(Before I start, can I draw you attention to a very nice online interview with Greg Spalenka of Artist as Brand? Greg and I come at some of the same issues with different approaches, but there's a good deal we share in common, as you'll see from his questions and my answers.)
I sat down to write this morning but Ellie, upstairs in her office, discovered that the telephones had gone haywire. I'm not good in such circumstances. First, I just don't have the technical knowledge or skill to do anything about it; and as a result, my mind runs off shrieking into paroxysms of frustration. I've been running round the house from phone to phone trying to get one of them back on track, but pushing every button in sight does nothing to help. Now I'm back at my desk but my coffee has gone cold, my head is also a jumble of disconnected wires, and the phones still don't work. Ellie is upstairs in her office working through the maze of AT&T menus, trying to reach a human being to talk to.
Coincidentally, I was thinking earlier this morning that I'd write something about telephones. The thought was occasioned by an early trip down to the local market to buy a newspaper and some cans of 100 percent pumpkin. (You may be wondering why we needed 100 percent pumpkin so early in the morning. I'll digress enough to explain that George has been having unmentionable problems in the bowel department, and we remembered that pumpkin, in the past, had helped...)
So, back to the telephones. I stood in a short line at the checkout station and could hardly help but notice that every single person in the line had a cell phone in hand, and was either actually on the telephone, engaged in conversation with some person unknown to the rest of us, or perhaps checking email or the latest news. Every single person. Having made my purchases, I made my way out into the parking lot and found a couple more, similarly preoccupied. Had I not left my phone at home, I guess, to be scrupulously honest, I might have been fiddling with mine, too.
So I was thinking about connection, and how virtually non-stop electronic connection has become a way of life in today's society. What I saw at the market would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Now it's the norm. We expect connection whenever and wherever we are, and allow ourselves to go crazy when we're deprived of it. We tend to forget the paradox that when we're connected online, we're dis-connected from everything else around us--from the reality of life itself. I can't exculpate myself from this distressing new phenomenon: Ellie complains that the laptop gives me online access even in bed in the morning. And she's right. When I'm working on the computer, I'm somehow not really "there." And certainly not "here"--as in "here and now." My mind is elsewhere.
So it seems that vast numbers of us are elsewhere a good deal of the time. Walk down the street, stop for a cup of coffee at your local Starbucks, go our for dinner in the evening... you're surrounded everywhere by people who are not there.
"Only connect," wrote E. M. Forster at the end of his great novel, Howard's End. But I don't think he was envisioning the kind of connection we have today. "Only connect the prose and the passion," he continued, "and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." The prose and the passion--how we live our daily lives, perhaps, and what we feel, what happens in the heart--will both be exalted as a result, and human love will be seen for the best that it can be. Are we not "living in fragments" with our bits and bytes, our tweets and Facebook communications with our "friends"? So who is the beast, and who the monk? The beast, the animal part of our human being, the part that exists only to satisfy the animal instinct, the competition for procreation and survival? The monk, deluded by some notion of spiritual purity, as disconnected from the world as those ascetic companions of the Buddha, before he found enlightenment?
Forster's "connect" seems to me to suggest a Middle Way, a place where compassion rules, where we accept both the demonstrable vulnerability of our humanity and the unattainable quality of perfection. In any case, it's a far cry from the kind of "connection" that our technological advances have to offer, where electronic impulses replace human touch and pixels of light stand in for the human face. I have something to learn from the panic that set in this morning, when the phones didn't work...