Sunday, May 15, 2005

Hung-over and Thinking

For the most part, New York City’s subways are subterranean, but some lines in the outer boroughs are elevated. The Queensbound N/W subway line emerges from under the East River and rises over the rooftops before turning north up 31st Street to Astoria, where I live.

Yesterday, as white sunlight made unnecessary the green fluorescent glow of the subway car lighting, I looked up from my magazine and noticed a young Colombian boy playing with his father’s cell phone. Standing by a window, the boy had selected the phone’s camera mode and was captivated by the cityscape, pixilated and bleached, as it cruised by on the phone's small viewfinder.

'There is something here,' I thought. Is this a nice metaphor for our First World disconnect, I wondered? Does a preference for a digitized interpretation of the world suggest a break with the unmediated rest of it? Is the child really exhibiting such a preference or is this cigar just a cigar? For that matter, is the “real” world anything more than a neurological interpretation itself, our own personal computer translating strings of chemical 1s and 0s?

Suddenly, I found myself recalling something Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, wrote in 1945.
“It seems to me that something new is in formation on our planet. The material progress of modern times has indeed linked mankind by a sort of nervous system. The contacts are innumerable. The communications are instantaneous. We are materially bound like the cells of the same body. But this body does not yet have a soul. This organism has not yet grown conscious of itself. The hand does not feel itself a part with the eye.”
His observation still rings true today, at least to psuedo-luddites like myself.

Hung over and splintered, my mind made a seemingly disparate connection between the Exupery quote and a poem I wrote five or six years ago.
Sunset is chilly
on the shores of Southampton,
the water creeping closer
to the foundations of second or third homes.
Hiding in a tangled mass
of beached seagrass,
the tiny coffins of unborn skates
catch our attention.
Tearing open one of the leathery wombs,
a yolk falls into my palm.
Still attached, still feeding,
is a squirming embryo.

Next morning now,
The clouds heavy with rain
sag and burst like
too full mammaries.
The rain chases my train
to New York City.
The father reached over and pried the phone out of the boy’s hands. The boy looked up in protest before turning his attention to his shoes.

Photo credit: 1995-2001, Chao-Hwa Che


Devo said...

Hmm, I very much like the Exupery quote. Do you think that this odd new "neural network" is capable of growing a soul, so to speak? I imagine that feat would require quite a push on the intellectual front. As we have it now, thousands of people are getting increasingly technical degrees and jobs, and that's kinda creating a rift in the interconnectedness of these different "nodes". The more technical a specific field becomes, the less "in touch" it can be with its potential benefactors (or those for whom the technical field exists, the public)... therefore, to some extent, the emergence of a "soul" in this sense relies on a further expansion in interest in language. Language forms the bridge that we must use to traverse these rifts; it forms the threads that will eventually connect the different "contacts"... but instead of responsible criticism or viable commentary, we have kids using phrases like "C U L8R" on their cell phones!

Bah. Now I'm all annoyed. And hungry.

Les said...

I think the child was taking this world he feels so familiar with and trying to see something new. It could be that that view represents something negative to him...maybe he's had to take this train to the doctor or to school. He's merely using the tools around him to transform his world, much like I remember doing in my mother's station wagon as a child when I'd lay down on my back in the deck and watch the world go by upside down and at the speed of light.

Far more disturbing to me are the television screens/dvd players that have invaded so many SUV's in this world of ours. They are meant to pacify the child so parents have less stress, but they provide just one more reason for a child to disconnect and not take in their surroundings in any interactive way.

I do think we all are evolving into a new way of experiencing life. Despite my misgivings about many elements of this new, constantly changing worldview, it is neither good nor just is. And there is no way of slowing it down. All we can do is throw in our two cents and try to affect the people we come in contact with in positive ways.

I'm gonna go paint now.

Devo said...

Les, I completely agree with you about being pretty distressed by the screens adorning almost every SUV's backseat. Every day we're presented with new ways to disconnect from our environment. As a "practicing" Buddhist, that is one of the worst sins I can think of committing. Engage in your life, and your life will engage with you. Neglect it, and it will negelct you... I just made that one up...

Les said...

me likes that one, devo.

Hungry Hyaena said...


I hope this new "network" can develop a "soul" - and I believe language and generalism would be critical - but I remain skeptical. Of course, I'm usually a glass half empty kinda guy (when considering the not-so-distant future), but this is one arena where I think my apparent pessimism isn't so much pessimism as optimism about the alternatives.

The push for sustainable living in New England and parts of the northern mid-west, a move toward economies of scale and localized community participation, seems quite hopeful to me...a kind of progressive regression. I think our technological renaissance could be employed to great benefit, primarily as a means of keeping in touch and sharing information, in such communities. Importantly, our approach to technology would have to transition from new-better-faster to steady improvements and recycling. Computers would have to be utilized for ten or more years rather than replaced every three or four.

I have no problem with technology, but I do have a problem with the marketing of electronics and our own attitudes regarding the products.


I feel bad. You don't really have to register to post a comment. Sorry about that.

Part of me feels you are right. All children will find curious, new ways of seeing what is familiar. This boy was merely using the tools at his disposal. Hell, recent studies (see Steven Johnson's new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You) show that IQ continues to increase as children become more comfortable with video games and television programs become more complex - yes, even "Friends." On the other hand, even if staring out the car window at the passing fields doesn't make you "smarter," I'm not sure having kids plug into the Disney DVD du jour, IQ increases aside, is something I would prefer.

Devo said...

I find it hard to believe that television programs are increasing in complexity OR aiding in any sort of general IQ increase. Have you SEEN Joey? It is -- if this is possible -- even MORE vapid and detrimental to the human brain cell than was Friends.

