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