The author Douglas Coupland — who you might remember from his bestselling first novel, Generation X (1991) — was interviewed the other morning on the radio, about his new book, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel Lucent, a look into one of the world’s largest telecomm companies.
For some time I’ve been thinking about the normative model of the lone individual (one that’s as much in keeping with Rousseau’s notion of society being the result of separate citizens making agreements with each other as it is with a modern economic theorist’s notion of lone consumers all making rational choices) that is usually presupposed when it comes to warnings about the effects of the internet — and this interview made this all very apparent. For who’s to say what ought to count as an individual? For at least in the U.S., corporations and fetuses now seem to have the status — evidence that there’s an arm wrestling match going on right now over the limits of what counts as a person. (The fact that “we” even debate it should be sufficient evidence to dispel with the notion of individuality as actually describing anything other than the ongoing debate itself.)
As I said the other day at lunch, when this topic came up, I turn my cell phone’s ringer off at such moments, an action that, I presume, signals to my lunch mates their importance, that they occupy my undivided attention — but it simultaneously signals to the other equally real human beings trying to reach me by phone or text message that, in this particular moment, they are rather less important. Who’s to say which of those real human beings ought to come to the forefront? That is, jokes about zombie-like humans shuffling along with their eyes locked on their smartphones fails to take into account that this medium is facilitating no less human contact than a face-to-face conversation. Sure, there are differences, but I’m not entirely certain how imaginatively zoning out while reading a book by candlelight in a quaint little house on the prairie is all that different from imaginatively zoning out while playing an online game in a wifi equipped house in a subdivision.
Question: If my mind is wandering (that we say “wandering” is pretty interesting, no?) to how long is left on my parking meter, or how we’re eventually going to divide the bill, then how present am I at that lunch, regardless the fact that I made much of turning off my ringer off? That is, are we ever really all there — even when we’re there? For weren’t we all more than capable of going into the virtual realm long before smartphones? (Note to self: I need to pick up milk on the way home.)
So despite often not really being there even when we’re supposedly there, we often carry with us rather unrealistic presumptions about what the individual is — or ought to be — and therefore what counts as an authentic interaction with what we imagine to be other individuals (whose minds are no doubt wandering too, right?); for example, look no further than how many of us worry about the manner in which we shake hands with someone and what that brief skin-on-skin contact says to them about who we are. Case in point, I shook hands not long ago with someone I knew who I happened to meet at a restaurant (honest, I don’t go to restaurants as much as it seems from this post), when he was coming out of the bathroom and I was just arriving… His hands were still wet.
What do I make of that?!
While locked in the grip my mind was clearly elsewhere — the ringer was still on, shall we say, and it was sounding an alarm.
So while I’m not taking a stand on what counts as a legitimate human interaction (but yes, people talking on their cell phones when also buying something at a store’s counter ticks me off) — i.e., a truly human moment (and fess up, who hasn’t shed a fond tear watching youtube videos of the remarkable singing voices that come out of the bodies of ordinary British folk on those talent contests? Even Simon gets misty sometimes!) — I find it interesting how easily we presume a certain sort of nostalgia for a supposedly bygone form of contact when thinking about the age in which we now live. But is this new medium intrinsically solitary, as Coupland maintains? Weren’t friends and family already largely inhabiting our minds, living their lives where literary theorists for some time have argued the reader’s idea of the author already resided? Weren’t we virtual before all that fiber optic cable was laid and aren’t we already alone all together, each imagining our others and selves in continually changing circumstances — whether the ringer’s on or off?
Unless we fail to see this, unless we fail to understand that our fear for how others perceive that awkward handshake is just that — our fear and not a transparent reading of their thoughts — we might call into question the ease with which writers such as Coupland laments the loss of the individual (writers whose livelihood has, ironically, always depended upon us buying the products that their isolated imaginations produced and then zoning out for a few hours while curled up with it on a couch).
You can listen to the interview here (by yourself or, yes, with a friend):