Also, complexity does not necessarily equate to benevolence or quality. Take Survivor, for instance. It's an extremely complex show, but I believe it's fostering dangerous attitudes and methods of communicating. Many of the show's more hardcore followers that I know very personally have taken a decidedly Machiavellian turn in response to the show's reliance on the motto "outwit, outdouchebag, outmanipulate" or whatever it really is. I truly do believe that the show is influencing our culture, and not in a positive way. Worst part is, people have tried to defend the show to me on THAT VERY BASIS!!! "It helps us to understand human interaction, and develop strategies for dealing with other people." Yes, actual, living, breathing human beings have said this to me!!!

Now I understand that some of the TV crusades I've taken up (I.e. against Sesame Street, which I believe saps youth of creativity and makes insane allegations about the capability of the determined human spirit... I can be anything I want to be!!! Bullship. If that were the case, we wouldn't have people working at raw sewage treatment plants. Or cleaning toilets for a living. Nobody WANTS to do these things, they HAVE to. Sorry, this is neither the time nor the place, but I'm merely stating that I take issue with some pretty bizarre things) have been less than popular with a great many people, but I make no apologies for what I consider necessary dissent.

rant over. Sorry 'bout that... a bit off topic, I guess.

Les said...

Hungryman: I just wanted to name my blog "Leaving This Planet"...even if I never get around to actually getting it off the ground.

As with any technological progress, there will be positive movements and incredibly detrimental ones. I share the (somewhat wary) optimism you feel about positive directions for this "network", but I always fall on the "bad shit's gonna go down because of this" side of the coin. It's never enough for me.

That kid has so much potential right now...if prodded in the right direction, his sense of creativity and curiosity about the possibilities of technology could be the building blocks of a limitless future. Unfortunately, in my mind, the father who took away the phone on that train probably wouldn't hesitate to plop that kid in front of the tube to keep him "occupied", if that word could even apply for TV watching.

Devo: don't even get me started on reality tv. It is one of the most damaging phenomenons to come along in mass culture in recent memory. It has changed the overall vision of what is "real". And like you said, fostered an ugly sense of relating and competing among mankind.

I don't have time for this shit right now..or I'd go on all night.

You two have me riled up now.

Devo said...

Les, I'm very reassured to see that someone is capable of getting as angry as I do over the reality TV phenomenon. I say GET riled up. Don't hold it in. Far too many people are either complacent or duped by this garbage for us to remain silent. Of course, I don't want to become one of the street-corner folks holding up "the end is near" placards.... but I suppose even THAT is better than nothing...

Hungry Hyaena said...


While I have bemoaned the intelligence of shows like "Friends" for so many years that certain friends of mine view me as a pretentious boob, some of the arguments made by Steven Johnson are sound.

Johnson compares the linear plotlines of hit television programs from the 1970s and early 1980s ("Starsky and Hutch," "Dallas") with their contemporary equivalents ("Seinfeld," "Friends," "The O.C.," and even "Survivor.") As Malcolm Gladwell puts it in his recent review of Johnson's new book, "To watch an episode of 'Dallas' today is to be stunned by its glacial pace - by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was."

The level of interaction, or "filling in," on the part of viewer has increased as well. Think of "The Simpsons" and the many allusions to other cultural references. Usually, these allusions are exactly that, allusions, and we viewers are expected to make the more explicit connections on our own. Shows like "Friends" do this, too, only their allusions are less intelligent and targeted to the lowest common denominator.

Of course, as both you and Les point out, how can these shows be both so damaging and "good for you." Well, what Johnson ignores is pretty substantial, too. Again, I turn to Gladwell:

"Being 'smart' involves facility in both kinds of thinking - the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and IQ tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning. If Johnson's book has a flaw, it is that he sometimes speaks of our culture being 'smarter' when he's really referring just to that fluid problem-solving facility. When it comes to that other kind of intelligence, it is not clear at all what kind of progress we are making, as anyone who has read, say, the Gettysburg Address alongside any Presidential speech from the past twenty years can attest. The real question is what the right balance of these two forms of intelligence might look like.

As for those people who hail "Survivor" as programming genius, I have to assume they have never actually read Machiavelli or Dante and that they have little to entertain them when they aren't at their 9-to-5. Reality TV bores the be-jesus out of me, a result of its complete predictability...seems almost odd that reality TV should have become the most formulaic, but people will act as they feel they are supposed to and having grown up on a steady diet of television, most of them are merely regurgitating tried-and-true plotlines from their youth.

As for the evils of "Sesame Street"...I'm certainly not as extreme as you are, Devo. I hear you, but I wouldn't blame the show for encouraging everyone to "follow their bliss." Sure, some will still end up working in a sewer, but everyone should try to "be what they want to be."

Devo said...

Amen, Hungry Hyaena. Amen. Curiosity is the antidote, hopefully. That, and passion. Both are being drained from our populace by crap like Friends and Survivor, but at least there are kids trying to find new ways to look at their world. Somehow, my curiosity managed to survive a brief infatuation with Friends (which has thankfully worn off) and still somehow blazes through a continuing infatuation with the progeny of Beavis and Butthead (though I imagine that the second type of intelligence you describe tends to feed heavily from this pasture of insipid, self-referential stupidity and manages to digest it into culturally valid, even edifying criticism)... and as such, I have at least a modicum of trust in the youth to throw off their dullard yokes and gore the hand that feeds and enslaves their minds!!!

Viva la Revolucion!!!!

Penis Face said...

Youre gay