Connection Issues

In his 2017 book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, Byung-Chul Han examines the challenges of working in a global economy. Concerned about employee burnout, Han writes,

Even though we are now free from the machines that enslaved and exploited people during the industrial age, digital apparatuses are installing new constraints, new slavery. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. (34)

According to Han, “a fatal compulsion to work everywhere” leaves employees stressed out and sleep-deprived. During the industrial age, workers suffered untold hardships, Han says, but at least they could clock out and leave the factory behind for the night. Today, turned into mini international business machines, many workers drag the factory home with them on phones, tablets and laptops.

The amount of information—be it personal, social or work-related—stored on our “digital apparatuses,” as Han calls them, boggles the mind. Jean Baudrillard called people’s compulsion to collect and catalogue every last piece of data “obscene.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Baudrillard writes in his 1987 book The Ecstasy of Communication that “today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression” (26-27).

Today every event, every interaction, every idea, every word must mean something unequivocally. Earth and all its satellites must speak. We can’t go off the grid of “forced signification.” No one has the right to remain silent. We must answer every email and text, share our thoughts on social media, express ourselves on blogs. Non-tweeters risk ex-communication.

Seventy-five years before the release of the first iPhone, Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran just wanted to be left alone. Writing was anti-social media for Cioran, who proclaims in his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair in full pessimist mode:

As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything? (43-44)

I admire Cioran’s defiant spirit, but short of committing suicide, no one can resign from humanity. We can quit a corporate job, but we can’t quit seeking the company of others.

There has to be a middle ground between being hyper-connected—to our families, colleagues, (Facebook) friends, Instagram followers—and being totally isolated, as Cioran might have envisioned it. Anyone who finds this middle ground might, with the right connections, sell millions of self-help books and never need a “real job” again.

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The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.

Device Manager

My phone asked me this morning to update Google Maps. The app demanded my location and other sensitive information. I surrendered my papers without incident.

Baudrillard enjoyed relating a Borges fable in which a king commissions a surveyor to create a map of his entire kingdom. The map captures every detail of the terrain, with new lands depicted upon possession. Eventually the model consumes the actual kingdom. In a massive reversal, the map precedes the territory, such that no memory of the “actual” remains.

Today Google Maps precedes the map that precedes the territory.

You can’t blink without turning up on someone’s radar. How’s a husband to cheat these days? Wherever you go, to play upon the title of a popular book on mindfulness, the government’s already there.

Global Positioning System? More like Global Police Surveillance. We can’t get lost if we tried. Moving through a crowd, I see myself on my phone, moving through a crowd, staring at my phone. Who’s following my shadow? Who’s plotting my moves?

If bereft of my own devices, how will I know I’ve arrived?

My Favorite Martian

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the content of cell phones can’t be searched without a warrant. It turns out that some people pulled over by the police have incriminating information on their phones, which upon inspection, leads to charges for other offenses.

The decision is being hailed as a victory for freedom. I’m not here to argue that, although I will say the ruling gives me the freedom to be just another asshole with a cell phone committing crimes against the burden of human contact. I’m more interested in an amusing quote from Chief Justice John Roberts on the matter.

Cell phones, the Chief Justice writes, are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

We don’t need Martians to point out the fusion between our phones and our bodies (both contain some form of the word “cell” after all). Earthlings who spot another earthling without a smartphone attached to his ear or extending from his hand think he’s an alien, find his conduct unbecoming, his way of life obscene.

On earth, where only savages and infants go without a data plan, Martians would serve as our last moralists. They’d remind us that smartphones are a recent addition to the human anatomy. Only aliens retain hope we’ll one day cut the wireless cord, if only for a second, to recall what it means to be human.

Caller ID

You know the feeling: you’re drifting off to sleep, easing into a dream. The phone rings. You’re awake.

~ ~ ~

Life is your inability to continue the dream.

~ ~ ~

If God had proposed the idea of my life to me before my birth, I’d have thought him insane. But I accepted the offer before it was made. I wasn’t so much conceived as convinced.

~ ~ ~

God once left a cryptic message. Someday I’ll get back to him.

~ ~ ~

As a child I wondered where I came from. How at first the world appeared. The cosmos had a pressing thought. Something of a dark matter.

~ ~ ~

Life is the length of a restless night. A series of tosses and turns.

~ ~ ~

The other day, a dream. UNKNOWN calls. And I say hello.