Occasionally, I see a post about a confused use of LOL. Someone thinks it means Lots of Love and sends it in response to the news of a death or illness. While simple misunderstandings are the basic stuff of comedy it can also hide an underlying tension. While technology now allows us to communicate with each other, it assumes a common base of knowledge and understanding or common ground. It seems that more and more we are caught in a place where we think someone has a similar frame of reference that doesn’t exist for them. You may remember the instance of the sick passenger of colour in “Airplane” who couldn’t communicate to the flight attendant his illness until another passenger stepped up and said, “Excuse me, but I speak Jive.” While it is a joke in the movie, what happens when we no longer have a common language or set of experiences to draw from. The internet can bring us an awareness of the world outside ourselves as all media does, but what happens when we have no common ground with which to agree (or disagree)? Perhaps it would be a world of Gertrude Stein, where every element matters as much as any other. This democratization of language, with every voice having an equal value, seems to rob us of the common intellectual space to speak and be understood.
He said he was going through some papers in his mother’s house and found it, a postcard I had sent him years before when I still lived in New York. It was the Empire State Building and a brief greeting scribbled on the back- how I was working (or not) and sending good thoughts to a friend in Italy. He scanned it and sent the image to me saying- “Remember when people used to actually sent messages with pen and paper?” As I looked at the image, the sepia-toned memory was quickly replaced by the buzz of my phone announcing another post on Instagram and it made me wonder, what really has changed. While we used to send letters we now send emails and postcards have become Facebook or Instagram posts. We seem to be exchanging one devil for another constantly shedding the shell of the old for the perceived new. As Virginia Heffernan writes in her brilliant “Magic and Loss” we seem to be heralding back to a Victorian age where children are to be seen and not heard. indeed, she suggests that now we produce children only to produce images to spawn more likes and shares, their images frozen in electronic amber. People now scale construction sites and buildings to post images from these heights, now known as rooftopping possibly giving up their lives for a like. Yet if we lose our life in this pursuit our digital legacy will live on. Our digital artifacts will outlive us and one day might be museum pieces, like stereoscope or view-master slides holding us all captive in an electronic eternity.
It was an odd conversation though maybe not considering that as a part of a choir from a Midwest Lutheran college staying with a born-again Christian host family on a choir tour in the mid-80’s. It was a discussion of faith and the line went something like this, There is a tightrope across two buildings and Jesus pushes a wheel barrel on the tightrope from one building, across the tightrope to building that you are standing atop. He says to you, “ See how I have walked from one building to another across the tightrope pushing this wheel barrel? Now, why don’t you get in the wheel barrel and I will take you back to the first building by walking the tightrope.”
Now while I enjoyed the idea of Jesus on the tightrope, the thrust of the argument was that if you just saw Jesus walk the tightrope with a wheel barrel, shouldn’t you have faith to trust that he could make the return trip with you in the wheel barrel. While we trust the other person to do something alone, when we are involved it seems to be another matter. This also seems to be the issue with the current discussion on self-driving cars – in a recent Washington Post article, Seventy-eight percent of respondents to an AAA survey said they would not want to ride in a self-driving car. While we can trust our credit cards, our social security numbers our addresses and other personal information such as emails and texts to the internet even trusting planes to autopilot, we dare not get into the car with an electronic stranger. Equifax has the falsely earned idea of our trust, but we can not entertain a computer piloting us through city streets. Strange how so much of our society can claim unswerving faith in a deity that will save our soul but have no faith in something that affects every aspect of our lives on a day-to-day basis.
I never liked the whole idea of the Ralph Lauren polo shirts or anything with someone else’s logo on it. I guess if there was going to be something there- it should be my initials or an image of my choice though in the latter case probably better not. That idea of not being a walking billboard for someone else’s identity has never appealed to me but it seems that we are willing to trade that precious real estate with no tangible compensation. That discrediting of our value of personal value seems to approached hagiographic heights with the new service from Blippar. By installing their app. – the selfies you take will have installed around them a “halo” (Their word, not mine) that can be branded either to sites that you have an interest in or to advertisers that they prescribe for you. It seems that we have no idea of the value of our own image or digital assets and are willing to do anything for our 15 minutes of internet fame even giving our image and our data exhaust for the privilege. It seems that as Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, “men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about themselves”. It seems that we will sacrifice anything on the altar of social media for our fifteen minutes of binary notoriety, for a like or perhaps a connection.
A few years ago I came across a book, “The Illumination” by Kevin Brockmeier poses the question, what if our pain were the most beautiful thing about us. What if that which we seem to give little value were the source of our greatest beauty. This devaluation of a resource seems to be the story that many companies want to tell us about the data that we freely give them access our internet searches. Every search, shopping cart, web page we look at is regularly recorded, tracked and collated to give the meta-data that companies use to so that they can make data-based predictions about our behavior, our buying habits and sell us things before we know that we need them. All of this data comes from us and we give it freely but what if we didn’t? What if, as consumers, we realized the value of what we leave behind us in our data exhaust. As technology companies continue to try to find a way to monetize content what would happen if the sources of the data began to ask for their fair share of the pie. How would companies react when site users realize that our data exhaust is the most valuable thing about us and ask to be compensated for the diamonds we currently leave in the dust.
I often think of Galen better known as Galen of Pergamon, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire. While accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, might be a strange person to dwell, he influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic. The problem was that as good as Galen was, his book was never updated for more current information. Centuries after Galen’s death, his book was taken as the book on medicine and when later scholars like Paracelsus disagreed with Galen, they were told that what they saw did not matter as it disagreed with Galen and Galen, they felt was truth hence, anything disagreeing with Galen was wrong. (There is a fascinating discussion of this in Daniel Boorstein’s, “The Discovers”, a book I highly recommend..)
This does not seem so far from the idea of alternate truths, and that today, with the internet one can find a source to back up whatever claim one makes. No matter how ludicrous a claim is made, it seems that someone can find some internet source to back it up. While, with Galen, it took years for the truth to will out, it now seems that we have a moving target in the realm of Alternate truth. Whereas with Galen, there was a finite monopoly on truth, the book was written and so his truth was determined. However today it seems that we have levels of truth, a tweet does not convey the truth but requires an interpretation and revision with a parade of soothsayers needed to discover the real meaning of the truth. Oddly enough, it seems that this was the initial objective of Galen.
In rehearsals for “La Traviata,” I remember thinking as a character walked in and began to sing an impassioned plea on behalf of his son, “Is he telling the truth?” How often do we assume that people are speaking the truth just because they say it is? This has never been more apparent than recent situations around our incumbent president and the manner in which the constant repetition of a statement seems to give it an air of truth no matter how insane it may seem. The frightening thing is that we seem to be able to find some corroborating evidence for whatever we believe on the internet. In a time when 44% of adults get their news from Facebook, these media effects go back to the age dreadfuls and even to the advent of print media itself. So while we should be rightfully concerned about this trend for our current politics, we should also know that it is not the first time this has happened. One could argue that this transubstantiation of truth and what is real is a large part of called the Reformation. In this age of disruptive innovation, we must be vigilant with what we hear and accept as truth, as Ronald Reagan famously quoted a Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify”. Seeking truth does not allow an immersion onto a reality of one’s own making but confronting the reality we share, a difficult task it seems in our ever personalized reality.
With a nod to David Mitchell, whos, the quote provided the title for this blog.