Tuesday, 16 September 2014

What do we lose when we lose being lost?

That is the the question I found myself asking after reading this piece in Prospect about what the internet is doing to our minds.

"In The App Generation, Katie Davis remarks that her younger sister has never had the experience of being lost, and probably never will, unless she loses her phone. What does never getting lost do to someone’s experience of the world? With GPS everywhere, is a forest still a forest or is it just a collection of trees? And how many other states of being are vanishing? Boyd (refreshingly) insists that “the kids are alright”—but her book also suggests that they are never really alone. Are boredom, solitude and aimlessness on their way out, too?"

There's a lot in that to think about. Some thoughts below.

Let's start with the easy bit. With GPS, a forest is still a forest. In fact, the division between this forest and the one next door is much easier to see (for the modern urbanite) if your phone can tell you where you are.

Returning to my question, the bigger one: what do we lose when we lose being lost? Or being bored? Or being alone?

Before trying to answer that question, here's a link to a piece in the Tablet (the Jewish one) about keeping half-Shabbat, i.e. Shabbat except that you use your phone. (In fact, 'half-Shabbat doesn't seem to be a big thing in itself - technology is just another temptation. But let's not let the facts spoil the story here.)

"“The crisis here, if there is one, is the lack of a compelling Shabbat narrative,” said Rabbi Ben Skydell of Orach Chaim synagogue on the Upper East Side... “How do you sell Shabbat?”

For many, the answer might be in praising the technology prohibitions themselves. “As the world does become more saturated with technology,” said Andrew Katz, “it becomes more important for me to have a space that can be free of that.” The gift of a tech-free Shabbat is a message that rabbis find particularly effective on college campuses and that resonates with many adults. Rabbi Jonathan Kroll ... is not alone when he says that he cherishes his three-day yontifs, when a Jewish holiday immediately precedes Shabbat, resulting in three days of religious restriction; for him, it’s three days to be free from the tyranny of checking his phone or email. While laws on modest dress, for example, are often challenged with ideology, even the kids who use their cell phones on Shabbat see it as deviant from their own personally held values. Keeping Shabbat free of electronics might be a struggle, but it’s seen as something worth struggling for.

That's suggestive of something too. The internet is not another cool young youth thing like the ones of yesteryear that the kids want to do. It's not rock 'n' roll. Instead, it's something that they, in some sense, have to do. Are these children struggling, with greater or lesser success, to be bored instead?

The author of the piece in Prospect, Jacob Mikanowski, raises the possibility that modern technology is returning the human experience to that of mediaeval times. Here are his tentative thoughts on what we might be losing:

"For Martin Heidegger, the feeling of profound boredom—which he felt while waiting for a train at a provincial train station, for instance—brought one closest to the kind of active attention that separates human beings from animals. Boredom drove Michel de Montaigne to write his self-reflections. And once he started, he needed absolute privacy and silence to continue. He found them in the corner of his library, the sort of corner Bachelard spoke of when he wrote: “When we recall the hours we have spent in our corners, we remember above all silence, the silence of our thoughts.”

The kind of experience of selfhood that Bachelard and Montaigne describe is one of interiority—discovering one’s self through introspection. We almost take that equation as a given, but it wasn’t always. The search for the origins of the modern self has been one of the great snipe hunts in the history of the humanities. For Jacob Burckhardt it began in the Italian Renaissance; for Norbert Elias in the court of Louis XIV; for Harold Bloom it all started with Shakespeare. But the point is the same—for a long time the self was one way, and then it was another. As Lionel Trilling put it in Sincerity and Authenticity, “in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place.” Medieval people defined themselves as members of groups, and then, suddenly, they became Renaissance “individuals.” The change registers in poetry, in painting, in philosophy. You can hear it in Hamlet’s soliloquies and see it in Italian portraiture—starting around 1500, when these people look at you, they hold something back. They live inside their heads.

But do we anymore? Maybe it’s time to start asking questions about exteriority; to switch from the corner to the phone, from the introspective essay to the online profile. Starting some 500 years ago, the self was understood as an enclosure. It was something that required silence to access and space to experience. I think that used to be true. It probably still is. But it might not be for very much longer.

Let's go back to being lost. Was anyone ever lost in mediaeval times? In one sense, yes of course they were. But surely getting lost as a quasi-universal experience requires modernity: it requires being transported miles from familiar surroundings, not being observed by close family members or friends, perhaps being in a city, or exploring a wilderness for the sake of it. These are not the experiences of agrarian mediaeval life. No one who spends their entire life in one village gets lost in that village.

Frankly, I suspect we lose nothing when we lose being lost. We've lost a number of feelings without losing much of value: I would volunteer 'that sickening dread that comes from knowing that one has inadvertently but irredeemably offended the great god Baal' and 'the awareness that one could buy, sell or kick that person over there without having done anything remarkable' as examples - and being lost can join them. It's a Glass Bead Game-type exercise to try to recover these feelings, but nothing more than that. 

But being bored or alone might well be more fertile ground than being lost. I'm not sure that individuality and self-reflection is the nub of it as Mikanowski suggests. It doesn't take long to think 'I am me'. I would suggest instead that the real possibility of being able to give sustained concentrated mental attention to one activity is the luxury that half-Shabbaters and the rest of us feel we might be missing out on. I am thinking of the possibility of achieving 'flow', that mental state highly correlated with happiness. This is, it seems to me, more easy to achieve when the alternative is doing nothing (i.e. to be bored on one's own) and harder when there are other demands on our time and attention.

I wouldn't want to leave the subject without presenting the other side of the argument. Sitting in a library on one's own, penning elegant pensées, is all very well, but perhaps we don't need much more of it. Self-attention is, let's say, selfish. One of the reasons that technology calls on our minds and attentions is precisely that it is not the phone or the computer or the tablet - it is people. We can ignore adverts and recorded messages, but we can't ignore real people. It is not just a fear of missing out that compels us to email and social media - it is also politeness. It would be rude, wouldn't it?, to leave one's friends' facebook bon mots un-'like'-d and the emails unacknowledged. One could argue that, by turning us outwards from ourselves more persistently and effectively, by turning us back into community-minded mediaeval people, modern technology is making us all less self-centred. Maybe all those tortured half-Shabbaters just want some 'me-time'.

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