The Speed of Life

23 01 2011

I finished watching Social Network with my wife a few weeks ago and I walked out of the theater exhausted ~ existentially exhausted. How did we get to this place, and so quickly? I guess that answers my own question, in a way… we’re moving so quickly that we hardly have time to reflect on how we got there. Have you noticed lately how the proportion of ads on TV for techno gadgets of one sort or another completely overwhelm ads for virtually any other kind of product? And for what purpose? I mean, since when did we develop the need to keep in instantaneous contact with the entire citizenry of the global village? Do you really want to be that accessible? I sure as hell don’t. Give me a laptop, a couple of email accounts, and a cell phone and I already feel ridiculously wired in.

And yet, with all these opportunities to connect, we’re simultaneously losing the art of conversation. No one asks questions anymore. Jen and I will spend entire evenings with certain people and end up asking 90% of the questions. Strangers don’t talk to other strangers any more ~ on the bus, on an airplane, in a coffee shop. And you know why? Because they’re all dialed into Facebook where they can interface with their virtual “friends.” I actually have a theory: Facebook isn’t connecting us, it’s disconnecting us. Now we can satisfy our sense of significance with our hundreds of “friends,” friends who never smell bad, or have loud and annoying voices, or have a piece of broccoli caught between their teeth, or have a tear in their eye, or whisper, or smile, or laugh… We’ve virtualized our social network, and as a result we’ve lost communion ~ and when that goes, we no longer have real communication, since the word “communication” comes from “communion,” which can really only be had in face-to-face encounters. We’ve mistaken the exchange of information for communion, and we’re slowly morphing ourselves into diaphanous creatures,  the kind of creatures that C.S. Lewis talks about in The Great Divorce ~ those insubstantial creatures who populate hell because they can’t take the hard realities of heaven, where everything is so real.

I’m afraid Ray Kurzweil was right about at least one thing in his book The Singularity is Near. Things will only continue to move faster and faster so that we don’t have 100 years of progress in this century but more like 10,000 years of technological advance. Chip speeds are increasing at exponential rates, nanotechnology is doing things now that just ten years ago was considered impossible, and the human genome is in the process of being replicated. P-RAM ~ ever heard of it? Phase-change memory: in which the physical state of an alloy is changed between crystalline and amorphous states to store data, rather than having to produce a change in electrical charge. In plain English: prototype P-RAM and S-RAM chips perform 100,000 times faster than current flash memory and use half the power. Samsung started shipping its 512 Mb phase-change RAM (PRAM) in a multi-chip package in their mobile handsets just a few months ago. Welcome to the Brave New World, people. Don’t blink, because it will pass you by.

So why am I telling you all of this?

Because meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are these entities called people, and they like to make sense of their worlds, and they like to talk and make love, they like to get to know each other, and to live and move and have their being. They like to take walks (remember those?) and take vacations and take coffee breaks and spend time alone just being silent. But increasingly, instead of saving us time to do those things, these infernal gadgets have replaced the umbilical cord ~ because, apparently, we’re all in some sort of post-Freudian reactive state of ego-dissolution that causes us to fear the threat of insignificance and abandonment precisely because we’re not actually communing with each other any more ~ and are actually taking time away from the things they promised we’d have more time for. In other words, the very technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier are, in the process, making them less life-like. And the less life-like life is, the less it is life. And then we enter the world of shades and shadows, of virtual reality, of make-believe ~ precisely the place the evil one wants us to get to, a place of no actual vitality, of no actual anything. The Twilight World.

Dante was right… hell is frozen over, not hot, and Satan is almost completely immobilized in ice, only able to move his jaws in the act of chewing on the most unsavory meal. The higher one moves toward heaven, the more real things get, the more vital and verdant and substantial they become. The further down towards hell one moves, the less substantial things become, until reality itself is practically virtual.

There were consequences, in other words, to taking a bite out of that apple (MacIntosh or not). Life wasn’t meant to be easy, it wasn’t supposed to be convenient. By eating from the tree of forbidden knowledge, we unwittingly bit into something that filled us with only one thing: an insatiable appetite for the unattainable ~ to be like God. And by taking the bite, we introduced death by distraction, the frenetic pursuit of immortality, perpetual desire.

Turns out, speed kills.