April 10th, 2014

Observing Life Beyond the Screen


Human beings don’t observe each other enough. When you observe other people you’re observing directly the precise mystery of what life is.

It’s human nature to be both attracted to people and also shy and unsettled by people. We consider someone psychologically healthy who can navigate between the two poles.

It’s true that there are other ways to access a sense of wonder in life, say, through nature, art, spiritual devotion or simply staring at the night sky (if you live in a place where you can actually observe a night sky).

But there’s nothing like another human being to amplify the questions that should be primary in each of our lives: Who am I? Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

If these questions are not a priority in your life I can guarantee that you’re living a half life. And that’s a shame.

The wonder and awe and beauty and majesty of the human being, the very mystery of how we have a self-reflecting consciousness and our own unique window into reality — a window that phenomenologists call first-person givenness — is why in places like India when people meet each other they put their hands together and bow to the person across from them. That gesture acknowledges the indefinable mystery that is the other individual’s being, his or her divinity.

When I was in downtown Seattle recently for jury duty, I was dismayed by how wedded everyone I saw was to their mobile phones and laptops.

When we broke for lunch and I wandered around the city looking for a place to eat, I’d say 80% of everyone I saw on the street was staring, mesmerized, into their smart phone — even while walking on the sidewalks or in the crosswalks.

The other 20% were homeless folks, milling about panhandling or rummaging through trash cans. The disparity was very Brave New World-ish and creepy.

We’ve become so apt at avoiding contact with others — contact that might be sensitive or personal, involved or time-consuming — we don’t even talk on the phone anymore. To engage in the process of a call and conversation means sacrificing precious time away from the screen; be it tapping the screen, sliding fingers along the screen, gazing at the screen and posing for the screen.

While doing ‘the screen’ we’re exercising control. Control that a real-time conversation might disturb; that peculiar ouroboric loop we’re in with our screen. So instead of conversing we send a text — anything to not disrupt the lure of  the screen, to not move our faces away from our reflection in the screen.

I mention this because I think the entire techno realm we are living in now is fascinating and modern-chic but also unnerving and chilly. Narcissistic and avoidance-based.

Like so many other ironies in life (veiled as dichotomies), we’ve the promise of far-reaching, all-encompassing connectivity, but at a price that involves reducing the full spectrum of human emotions down to idiotic ‘likes’ or 140-word tweets. This sort of flattening is required to sustain the quick, instantaneous movement  — a connection that is about the constant replacement of the ‘old’ with the ascendent sparkle of the ‘new’ — and as quickly as possible. To the point where what is ‘new’ is considered ‘old’ within milliseconds of its appearance as ‘new.’

As the human device that propels this bizarre condition, we become dumbed down and boring, because the cog is less important, less interesting than maintaining the illusion and glamor of the overriding, overseeing machine.

Worse, everyone with their screen becomes more isolated and alone. Which then loops back into the necessity to stare into the mirror/screen to confirm and tap out one’s existence, relevance, value and place within the interconnected loop. One keyboard poke at a time. It’s sort of fucked up.

We’re like parakeets in cages looking at those little mirrors that hang on the side of the bars and have a small bell dangling from the base. Every time the bell rings someone in cyberspace confirms their identity. “Ding-a-ling! I exist!”

The other day I was reading something by the author Stuart Nedler, he was offering suggestions on how to write to authors wondering about improving their skill. But this could apply to any of us, with whatever subject or creative task we involve our life with. I’ll close this with a quote of his. Notice that he mentions that it’s best if you don’t try to store, or hoard impressions — to take notes or photos or send Tweets. I think this is good advice:

“You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again.”
Fabulous parakeet photograph from Coopers Corner, where parakeets rule!

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Filed Under: Kulture