Souls of the new machine
How our reliance on the online universe can endanger the vital tool of narrative
The hills in Danehy Park in Cambridge are steep but friendly, and they overlook acres of marshland, which in autumn turns to colors of gold and dusty rose that resemble a Pissarro. I was taking advantage of this vista one gorgeous day last December by walking circuits up and down the incline with my 60-pound dog. Whenever we got to the rise we would stop and survey the meadows below, which on a normal weekday are mostly desolate. But on this day the empty paths gave way to a motley stream of people: a burly man with a tripod ; a small, hesitant woman with a notebook ; a lone fellow who tentatively approached the others. All of them seemed irritated by my (and particularly my dog's) peripheral presence. It didn't take long for me to realize these people possessed the electric silence of birders: Something wonderful was in those marshes, and they wanted me and my dog -- bumbling, land-beholden mammals that we were -- to go away.
So go away we did, and I came home haunted by the image of all these strangers, drawn together by a shared passion and utterly silent in their congregation. A decade ago this would have become a fine though indistinct memory, but now I had an easy means by which to ponder the mystery. The next day I Googled "danehy bird sighting " and got the gateway I was looking for: stories of Empidonax flycatcher and orange-crowned warblers and American kestrels. "The Alewife Peregrine was not in its usual place," wrote one astute birder about our morning at the park, "but was enjoying breakfast on top of the first building. Nice day."
As it was for me, too, because now I'd found out what all the fuss was about -- now I could eavesdrop on the conversation. Still, my newfound information, so easily retrieved, had attached to it a trace of melancholy regret. What if I had simply kept the dog quiet and approached the birders? I might have learned all about the flycatcher and the falcon -- everything I learned online -- and enjoyed as well a moment of human connection. Can you imagine E. M. Forster writing, "Only Google"?
History shows us every time that each new technology has its trade-off: As cars have replaced walking and telephones superseded physical contact, virtual realities and e-connects have displaced the old-fashioned notion of finding out things in real time, from real people. Gone are the days I used to call reference librarians (who answered their own phones!) with thrilling questions: "How many soldiers came home from the European front in the six months after V-E Day?" "Can you help me find something in Ezekiel?" Instead, in the new world of Archives 'R Us, such information is at my fingertips, if I have the patience and powers of discrimination to wade through all the misfires and detours. Rather than phoning old friends or relegating them to the dustbin of history (where they may belong), now I can track them down online, only to remember, after three e- mails apiece, that there was a reason we stopped being in touch. Now I can house-shop in cities where I've never been by perusing photos that lie better than Botox. I can check the wind speed on the river, a half-mile away, instead of looking out the window at the trees. Heck, I can even have virtual love affairs under a nom de guerre, so that only the psychic wounds are real. Now I can waste endless hours saving time online, by finding out lots of things I really . . . didn't need to know.
Of course, even this lamentation is a cliché by now; in the borderless democracy of online opinion, you can probably find 5,000 hits that would argue my comments are Luddite and elitist. But my poignant sense of loss about the birders that day speaks to something less quantifiable than the pre-Wikipedia days of accurate news sources or triaged information. It's for the act of hunting and gathering, and the tools we use to bring home the food source. It's for the fellow at the local coffee shop we used to see reading "Walden," who's now searching for free Wi-Fi. From the day the first Walkman appeared (remember Walkmans? The iPod's arthritic granddad?), we've been heading into techno-tunnels of separation. The seats on Jet Blue these days have individual TV screens, so that even the communal laughs on in-flight movies (granted, a paltry pleasure) are gone. With our iPods and ear mikes and tiny laptops, we look like the spooky characters in George Tooker's paintings of modern alienation from the 1950s -- lost souls in waiting rooms and subway corridors, looking anywhere but toward one another.
Ah, but what about the blog, says the technophile, where one can relay one's own story ad infinitum, and strangers can reach out and become soulmates? The fact is that our pixel-driven anonymity is correlative to the false sense of intimacy it induces. (There is also an argument to be made that this online exchange has been robbed of everything that enriches dialogue, including but not limited to caring about the teller.) The fragmentation of culture and technology in the past decade has exploded the dialogue of mass culture into a million conversations; the only common thread that exists is the fact that there isn't one. For all those globally correct advertisements from the big boys in high tech (where young Indian boys in a monastery watch spontaneous hip-hop from 10,000 miles away), the truth is that our shared humanity has been relegated to a screen or an earpiece -- some conduit of hardware that changes the dimension of the experience, alters and dilutes it so that the medium virtually shoots the message. Function becomes secondary to form. This uneasy alliance between consciousness and technology has been monitored since the Industrial Age by social critics from Kierkegaard and Heidegger to Derrida and Foucault; it is one of the premises of the modern West that we are quite adapt, as Neil Postman inferred, at amusing ourselves to death. The point is not to abandon the technology but to domesticate it -- to rein it in so that it can help work the farm instead of render it obsolete.
Writing more than 60 years ago in a story that would become a minor classic, "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man," Mary McCarthy brilliantly captured the banality of social discourse posing as thought: Her Yale man hears about the bohemian popularity of the left, goes home with a copy of the "Communist Manifesto" in his pocket -- then tells his wife to stockpile lots of durable consumers' goods, "in case, oh, in case of inflation, or revolution, or anything like that. His wife would interpret this in terms of cans and leave a big order for Heinz's baked beans, Campbell's tomato soup, and somebody else's chicken à la king with the grocer the next day. This was the phenomenon known as the dissemination of ideas."
McCarthy's words came back to me last week as I walked another trail, remembering the day at Danehy Park and trying to crystallize what was missing. It was, I believe, the act of listening -- the engaged state in which the listener has as much at stake as the teller, where information retrieval is a two-way street. This is the ancient phenomenon known as story: the narrative, spinning and unfolding, that shapes the audience and the wordsmith and the world itself. McCarthy's bumbling Yale man has turned his story, his gathering of facts, into something jejune -- a watered-down version of Marxist theory -- but McCarthy herself has authored the greater tale and thus made her point nicely. Which is precisely what writers are for: Throughout history, they've been the gatekeepers between raw data and complex understanding.
Too often trapped these days before the brilliant glow of computer screens that reveal everything we need to know but not what to do with it, we risk losing the art of synthesis -- of hearing the world around us and translating those sounds into the myriad sensible narratives that make up reality. The splintering of consciousness has also become a flattening : traveling widely but two-dimensionally, without benefit of the information sensors of the natural world.
Which brings me, quite appropriately, back to the falcon and the flycatcher. Now we are at the end of winter, and the urban vistas are still lonely but full of life. Coming up another empty rise, only a few miles, as the falcon flies, from Danehy Park, my dog and I recently spotted a coyote -- indifferent to us, he seemed a threat only to the field mice and squirrels within his domain. He was a thrilling sight -- regal and insouciant -- and I longed to share the experience. When I saw a fellow dog walker the next day, a friendly acquaintance, I called out, "Guess what I saw here this week!" "A coyote! " she countered, with similar wonder. "We see him every morning."
Our conversation, which roamed and meandered as freely as its subject, told me everything I needed to know: Wildlife authorities knew about the coyote; his scat had given them indications of his habitat ; and he was no more bother to us than we were to him. Two days later, signs went up in the area that coyotes had been sighted. I felt proud and possessive of the information: I had the visual image firmly in my mind; my dog's nose went up every time we neared the area; and most important, my story -- the coyote on the lonely, semi-forested terrain -- was sculpted from a primary encounter. The narrative was mine in every sense. And I am happy to report that Google seems to have heard not a word about it.