Unavoidable Ambience

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I admit it. When I walk through an airport (which I’ve done quite a lot of in the past couple of weeks), and see almost every pair of eyes staring at a phone or tablet screen, I get the feeling that something is wrong. It bothers me.

This is of course absurd if you know anything about me.

I adore smartphones and tablets and computers. I also hate being around groups of people, particularly strangers. In large part due to my Asperger’s syndrome, I’m deeply averse to casual human interaction, small talk, and establishing connections with people in meatspace. The smartphone and its ancillary technologies are a gift to someone like me; yes, as a way to escape and feed my mind and sate my need for dopamine squirts, but also as a means for me to communicate and build relationships on my terms, in my own time, and at a safe distance. I am serious when I say that I am so very grateful for these devices.

And yet. As my eyes survey a public space stuffed with humans, just about literally all transfixed on their phones, I can’t help but feel like something has gone wrong. I mean, they’re not all autistics and introverts, right?

If anything, I should be relieved. The more people who are engaged with their devices, the fewer there are to creep into my space and demand my attention and energy. As it is, I blend right in, which has been perhaps the chief aim of my existence in physical space since I was 10 years old.

Am I being weirdly territorial? Do I resent the normals of the world encroaching on my virtual space and leaning on my crutch? I mean after all, I’m in that space to get away from everyone, not meet up with them through a different venue.

Nah. These people may be online, but they’re still nowhere near me.

And anyway, I’ve argued before that there’s no reason to be judgmental about someone using a phone. Yes, it appears to the observer that all phone-gawkers are the same, passively consuming some digital confection of little to no value. But for all anyone knows, this person might be reading a scientific paper, that one might be engrossed in a rich novel, and that one might be reviewing important job-related correspondences. There’s no way to know.

But, you know, probably not. We still have no room to judge, though. I know that sometimes the best thing a person can do to heal psychological exhaustion is to vegetate for a bit, and rest one’s higher processes.

I suppose some of this has a lot to do with my own conditioning. I grew up to expect people to be interacting with each other when they’re in proximity. Lord knows I was never good at this, or ever liked it — indeed, it’s usually painful. But I knew that I was different for feeling this way, wrong, and well before I was ever diagnosed as autistic or sought therapy for my difficulties. I was the odd duck, while everyone else was doing it right. I learned, correctly or incorrectly, that this socially connective norm was right. To step back out into the world now, and in such a short space of time see things change so drastically, is jarring. I think, what happened to all of you?

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

For a few weeks now I’ve been chewing over in my mind the recent New York Magazine essay by Andrew Sullivan, where he cops to becoming consumed by the digital space, recounts his efforts to center himself and his priorities, and worries aloud about what the new smartphone era is doing to society as a whole.

I deeply respect Sullivan — he is a major influence on my work, even when I disagree with him. And here, I do feel like his own, very real feelings of loss and panic have caused him to project too much on the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, let’s consider some of his observations.

As I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in [Sherry] Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

That feels worrying, to be sure. There’s something rather disquieting about the idea that we’re slowly atrophying our fundamental humanity. I don’t know that we actually are, but he’s at least succeeded in scaring me a little.

But look at one of the examples he uses here. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend…” In a hypothetical scenario in which a person is lost in digital distraction, he chooses another form of distraction as the venue: watching a football game. He doesn’t say whether he means watching one on television or in person, but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s talking about two people in the same place being distracted by the passive viewing of the same meaningless thing. A game! I absolutely grant that the parent and child here are missing out on the chance to connect over a shared experience as a result of the parent’s texting, but it remains that the original activity was one of passive consumption in the first place. (To be clear, I think the parent in this scenario should definitely put the phone away and be with their kid — I’m just pointing out the weirdness and the irony of the scenario Sullivan has chosen.)

Now put aside for a moment the parent-child aspect of this. Sullivan presumes that the connections being established over a digital medium while watching a football game are less valuable or less meaningful because they don’t occur in meatspace. I’m not refuting that per se, but I’m also not prepared to grant it axiomatically. I have what I consider to be very meaningful relationships and connections with people I have never met in person, and exist to me primarily as Twitter avatars or what have you, and I truly appreciate them during shared experiences like presidential debates. But again, I’m also autistic. And I also know that my in-person connections to people like my wife and children are more valuable and meaningful to me than all the smartphones in South Korea.

So like Sullivan I strongly suspect, if not from my own inner life then from my observation of other humans, that people need these social skills that have been “honed through the aeons.” But there are countless tiny signals and nuances in the digital realm as well, so there is the possibility that we are just honing new skills that will adapt us to a changing world.

It’s kind of the story of human civilization anyway, isn’t it? A wandering species of animal that somehow stumbles along building megacities and spacecraft and internets as its neocortices and amygdalae do-si-do throughout the millennia, hoping we don’t murder too many of each other and open too big of a hole in the food chain for some other species to become the boss. (I’m looking at you, octopuses.)

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Sullivan also says that spirituality itself is being replaced by the unavoidable ambience of consumable content, because spirituality requires silence.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

That’s a bit of a reach. The claims about the nature of reality made by faith traditions have indeed been disproven bit by bit over the ages, and we do now live at a time when they have been so utterly demolished by science — and even lived experience — that the outright rejection of faith in general becomes an increasingly tenable and normal condition. Has the noise of media contributed to this? Almost certainly, but I think it’s as much the content of that noise as it is the quantity.

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clasesdeperiodismo via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

However, I think there can be little doubt that our current state of affairs is one in which there is precious little space for silence. And too many of us aren’t wise enough to seek it out of our own volition. Sullivan got wise, but only after driving himself to the brink. I am also very new to the notion that silence, space, and meditation (in the broadest sense) are not just sometimes pleasant or preferable, but necessary, physiologically and psychically. Silence is medicine I must remember to take.

And I must remember it on my own. Apart from the encouragement of my wife and therapist, there is no mechanism built into the digital age’s social infrastructure that either imposes or easily facilitates this (unless the power grid goes down). Our world is built on an increasingly complex lattice, made up of strands of distraction. For now, the choice is entirely our own to close our eyes and refuse to follow each strand as it passes our awareness. And it’s a choice that becomes more and more difficult to make all the time.

Those hundreds of people I see in one glance around the airport, each to a person gazing into an imperceptibly dense mosaic of pixels; if they’re not interacting with each other as I have grown to expect them to, I wonder if they ever find silence. I wonder if they ever seek it.

As an Aspie, I am highly sensitive to noise, crowds, and torrents of stimuli. So maybe that’s what concerns me when I see them, that I unconsciously perceive that even if I can’t literally hear it, there exists among this sea of glowing rectangles an ever-increasing amount of noise, forming into a tidal wave of clamor that will eventually sweep me out to sea.

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Japanexperterna.se via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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