often find myself musing over the effects of time. I do use this period as an incitement to reflect upon the changes of the past year. I also do the same around my birthday, though I notice I tend to reflect on my own life more then. Now it’s the world around me. Today is 2010. Tomorrow is 2011. It could be pointed out that this is all just a convenient fiction; that the calendar is a rather arbitrary device. But I would counter that it reflects our experience of the seasons. It may not be a perfect representation of what we all know but certainly the year is not a random construct. And so each year passes and changes creep upon us. And then you look around and everything is different than it once was.

I think the reason I decided to write these essays in the first place is that I noticed the way things were mutating and decided to say something that ran against the current. Also I am convinced that out of little commitments something can be born that wasn’t there before. If I mourn the loss of a critical intellectual life amongst so many of the people I come in contact with, both in reality and in virtuality, then rather than wring my hands I should do something, even if that thing is small: for the seemingly insignificant thing will bring about a change if done consistently, like drops of water against a rock.

The Doors - People Are Strange

Am I the only one who gets an odd sensation that something vital has been lost in the last few years? I don’t mean anything political. Or economic. I feel it inside; it’s nearly indefinable, yet in I feel it most in our human relationships. That somehow we have all become more distant from each other, stranger. Yes I know… I live in Alaska and that does make me distant from so many people and perhaps stranger. But that’s definitely not what I mean. By ‘stranger’ I mean it in an existential sense, as in Camus, or the old Doors song People Are Strange.

All the time I lived in New York City during the 80’s and much of the 90’s I kept up with many good friends through letters and very occasional phone calls. I knew what was happening with my friends. I felt close to them. I saved all of those letters. But then came email. And something began to radically change. (Do you save emails?) I remember a friend found me through my email address and started sending me his long monthly family newsletters. I received these for a year or so. But I never actually received a letter from him nor his wife. Nothing saying, “Hey how are you? Long time no talk!” And I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years. I eventually unsubscribed. (That’s a weird concept all it’s own! Don’t get me started.) And I never heard a word again from them. And that cued me into the new strangeness of this online universe.

During this period I also lost touch with many friends in the cracks between the old letter writing days and the new electronic mail. Phone numbers no longer worked. People moved as if in exile. But not to worry I was told people would keep their email addresses and stay in touch. But no one seemed to take into account the fact that people would change those email addresses like changing fashions. But not to worry social networking would bring us together. And in a way it did. Although ‘together’ isn’t quite the word I would use. Because as people have become more “connected” we have in reality become more disconnected, less involved in reality, yet somehow cheering each other on in virtuality.

I remember an early moment with Myspace. I had already figured out that there was no way to communicate any substantial ideas through the forums. Trolls came through every possible serious “discussion” and turned it into a postmodern joke. At that time I was curious to know what kind of people were out there. Besides learning that most Romanians were vampires, I discovered that people had become shallow and narcissistic to a degree I had not thought possible. I remember the horror of realizing that one girl had photos of herself as a cutter and others were cheering her on, as if to say, “Slice away! You go girl!” And the photo itself implied another person concurring with her. That is when the truly nightmarish proportions of our culture’s obsessions with feeling good and being positive really knocked me out. Over and over I have heard people talking about encouraging each other. Not being negative. Supporting your friends. But on the other hand, the dark flipside, you had the people who would make it a vocation to spoil every serious conversation they could get their hands on. Two days ago I finally shut down my moribund Myspace page, which was so infected that it completely trashed the computer I was on.

Then there is Facebook, which by contrast is a well of positivity. I have somewhere between two and three hundred ‘friends’. Frankly it seems like a big absurdist sensitivity session. Yes it has had some uses. But it has surely taken something away in exchange. Suddenly I was “found” by lots of folks who had previously dwindled away. But with very few of them do I actually communicate. I have started to feel two things at once towards this system. One: I am addicted to this thing (surely I am hardly alone). And two: How do I construct my life without it? (Much easier said than done.) Or at least minimize the effect of it. If I dropped it tomorrow morning what would happen? (The same could be said of the automobile or the telephone.)

The strangeness comes from the passing of time. It is clear to me that in a very few years we have changed, in some radical way, because of this entire virtual world. We have gone viral ourselves. We have used our tools to do what we have often wanted to do: to stay in touch without really being affected by each other, to extend, as all media extend, not only our good qualities but our worst as well, to pass on meager signs of affirmation, rather than to be involved with other real souls who not only smile and laugh but who also ache and mourn. Thus how shall we be comforted and healed in a world of positive expressions and good vibes?

Here’s to finding more depth and meaning in 2011.

Byrne Power
Haines Alaska

8 responses

  1. Pingback: “…how shall we be comforted and healed in a world of positive expressions and good vibes?” «

  2. eastofmina

    This has goaded me on to continue considering my use of facebook et al in the upcoming year.

    Thank you.


    December 31, 2010 at 1:15 PM

  3. Joseph Patterson

    I have stared into the void of the virtual, but it did not stare back. It seems that no one was really there. Later, I presented a flashy new pic on my profile page and received many “likes.” Just reward for contacting so many. I would still like to approach someone on the street and ask them if they would like to be friends and then never talk again. Something is lost here, but for those of the generations of enhanced gadgetry was it ever there? For many this is the norm for communicating, and the alienation is growing. Real relationships take real effort, and require actual interaction. Something I too must be more mindful of. Happy New Year.

    January 5, 2011 at 6:37 PM

  4. Joseph… Yes indeed the virtual void is exactly that. And certainly there is a kind of chronological effect here. People from, say, the Great Depression Era surely could hardly relate to what we are talking about. And for very opposite reasons there are plenty of folks today who probably won’t understand these doubts about technology anymore than a fish understands it’s in an aquarium. (Or is that a slowly heating pot.)

