Dismiss Whatever Insults Your Own Soul

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Sometimes it seems that the human condition can be summed up as standing dazed and bruised at the bottom of various slippery slopes and wondering, “How did we get here?”

One answer might be our mistake in taking it for granted that speed, ease and convenience are always and everywhere inherently desirable qualities, ideals to be considered above all others in shaping our world. When the actual truth is they have blood-sucked the value from virtually every human activity that has ever fallen under their tyrannical sway. They are the insidious de-values, quietly replacing the deeper satisfactions of considered, diligent effort over time, from which human pursuits previously drew meaning.

In practice, this means that we are too quick and too enthusiastic when it comes to adopting simulacra, allowing virtual things to stand in for their actual predecessors with no questions asked. (E.g., a phone call is not an actual conversation, an MP3 is not actual human beings making music.) And the thing we need to be on guard for is that the technologies driving this process always tend towards increased individualism and isolation — away from the real world, real encounters, real relationships — whereas the original things were, by definition, tactile, tangible, social and communal. The scariest part is that over time, as the avatar stands in for the actual thing, people (gradually but inevitably) forget there ever was anything actual. The avatar becomes all we ever know.

Recently, a friend sent me a demo of a chilling new song that he was inspired to write after watching an ad for a dating service on TV. The song did a good job of capturing one unutterably sad and depressing aspect of the process described above, which is the commodification of romance — people shopping for love like they were ordering shoes from Zappos.

And of course there are upsides to it, just as there are upsides to cell phones, iPods, Facebook and all the rest. Speed, ease and convenience in all their glory, beckoning and beguiling. But in the end, what’s on offer is too creepy for words. It really is like a dystopian sci-fi novel, with all of us would-be Winston Smiths contemplating suicide in our grimy little bedsits, while the omnipresent Big Screen offers salvation only through deeper levels of solipsism and alienation.

This passage below is from Michael Kimmelman’s exceptionally illuminating book, The Accidental Masterpiece (2005). (Exceptional in that it is one of sadly few contemporary documents — by a formally educated, mainstream critic no less — that eschews theoretical frameworks and instead demonstrates a deep personal understanding and appreciation of the chaos and messiness that underlie how art is actually created and experienced by human beings in the real world.) I hijack this passage from its original context (Kimmelman is discussing the effect Kodak’s rise at the turn of the last century had on society’s notions of preservation and memory) for my own purposes, so it is only fair to note that Kimmelman goes on to argue for other side later on in the same chapter, making a rather poignant case for the transient beauty of snapshots and even color-by-numbers paintings:

“Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing. During the last century, the history of amateurism in America, whether it entailed snapping photographs or painting pictures or tickling the ivories, like so many other aspects of life, increasingly centered on labor-saving strategies to placate our inherent laziness and to guarantee our satisfaction, a promise, if you think about it, that should be antithetical to the premise of making art, which presumes effort and risk.”

And this is from Mockingbird (1980), by the prototypically itinerant, alcoholic, mid-century, mid-list writer Walter Tevis, a breathlessly melancholy sci-fi ode to the redemptive power of books. It’s sort of like if Philip K. Dick had written Brave New World+Fahrenheit 451. This bit below is an illiterate and suicidal android explaining to his platonic human consort how their world came to be as it is. Though the consort knows very little about the past and has barely any concept of “history,” learning how to read has sparked her innate curiosity. She wants to understand how things fell apart. The android mentions that in the past there were these things called “streetcars,” and she wants to know what happened to them [and remember, this was written in 1980]:

“The automobile companies got rid of them. Bribes were paid to city managers to tear up the streetcar tracks, and advertisements were bought in newspapers to convince the public that it should be done. So more cars could be sold, and more oil would be made into gasoline, to be burned in the cars. So that corporations could grow, and so a few people could become incredibly rich, and have servants, and live in mansions. It changed the life of mankind more radically than the printing press. It created the suburbs and a hundred other dependencies — sexual and economic and narcotic — upon the automobile. And the automobile prepared the way for the more profound — more inward — dependencies upon television and then robots, and, finally, the ultimate and predictable conclusion to all of it: the perfection of the chemistry of the mind.”

