simple truth of the day: 1) that beastly internet

If you have a disagreement with someone in your family or community, someone you love or at least are closely connected to, you can have a personal conversation with that person about the subject. Since you know a lot about them already, a ground of trust exists.

If a more widespread misunderstanding has arisen within a family or community, again a foundation already is in place to build upon. Slights, insults, or slanders don’t happen every day at this level of direct acquaintance. When they do they are relatively exceptional and meetings to address them can take place within the real world.

Here is one of the huge and constantly overlooked troubles with the internet: far too many people are paying attention to what any of several … billion people are saying. Within a “community” that vast, and with such a substantial percentage of said community broadcasting their thoughts where any can encounter them, it is guaranteed that at each individual moment enormous numbers of things are being said which are stupid, thoughtless, mean-spirited, vile, disturbing. This is unavoidable, at least in this human age far, far, painfully far from maturity.

So when we find ourselves being diverted or upset by what any Joe Schmidt on the planet has to say, and choose to respond in some way, most of the time, despite our very best efforts, we are simply multiplying the amount of noise and confusion in the world. The internet is an unthinkably vast resonance chamber, and unfortunately a good proportion of what is echoing around and bouncing off all its walls is negative or at best frivolous, a waste of precious human energy. Can we really still be surprised at the amount of angry polarisation and hatred in the world?

Worse still, we virtually never know any of these people, as we do when we communicate with a member of our family or community. We know absolutely nothing of their history, nor they of ours. Instead we react to the merest shell of who they are at that moment in time — a single expression, in the form of a post, which in turn is only reacting to something else, a single thought or two, transmitted without the benefit of those countless nuances of feeling our voice is capable of manifesting, and even more our body as a whole.

The internet does seem not only to be affecting our capacity for sustained attention and reflection (George Saunders puts this well here), but also generating large amounts of needless aggression as well.  We can each do a little something about that.

time for a grouse

It does appear we have lost the battle of the Cell Phone…

What I mean is: any sense of restraint regarding public use.

It’s strange. Really not all that long ago – maybe 4 years? – we had a general cultural understanding that yakking on one’s phone in public indoor spaces was, well, rather rude. And that’s just vanished now. What to do?

Personally, I can’t get used to the idea. I know I should probably try harder, since clearly, as I say, we have lost, but it’s so hard. I will be sitting in a quiet space over lunch or tea, reading or reflecting, and suddenly … “HELLO? …” (and my head literally jolts backward as if struck). “HEY DUDE, YEAH, WUSSUP? … YEAH … YEAH … HUH? … OH, YEAH … NAH … WHAT? … YEAH … NAH I’M JUST EATING LUNCH … HUH?” And on and on, for 5, 10 … 30 minutes. So I give up, put the book down or stop reflecting, and start fuming… What is wrong with me? Why can’t I accept this is the way it is now?

But I find it ridiculously hard. And I’m certainly not alone. One of the owners of a place where I eat lunch all the time tells me he feels exactly the same way, even more so, since he would prefer if people didn’t even pull out laptops and tablets, but rather took the opportunity to unplug for awhile and have a peaceful, relaxed meal. A teahouse in Montréal, I’m told – I think Camellia Sinensis – has adopted that policy in fact.

What to do, what to do? Once or twice I have seen someone actually get up and very firmly tell the phone yakker that they really ought to walk the 20 steps or so to be outdoors – they can still talk, but no one else is bothered. Usually, I’m a coward in this: I just privately fume.

What is it about this? After all, a loud conversation nearby can be distracting too. I think it’s a combination of different things:

1) There’s something inherently private about a phone call. Traditionally they only occurred, after all, in private spaces: one’s home, or a (closed) phone booth. So when they go off and you hear the loud (see point 3) “HELLO?,” I at least have the sensation of being an eavesdropper, of – more to the point – being forced to be an eavesdropper. There’s just something not … quite … fully decent about it somehow.

2) Since you are only ever hearing one half of a conversation, the experience is disorientating, and thus pulls you in. It’s distracting in the way something on the radio continually cutting out is, or the way a film would be if it kept flashing on and off. We naturally strive to fill in gaps in perception, and cell phones continuously stimulate that tendency, while definitively denying us any possibility of success. And that very fact is what makes them startling, makes them endlessly interrupt concentration. Not an issue for most people having a conversation themselves there, but an effective destroyer of peaceful public space for those of us who still greatly value such a thing.

3) Most people, not all but most, do talk more loudly on a cell phone.

So yes, I should try harder to get used to it. There are still places – blessed be they! – who maintain cell-phone-free environments, but they have dwindled rapidly in recent years. The other day I was told by someone who works at one of these that after asking a customer if he might simply step outside to finish his call, said customer responded quite irately, left altogether, then phoned 10 minutes later to complain further! Amazing: it’s now even become something of a “right” … And I mean, people even gabber on them in libraries now, even blatantly within yards of the sign saying: please no cell phones… (That, by the way, is where I do take charge.)

Not at all a healthy development, if you ask me.

This is leaving aside the fact that, more and more, that annoyingly ugly MIDI jingle (or more sedate buzz) signalling an incoming phone call or text, causes the person you thought you were having a conversation with to cut you off: “excuse me, I just need to take this call…” Actually, no, 9 times out of 10 you really don’t need to take that call. Your mind has just been marinating in a super-speedy high-octane cacophonously hyper-distracted culture for too many years, and… AARGH!