I spoke recently with a young acquaintance who had, as she called it, “gone off- line.” Worried about obsession, she had exercised a discipline unique in modern life. She had logged off and then simply and purposefully disconnected her internet cable. I found this particularly interesting, in that I too am concerned about obsession. “For good,” she says, with emphasis. She is young, as I said. And the young are drawn to absolutes.
“I was getting compulsive,” she confessed. She related that she normally started her session by checking her email. Then she would browse the web. But as the on-line hours ensued, she found herself surfing the net aimlessly, casting about with no apparent focus. “It was worse than channel surfing,” she said. “I hated it, but I couldn’t stop.” I asked if it was difficult going cold turkey. She said yes, that it was hard. “But more disturbing,” she continued, “now I feel out of touch. I even deleted my Facebook account. I’m a pariah.” She looked disconsolately across the room. She had hit upon another cherished theme. Fortunately, the world is rich with opportunity for reflection.
Pariah. The word comes into English from Tamil paraiyar, the plural of paraiyan, a caste name, meaning literally “hereditary drummer.” It is derived from the name of a drum used at certain festivals, and later evolved to capture the essence of the Indian caste system, the untouchables. Thoreau picked up the theme in Walden, the pariah’s manifesto: If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. My acquaintance was a social outcast. It was a course she had guided and could blame no one. But now she was troubled. She was no longer connected. She had checked out, gone off-line. She consciously set herself apart from her on-line peers. She had declared her independence, and in do so, had declared herself an untouchable.
I have thought about going off-line, about disconnecting, moving to my personal Walden and picking up my drum. It is an inviting idea to anyone remotely self obsessed, like myself. I gather there are some who have not at one time or another wished for a life of self-involved quiet and contemplation? Yes, of course there are. Many more, I suspect, than those feeling cramped and wanting to break away from it all. In general, though, Americans, I believe, trust in a singular independence, our pariahness, collectively and independently. I think we fancy ourselves each different and independent, yet similar, sharing common goals and aspirations. Are we not, after-all, collective practitioners in pursuit of happiness? Our pursuit has forced upon us a homogeneity that is at times comforting, then again repugnant. Too, I think it is a tendency of Americans to think of ourselves as different from all the rest of the world, as if we were One Nation (of pariahs) Under God. But these matters were far from my youthful friend’s concerns.Going off-line is not a passive statement of individualism. It is a bold step in today’s terms, particularly and uncomfortably bold.
I have friends, Franz and Anna, who live a remote area of South America, the lake region of Patagonia specifically. They had but one connection to the world from their island lodge, a satellite phone. Several weeks after visiting them, I read that Iridium, the satellite telephone company, had gone out of business. Its orbiting satellites were rendered silent, as were Franz and Anna. A few months later Franz was traveling in the states and I caught up him. I asked him how Iridium’s demise had affected him in Patagonia. “It put us in a real jam,” he said. “Any time we wanted to call someone I had to take the boat across the lake and drive into town.” This was no trip to the Seven-Eleven. The journey to town took two hours, crossing the Yelcho, then four-wheeling a gravel road. Town consisted of a handful of small buildings with corrugated metal roofs, one of which had a phone line. Now there is someone off-line.
There is no groundswell of primitivism afoot today, no Luddism. To the contrary, technology pariahs are few and far between. I know a fellow, an early adapter, who a couple of years ago retired his PDA (do you remember those?), claiming that he missed the tactile pleasure of holding a traditional writing instrument. “I even missed the scratching sound of writing on paper.” However, last year he stood in line for eight hours to get an iPhone. Someone recently gave my son a beautiful calf-skin leather journal. He likes the feel of it in his hand, which is not something you hear usually said about a laptop. But he does not use it.
Ned Ludd, an English laborer, fearful of jobs lost to technology, destroyed weaving machinery around 1779. He garnered followers who were dubbed Luddites. But there is no Luddism in going off-line, no yearning for turning back the clock. Fear of technology is not at root here. I don’t think my young friend is afraid of a technological future. Rather, there is something deeper, more akin to the spiritual, at work in her misgivings.
Some cultures practice that a photograph steals part of the soul. The Sioux Indians, for example, believed that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life. I have a friend—he does not own a television—who says that T.V. robs us of our intelligence. That, I believe to be not far from the truth. A vital layer of life goes to rest in front of the T.V.. My off-line acquaintance found herself aimlessly staring into her computer at night. She said she had “to get a life,” that the internet was stealing it. I have to wonder if we are losing bits and pieces of ourselves as we are given over to the subtleties of modern existence, not only its technology, but also its conveniences and entertainments? I suspect after a fashion that we are being blindsided. For example, there is a phenomenon in animals where they become “naive” if natural predators are removed. After a generation or so they forget their enemies. Wolves recently re-introduced into the wilds of Yellowstone had easy pickings until the moose realized they were going to be eaten by them. This is what I mean by the subtleties of modern existence. Consumption and predation are related and I have a fear that one can too easily morph into the other. To repeat an axiom, nature is balanced.
In 1965 Joan Didion wrote:
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.
She closes by saying, “And I suspect we are already there.” She was writing on morality and consumerism and of course the grand era of the ‘60s, but on a larger canvas, as it relates to our possessions, I agree, we are in bad trouble–as recent events, the crash and burn of consumerism, suggests. It seems to be the nature of things human that stuff we own will soon enough own us. I live in a world devoid of natural predators. I fear being like the moose in Yellowstone, growing forgetful and waxing naive. I resist.
I harbor an odd hankering to be a technology pariah, independent of cables, connections, satellites and modems. I respect my friend’s decision. There is a stubborn romanticism to the contrariness of the idea, and all fashion of contrariness holds an innate appeal for me. But truth be known, I am connected and will stay connected. One year I did all the Christmas shopping online. My wife couldn’t face another year of it and I relieved her. It was no small annoyance to her that I never left my desk and that the children’s presents arrived already gift wrapped, including cards. That was reward enough. The razor’s edge of technology is to ask where it stops helping and becomes a thing obnoxious. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” begins the Unabomber Manifesto. Would Thoreau be Kaczanski today–presumably without the violence–if he was around? He did, after all, spend that famous night in jail.
I often drive without the car radio on. I like the unhurried quiet of Sunday afternoons. I avoid the mall. I prefer cross-country skiing to downhill. My life is a balance of avoidance and seeking. Avoid noise, crowds and rushing around; seek quiet, stay calm, be stable. Being on-line helps. There is a great deal one can accomplish in the quite nether realm of technology, whereby one avoids much of modern annoyances, such as traffic, surly clerks, pollution and canned music. To my friend’s point, however, I am conscious of the slithery Faustian tendrils of technology. I don’t look too hard into the computer. I’ve made an observation: The Sioux were right. A computer screen does not reflect your image. It absorbs it.