At some point in your life, you may hear or read some variation of an argument that goes like this: “Don’t blame science or technology. Blame the applications of technology or the people who misuse it.” If someone should happen to make such an argument to you, I encourage you to respond by punching them in the face as hard as you can.

I’m American (Imster/Terhune)

Bootfoot

Is it a matter of fact
Or just a matter of faction?
Don’t believe a word I say
When I show you my reaction

I can still hear you saying to her
“Don’t tell” from another room
All you have to do it want it
And someone will give it to you

You tell me how you feel
Tell me how you’re feeling
But I think the way you close your eyes
Is a whole lot more revealing

I remember each word you said
“There’s love behind every move”
Is this how you act behind me
While I take it from you?

Well, I wait for a train
Or I wait for the tide
Or I’m wasting my time
I thought that you were mine

I’m American
And I want mine
I’m American

You go out and get it
Is that the way?
You get what you want
In the land of the big and the brave

But I can still hear you saying to her
“Don’t tell” from the other room
All you have to do it want it
And someone will give it to you

Well, I wait for a train
Or I wait for the tide
Or I’m wasting my time
I thought that you were mine

I’m American
And I want mine
I’m American

Wait for a train
Wait for the tide
Wait for a train
Wait for the tide

Well, I wait for a train
Or I wait for the tide
Or I’m wasting my time
I thought that you were mine

I’m American
And I want mine
I’m American

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This is from the Bootfoot MySpace page:

“Eleanor Imster and David Terhune wrote songs together and played them in a band called Bootfoot. Many friends, family, and a future husband, (Marc Fagelson) helped make the Bootfoot sound. Eleanor and David share a unique vocal blend, and their songs weave in and out of pop, folk, country and rock. Their CD “Bootfoot” contains 13 tracks that showcase this successful collaboration. It can be purchased by contacting bootfootmusic@yahoo.com.”

9 Replies to “Dismiss Whatever Insults Your Own Soul”

  1. You’re quite welcome.

    And funny you should say that about the end part of “I’m American” — not only do I agree, I used to make that suggestion so often back then that I’m not sure Eleanor and David didn’t just keep it short out of spite.

  2. I like the fact that it just ends, leaving you wanting more. That was an especially brave move for an 80s soft-rock band, since in the mid-80s pop songs tended to go on and on and on ad infinitum, especially at the end of the songs. It is fair to call Bootfoot a soft-rock band even if they were all punk rockers at heart.

    Bootfoot was a pretty awesome soft-rock band. actually: it seems a litle unfair that this song and “I’ll Hit Utica” aren’t staples of FM radio.

  3. But please be advised if you punch someone in the face as a result of your disagreeing with their point of view, s/he is then entitled to take out her/his gun and shoot you in YOUR face. Of course, it would be the gun’s fault, not the person’s application of the gun’s technology, nor their misuse of it — n’est-ce pas?

    How are Marc & Eleanor?

  4. As much as I love to parlez-vous your francais, Joe, I’m afraid I have to disagree — I never said that people who use technology to immoral ends are free of responsibility for their actions.

  5. I love this post! My favorite is the people who buy the Wii tennis so that they can ‘play’ tennis (um…did you consider maybe buying an actual tennis racket?). It reminds me of a professor I once had who, in the early days of the internet, waxed enthusiastically about how one day we could get our TV, movies, phone calls, mail all in one simple box, and even send our work to and from the office electronically and order our groceries through the same box! I asked him if that meant we had taken a giant step towards the day when no one ever leaves their house. His response: “well, there is that issue.”

    On a brighter note, pitchers and catchers have reported! Of course, here in DC we have neither. (Washington Nationals. Official slogan: “Not the ’62 Mets, but an incredible simulation!”)