    And R. I’m glad if you’ve begun to ask a few questions about these things too. It’s not that we shouldn’t use these means. But how not to use them to the full. I’m still very much puzzling this stuff over. (And thanks for putting my link on your page… I did get a few nibbles.)

    Meanwhile we dig.

    From Haines where a light slushy snow falls.

    January 5, 2011 at 10:04 PM

  5. strike2012

    In my own online essay-writing experience, way out here on the “long tail” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Tail) it has proven a bit like shouting down an empty well. (I hope your experience will be different.)

    I’d not quite like to think that is because my writing sucks, for the alternative is much worse: People largely don’t read essays anymore.

    As to the question of whether it makes sense or not to publish here, in the “virtual world” that “does not stare back,” we must not forget that many of the little journals and magazines that existed in print not that long ago in which one might have published essays of this kind (and into which one might have poured one’s passion), don’t exist anymore. What was once there, has moved here.

    A slim minority of literate folk–relative to the vast population of the internet–do still read, and write. Even with such a relative minority at work, the volume of reading at a site like the Open Salon rushes by in a vast waterfall.

    It seems we are stuck, any of the directions we might turn, except to undertake to connect in much smaller or more limited groups (even as they are virtual, networked groups), person to person, flaws and all, with compassion and forgiveness of foible, taking the bad with the good, as would have to be done in any geographical community of imperfect beings.

    Facebook isn’t that. (In fact, it may be said to be quite dangerously other than that: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/?pagination=false, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307269647?tag=apture-20, and http://www.jaronlanier.com/gadgetcurrency.html)

    January 20, 2011 at 4:56 PM

  6. strike2012

    There is this, too: In my own, personal experience, face to face it is much too easy to inadvertently offend people, even friends, by being too passionate, or too much oneself, or by not adhering to the rule of “light small talk.”

    In the FB world, of course, the presence of the people is very far away, in actual fact, and it is easy to be comforted by this, in being reassured that one will not get too much in their way. As, well, if someone is annoyed, we all know there’s a solution: easily and simply virtually stepping away by “hiding” the annoying “friend” so one does not have to see their postings.

    The trouble with small talk, though, anywhere, is it is so SMALL.

    January 20, 2011 at 5:06 PM

  7. Strike thanks for the thoughtful, if somewhat disheartened, comments.

    I have entered this arena full well knowing that it is nearly pointless. Nearly… but not completely.

    (See my first two essays…
    In fact so far most of what has been written here has been along these lines.)

    Obviously you are not among those who have abandoned reason to follow all the trends of the day. And in fact many of those I have invited to participate in this little experiment are in the same category.

    You are absolutely right about the need for more personal engagement. Eating together is crucial. Finding ways to make music is a more advanced step. Reading aloud with friends is quite a good thing to do. Playing a game like Hide’n’Go Seek, a Treasure Hunt, or a similar game, with various friends in a large backyard is a great way to bring people, especially families, together on a special occasion. Making film watching an event for discussion rather than lethargy can be beneficial.

    Now I know what you mean about the enforcement of small talk through means like Facebook or through a general sense of not disturbing the positive vibes. It is, I believe, a kind of tyranny of the bland. (Check out link below.) But I think the point is to lean against that tendency. That is why I am encouraging good rational argumentation here. I have decided that this is the place where I won’t give in to the fear of offending. If a person is making a comment here then they are open for intellectual business. (See the next essay in this series.) And if they get offended I will recommend that they go back and read the Rules of Engagement. Let’s have good discussions not tame ones.


    Thanks for adding to the mix Strike. This is something small, but it is part of the illusion of the media that only big demographics matter. Plus even if this isn’t going to be read by hordes of “netizens” I, at least, get to practice my writing skills and you get to realize that you aren’t completely alone. There are more people still reading and thinking than much of the media allow us to see.

    January 20, 2011 at 5:42 PM

  8. strike2012

    What strikes (heh, heh) me as interesting (not in a good way), with respect to my personal experience of blogging, is this:

    Frequently, the blog of a friend or an acquaintance will become known to me–or even, I will be directly informed of it by the author–and I will visit and comment, not once, but several times… and buy “comment,” I mean read carefully, respond politely and thoughtfully (if not always agreeing with what was said).

    In return, almost without exception, these very friends generally DON’T visit any one of my own blogs (access to one or more of which I’ve nearly always seen included in my posted responses, one way or another).

    Now, this would amount to little more a carping complaint amounting to the venting of feelings associated with a bruised ego if it didn’t touch upon comments made above about community and the building of community in this virtual world where community is hard to create, realize or make concrete.

    It seems to me that it would behoove those dedicated to community to reciprocate in exactly the way that hasn’t happened in my own experience up to now.

    Seeing this is an obligation that must be met in order for us to do what we say we want to do, and to live by a principle we claim to believe in, for some time now I’ve made a point to set aside time to often visit the blogs, sites and other online work done by friends and acquaintances (as well as the work of people I stumble across that I admire, if sharing the same mindset, as in the example of the blog _East of Mina_)… not only to visit, though, and remain quiet, but as well, to repay the efforts of these folks in “putting themselves out there” by thoughtfully commenting, and in the course of commenting, trying to add to the richness of the interaction (the conversation) with as much ability or specific knowledge of related matters as I can bring to bear.

    Here, in the virtual world, doing something like this, it seems to me, is the precise equivalent of what would be, in the tangible (‘actual’) world of a geographic community, found in picking up tools and working alongside people as they try to get something done that needs doing.

    January 21, 2011 at 5:42 PM

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