I began this essay a week or two ago. As it grew longer, I found it harder and harder to strain sense out of my sentences. I would write in furious bursts, in great metaphors, and then look over what I wrote to edit, and while I'd cut some sentences and re-write others, I found myself unable to come closer to any sort of point. My reasoning suddenly seemed cumbersome, my arguments stale when I thought them fresh, the ideas confused, when I thought them clear.
That being said, I think I'm onto something here. And while I'll be setting aside this topic for a while, I'm going to post this stump of an essay for you readers. Treat it as what it is: something raw, a bit of a beginning, a bit of a curiosity.
If you think I'm onto something, by all means - tell me. I'd like to know what it is.
This generation faces an uncharted wilderness of the mind. New technology has afforded us a terrible opportunity: the spoils may be rich, but the failures desperate. Will we be representatives of some new golden age? or citizens of a broken Diaspora?
All that’s certain is that we are a people without maps. We are lost. We have nowhere to go. We will find our way - but only in time.
It’s a tired fact, but true, that the same wealth of opportunity that makes our lives easier –cel phones, the internet, our relative ease – can make our lives feel impoverished. We have all wasted nights and days buffeted from website to website like a piece of trash caught in the wind until we notice that it’s three in the morning and our eyes hurt; we have all searched in the desert of cable TV for some El Dorado of satisfaction and in vain; we have all found our attention scattered between the conversation on the cel phone, the five open tabs on our internet browser, and the actual physical world that sits a couple feet in front of our computer screens. We have wealth, sure, and wealth which would have been unimaginable to our forbearers. But we find ourselves overwhelmed. We hide in our beds and never want to get up. We go to the gym. We feel stranded in a desert of the soul. We don’t know how to be the people we think we need to be.
Our wealth is hollow. It doesn’t give us happiness. That truth is an empty one, a sign that doesn’t point anywhere. But we don’t know what will make us happy. And so we continue deeper into the desert.
Our patience runs short. In a couple clicks we can land on another argument, another game, another song; so we have trouble devoting our attentions to any single thing. This is not a bad thing, within reason. In a way it makes us informational omnivores, with wide interests. Look at the epicurean vitality of websites like BoingBoing.net, modern day wonder-closets, collections of curiosities for the truly curious. But there is a point when this distraction, rather than feeding our creativity, shatters our attention, cracking the surface of our deeper thought. The people who do not learn to channel this distraction will find themselves living in an archipelago made up of tiny flat islands of understanding, surrounded by a dark unnavigable sea.
Plus it’s addicting. There is something immediately satisfying about the internet, but this makes it dangerous, because it’s so easy to access that satisfaction and much of it is hollow. We can foster the illusion that if we go to the next page of porn, something deeply rewarding will happen to us. That if we gain another level on WoW, we will possess some greater meaning to our lives. But when we are done, we find ourselves none the richer, just a little bit more tired, more distracted, sinking deeper into our computer screens.
In Japan there are young men called hikikomori . These young men hole themselves up in their rooms and don’t ever come out. The struggle of the outside world has become too much for them, perhaps, and so they creep back to the comfort of depression, of mediated experience. Filling their lives with comic books, computer games, and magazines, they are safe. And the are safe even if they cannot escape the familiar prison of their rooms nor their dramas the plotted fantasies of books and TVs. They can experience, but it will not hurt. They will feel, but they will not give up their control. They do not try – but neither do they fail. How do they get like this?
We spend our lives listening to songs other people sing, watching TV shows dealing with people we will have no commerce with, and reading stories that take place in far-away places we can neither effect nor change. We tend, as a generation, to critique more than we create, to watch more than we do. And this means that we suffer from an overactive critical sense, but an active life that is benumbed and abstract. What’s the big deal, though? The big deal is that we live a life surrounded by artificial lives, that no longer reflect the real struggles people tend to go through.
TV’s a great comfort. But while TV can comfort, more often than not it just numbs, putting our problems on hold by pausing our life. It makes our life a little bit more lonely. First, TV is too easy a comfort. We can press a single button, turn on the TV, and be safe. It’s far easier than, say, going to a café and trying to talk with someone you don’t know. But most friendships, most of the rewarding things in life, require us to put ourselves out there in some way, run a risk of looking stupid. We might be too shy, and stay at home watching TV.
The temptation to loose ourselves in this fantasy land are really great. Especially since, the more we slip into this comforting box of stories, the more impossible it seems to get back out. Because TV, in its non-stop interest, spins tales of people who are well-adjusted, active, funny, and engaging. If you’ve been sitting at home for the past month or two, ekeing out a life on the edges of society, then you can’t relate to the people you see on TV. You can’t relate to Ross and Monica, Rachel and Chandler. But the problem is – they’re become your good friends. That’s how you think people are meant to act like. And even though we all know that TV is fake, we lack the stories of people who are messed up, lazy, conflicted – television’s inability to communicate stories about loneliness and ennui trap some of us into a deeper cycle of loneliness and ennui, where we fail to recognize the sensibility of our problem.
OK – I’m going to outline this point:
Loneiness can be soothed with TV
But it makes you more lonely
- why? Because you don’t do anything with other people, it is easy to watch it (the initial costs are low)
the illusion of TV: it makes a world in which people do a lot
- but also, because of the temporal shortening (all the boring stuff is necessarily edited out to fit in the thirty to sixty minute window of time we have) we see no boredom
-- so we can escape into a world in which everything happens, but not to us. We think that we shouldn’t be bored.
The utter inability of TV to communicate a struggle against meaninglessness and eunnui in a meaningful way leads to us trapped in a cycle of meaninglessness and ennui because we fail to see that the problem actually exists.
The second problem is that TV spins an illusory world in which people are well-adjusted and active. Most of the human beings I meet are not like the people on TV. But the active, healthy people on TV are bad role models for the ranks of unhappy, broken people who find their solace and comfort of the television. A person might come home from a life alienated and unsatisfying, and watch an episode of the sit-com Friends. Let’s say they watch an hour of it a day. But that life on the screen is so very different . People on TV have friends, and they see their friends, and they work, and they are necessarily unbothered by the crippling existential angst that might lead a young person to withdraw from the world and watch the pleasant stories of people who do not withdraw from the world. We, who as a nation consume, consume stories about people who are far more active than anybody we ever see in our real flesh-and blood existences.
Where are the miscreants? The insomniacs? The alcoholics? The people in credit card debt? The idiots who hate their friends? Who have no friends? The compulsive masturbators? The guys who lie to get pretty girls in bed? The pretentious? The lonely? – we are all lonely. The people so bored they don’t know what to do? These marginal stories are now surrounded by a constant drone of normalcy. An exceptional normalcy – a life of event, carefully poltted and portioned in half an hour to hour dollops.