an instructional interlude
MY, HOW STANDARDS HAVE FALLEN! Already I can hear you rolling your eyes from here to Des Moines, and I know you’re saying to yourselves, “Of course, he’s doing the old-guy routine: the back in my day speech.”
You may be right. I may simply be following tradition and experiencing inevitable change as a worsening, a dumbing down, when I should show humility and be grateful for progress.
That’s the narrative, isn’t it? Humans are following this trajectory of progress, albeit so slowly at first that nothing happens for millenia. Everyone just sits and stares at each other. And trust me, after a lifetime spent examining the fossil record so you don’t have to, I can confidently tell you that these millenia of staring are sheer tedium.
Sitting and staring—that’s it! That’s the entire calendar of activities on cruise ship Earth. You could kill for a decent conversation, but because there’s no other activity—except for
eating the food,
getting sick from the food, AND
dying from the food;
surviving the food—at which point the survivor carves the name of the food onto the Great Big Rock of Food That Won’t Kill You, with five stars and the “best before” date, which at this point is straightforward, “best before you starve to death”—
—as I was saying, because the only rainy-, or cloudy-, or unseasonably cold-, or even sunny-day activity is sitting around staring at everyone else (who survived the food), good luck with that having a conversation thing.
I mean, there’s only so much feigned interest you can project in a lifetime.
While the proto-men and proto-women stare at each other it’s so quiet they can hear individual leaves falling onto the savannah. It is so preternaturally quiet, they experience the falling of each leaf like a bowling ball thudding onto a parquet floor (notwithstanding they would likely not use that exact terminology just yet. Bowling, and therefore similes involving bowling balls, have not been invented.
(We’ve got a long ways to go before they invent bowling, let me tell you!)
Then once in a hundred years somebody pipes up, “Hey I was just thinking that maybe—” and everyone gasps and turns around in astonishment with a big whooshing sound to look at her.
Unfortunately, this is so intimidating she immediately forgets what she was going to say.
“Oh… nothing. Never mind. No, really, it’s OK, it was just—an idea…” (This, by the way, is the birth of passive-aggressive behavior, and not a moment too soon.)
Everyone sighs, maybe a couple of grumblers go I wish she’d stop DOING that! and then—silence again for another century or two.
Meanwhile everyone’s thinking,
What are those pin pricks of light in the night sky, and how did they get up there and why don’t they fall down? Hmmm… I know. If someone asks, I’ll say they’re held up by, lemme see now, Wilbur, The Great Caribou! And the pinpricks of light are whadayacallit, angelic beings holding up his sacred antlers! We could use a little light humor! The one thing that gets me, though: What the heck are pin pricks—or for that matter, pins?
Gradually the silences get shorter and shorter, and you hear distinct noises as civilization develops.
The chattering of villagers,
the whoosh of the scythes, then, at exponentially increasing speeds,
the rattling of looms,
the hum of conveyor belts,
the blasts of jet engines,
ending in the present with the whine of one-sided conversations hitting the back of your neck, announced by smartphones blasting out ring-tones sampled from death-metal bands, rendered entirely in overtones that induce castration anxiety.
Do you see how the standards fall? Nowadays you hear the one-sided conversation.
Growing up, I was taught:
Sssssh, not so loud! People will hear you! Use your indoor voice! Be seen and not heard!
Conversations were restricted to the participants. Likewise telephone calls. You went into a little booth and slid the door shut because you didn’t want people to overhear you.
Do you realize what this means? Making a telephone call was as private an act as taking a dump, and about as frequent.
Privacy has always been mankind’s most ephemeral yet most prized luxury, and no, I don’t mean private like our much-whined-about private personal data. We didn’t use words like data in the fifties, sixties, even seventies. You didn’t get data on your Princess phone.
You got your mom’s voice asking why you hadn’t called, or your boyfriend saying he had a headache when you knew very well he was screwing the football coach. Data was a word you used, maybe, if you were Robert Oppenheimer. Probably even Einstein didn’t say data.
(Headache? Yeah, right. I’ll show you “headache”! That’s rich!)
We worry about data now, but back then we were much more worried about our conversations being overheard or disturbing other people.
Remember other people?
And we’d be mortified if someone had been listening to our conversation or found out our secrets. Secrets were still in their early phase of something you didn’t tell. My great aunts, Victorian women all, never told anyone that my eldest sister got pregnant before she married the guy, nor did they tell anyone about my parents’ divorce. This was private business, and if you talked about someone’s private business who wasn’t there, that was gossip.
Gossip was tacky, except for the rare occasion when it was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy afternoon.
“How many months? She didn’t! Oh, I know! And you mustn’t say you heard this from me, but—apparently he’s that way!“
We kept to ourselves out of fear of making the other person uncomfortable. No one knew your financial woes, the minutiae of office politics, the state of your marriage; we did not make our friends into our psychiatrists or social workers.
Now we live in public, seven billion holy prostitutes assuming the face-down-spread-eagle to facilitate our receipt of validation from anyone who might pass by. We are nothing on our own, because we are empty, and we are empty because we know nothing but the fascinating contents of our own heads and because we haven’t left the house since MySpace.
We have no allure, because we are so easily accessible. We are brands, personas, stories we tell that might as well be true.
We no longer have any need for privacy, apparently, since we assumed our schizoid personas. We are engaged in the sweat-inducing grind of developing, then making a performance out of, authenticity. We are at once the marketer and the product; the incentive and the prize; the headline-hogging scoop and the investigative journalist.
Our mere bodies—these archaic chunks of pre-industrial, too, too solid analog flesh—may melt, like so much ground beef past its sell-by date, into compost; but our personalities, fizzing with fake pizzazz like artificially sweetened soda and echoing third-hand opinions down broken phone lines crackling with static, have been uploaded to the cloud for all-device synchronization and easy universal obfuscation.