Wired to What?

Letters at 3 A.M.

illustration by Jason Stout

The standard line from magazines like Wired, and technological apologists everywhere, is that the personal computer and the Internet are instruments of freedom. Our government says so, too, and schools teach this to our (white) children. (Schools attended by children of color don't have many PCs. And the Senate just voted down money to improve public school facilities.) The media parrots this idea incessantly: New technologies mean new freedoms. Well... while it's undeniable that these technologies have created unique opportunities for freedom of expression, many important questions are being conveniently ignored. Freedom of expression, though crucial, is not the only crucial freedom. Is your speech "free" when not linked to the ability to act upon your speech? Consider: The power of freedom of expression exists only in relation to how seriously, and by whom, you are heard. To vent opinions and frustrations on the Internet is not the same, and not as free, as being unafraid to speak out on your job - where you spend most of your time. Most "free speech" on the Internet is not unlike kids bitching about parents to friends, while still being unable to fruitfully communicate at home, where it counts. And is one's expression "free" when it's doomed to become, instantly, merely part of the world's background noise?

It is a strange "freedom" that further separates the culture of the poor from the culture of the affluent, but that's the immediate social effect of computers wherever they are in widespread use. The affluent talk to each other on the Web, the poor talk to each other on the streets, and both grow farther and farther from being able to hear each other. (History teaches, again and again, that nothing is ultimately more dangerous to the stability of a society than creating insurmountable barriers between the monied and the poor. Sooner or later, the poor feel they can only speak through violence; and when they do, the monied respond in kind. Peace is based not so much on justice as on the viable possibility of justice, and there can be no possibility of justice in a world where the monied and the poor are increasingly unable to reach and speak to each other.)

Another question: Is computer technology increasing freedom of speech and access to information, or are we instead buying into a system through which all input will soon be transmitted into our homes through one line, one outlet - an outlet under the control of executives whom we don't elect, who have no accountability to us? Once this system is firmly in place, won't those who control the line have the technological power to supply or deprive information at will? Is there anything in the history of the powerful to let us assume that this system will ultimately be used for our good, rather than for the good of those who control it? Is it progress, much less freedom, to become so dependent upon people we can't reach, can't vote for, can't (without the information they control) even find?

The cellular phone, the beeper, and e-mail allow us to be contacted, interrupted, anywhere, anywhen. The demand, especially among the urban middle class, is that everyone be accessible at all times. In the short span of a decade, constant and instant accessibility has become taken for granted. Are these communication devices truly for communicating; or are they, more truly, an abdication to the concept of being "plugged in"? A sense that we do not belong to ourselves as much as we used to? That if we miss a call, if we can't be accessed, if we do not collaborate with the technology, we will be left behind - left behind economically, culturally, every which way? How much of our hecticness is, at its root, the unadmitted fear of being left behind? So we do business and check in on the kids via cell phone while stuck in traffic, the laptop always in arm's reach, our pace set by the inhuman speed of electronics, and call this "progress" - all the while hoping that history itself has not become a kind of traffic jam. Hoping that our best aspirations will not be lost somewhere in the labyrinthine, ungraspable realms of cyberspace.

Is cyberspace a genuine human space, or is it a vortex - a vortex that sucks us in and makes us more a part of it than it's a part of us? The answer is: a bit of both. If it weren't both, it wouldn't be so confusing to so many; and it wouldn't seem, as it certainly does seem, to have a life of its own. And that is the fundamental reality of technology: It has come to have a life of its own - a collective, interconnected impersonal life that is far huger and more powerful than our difficult, uncertain, individual lives. All conceivable accommodation is made to the life of technology; less and less to the life of the individual. Yet, while individuality is being made harder to sustain, individuals are being told through every organ of government, business, and the media: "You're on your own. The `free market' - which now means technological commerce, the naked voice of technology - sets the rules. You don't." In this way individuality is both denied and insisted upon. Its latitude and power are denied, while its vulnerability and isolation are insisted upon. No wonder we're confused.

Confused, off-center, more than a little dizzy (we can't even agree on what a family is anymore!), experiencing an increasingly chronic attack of what might be called technological vertigo.

We relish our new toys and can't seem to get enough of them. We accept them at face value, no matter what fibs we tell ourselves in order to do so. (If they were really "time savers," we'd have more time; if they really gave us freedom, we'd have more power.) Our devices change how we spend our days, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes drastically, and we expend so much energy accommodating these changes and mastering these devices that we remain always slightly, or more than slightly, off balance.

The free market tells us we're on our own; the Internet tells us we're all connected. In the midst of such a double bind, with the two most strident messages from our environment contradicting each other, how can we feel centered, much less at peace? Instead, many feel more than a little sick, nauseous - as the multi-billion dollar sale of legal and illegal drugs to combat our nausea proves. We are possessed of a nagging, continuous sense of vertigo. Most of us haven't the time anymore to question this state of affairs, and are too committed to the technologically free-market-enforced pace of change to stand still and regain our centeredness. In this way, incrementally, we lose our sense of who we are - and, even more, of who we might be.

The danger to our souls is not in the technologies themselves, which obviously have their uses; the danger is in our unconscious inclination to identify with them and to allow them both to define us and to set our pace and our boundaries for us. The danger is equally great whether we welcome the new technologies or oppose them. To reject the technological influence on our lives is, in the first place, impossible - the mere attempt is exhausting, isolating. But to allow these technologies to define our boundaries and set our pace; to measure our identities against a technological tsunami that can't be said to have any identity of its own outside of its relentless momentum - is to accept, without question, the progress of machines rather than to confront the moral dilemma of whether or not our behavior has progressed.

Technological vertigo: People who go through their technologically dominated days feeling vaguely that, every day, they are losing a little more of something indefinable yet essential about themselves, something machines don't have and can't replicate, something that the free market can't sell.

Decades ago, when Norman Mailer was still a first-rate writer, he said, "The core of life cannot be cheated. You are either living a little more or dying a little more." And the poet William Carlos Williams said: "Either I exist or I do not exist, and no amount of pap which I happen to be lapping can dull me to the loss." But when pap is made technologically easier to lap, we swill a lot more of it, and are all the more dulled. Especially when, often through economic necessity, the pap is force-fed. For the central question of our existence - which is: whether on this very particular and unrepeatable day you lived a little more or merely died a little more - is obscured when we're running from task to machine-assisted task, driven by a commercial system accountable to no one, and subject to the interruption of many a beep.

In rare moments of stillness, we may feel resistant to what is being demanded of us. May feel apprehension at being plugged in. May feel we haven't progressed as much as the media incessantly insists we have - that, however much we're told that life is better and richer than ever, it doesn't feel that way. We may sense there's something, perhaps many things, that we've forgotten to think about, forgotten to feel, forgotten to take seriously.

And then the beeper beeps, and we are caught in an in-betweenness, a vertigo, suspended in the space between who we are and what we do - a human space that no technology can fill or define, a space more mysterious cyberspace and darker in our dreams than Outer Space.

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