  6. DK said: “one day we could get our TV, movies, phone calls, mail all in one simple box, and even send our work to and from the office electronically and order our groceries through the same box!” We can do all those things through one (complex) box except order our groceries… the groceries being the most important thing on that list.

  7. Yeah, exactly, DK — it’s that enthusiastic waxing that really makes my hair stand on end.

    And your dreary professor reminds of a story Vonnegut used to tell about going out to buy an envelope when he wanted to mail something. Here’s a version from a PBS interview:

    DAVID BRANCACCIO: There’s a little sweet moment, I’ve got to say, in a very intense book– your latest– in which you’re heading out the door and your wife says what are you doing? I think you say– I’m getting– I’m going to buy an envelope.

    KURT VONNEGUT: Yeah.

    DAVID BRANCACCIO: What happens then?

    KURT VONNEGUT: Oh, she says well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.

    I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around.

    And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.

  8. So, here is my much considered comment—though I’m writing it while my kid relentlessly gabs in my face so I don’t know how good it will be- haha …. the first thing that embroils my thoughts is that you are eliciting a concern that has been debated for ages: does progress in our society hold hope for us, for the human condition, or is progress actually, practically and most importantly, philosophically, deleterious or even poisonous, to us (“…blood-sucked the value from virtually every human activity that has ever fallen under their tyrannical sway”).

    I don’t believe that progress is ultimately a process incorporating evil dimension though I had a professor once who believed that the invention of the automobile and the dependency that man had and was continuing to have on it, would affect evolution such that we would no longer need legs. Well, in theory and conceptually he may have been quite correct. Actually, some of his perspective could be applied to your thesis here. I have actually thought about this before and as I think I mentioned to you, I started thinking about “Caller I.D.” which we all have on our phones either by default or otherwise—anyway, I became very aware of how when the phone rings I don’t just pick it up and say “hello” but rather I check to see who in fact is calling and then decide in that split-second whether to answer it—an action toward “connecting, I guess, toward community, a turning away from “isolation” (ironically one of my preferred states), as you mention. However it has occurred to me that having this feature which clearly elicits that decision-making process may in and of itself create isolationism—we may become increasingly less likely to answer the phone because it requires more thought, effort, and work (“And the thing we need to be on guard for is that the technologies driving this process always tend towards increased individualism and isolation…”) than not answering at all and looking at the LCD screen thinking, “I’ll just call them back later” yet never doing so. Of course, I may be referring only to myself here—haha—but, I have thought about this…”

    I also find interesting your argument that when something, an action or a fact in life is made “faster” or “easier” via technological progress (“speed, ease and convenience “) that its “value” decreases, that there is an inverted proportional effect. If by value you are referring to the satisfaction we all achieve when we experience when doing a “good job” (remember your seeing the package of sliced apples in the store and wondering what has society come to that we don’t have time to slice an apple) or whether you are considering the larger question of whether speed and ease of an action reduces the morality required to take that action (is having an “affair” online really morally reprehensible for the married person?–given that the “interaction” ceases once the computer, the IM, the email is turned off and then exists no more for that time (“away from the real world, real encounters, real relationships))—the moral diminution or possibility of it that results from this current technological “revolution” is a fascinating aspect to consider such as the “avatar” you mention, which may become what society perceives as real versus what in fact is real—

    The last part of your piece jumped out at me too, because it made me think of the use of guns—not the point of your piece, obviously, but isn’t that the argument of the NRA—“guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—(“At some point in your life, you may hear or read some variation of an argument that goes like this: “Don’t blame science or technology. Blame the applications of technology or the people who misuse it.”)—I think you are so correct dismissing this ridiculous argument—though I never want to discount the value of the process of human decision making, however, when an intruder enters your house and there is a loaded gun in your closet which you access and use, it is not beyond serious possibility that a disaster may ensue—same with the loaded computer on your desk…

    Wow, I have really gone off—anyway, Phillip, terrific piece…gosh, really…

    -laura

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