Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I want you to come and see me

Consider the following that happened when Kuno called his mother:
"I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have something particular to say."
"What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?"
"Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want----"
"I want you to come and see me."
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
"But I can see you!" she exclaimed. "What more do you want?"
"I want to see you not through the Machine," said Kuno. "I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine."
Ever since the dawn of the communication age, we humans have been worrying about the loss of immediacy in relationships.  That exchange between Kuno and his mother is from a short story that was published in 1909.  Yes, more than a century ago!  It is a wonderful piece of science fiction in which the author, E.M. Forster, had even imagined something like a Skype and Facetime.  A future in which "the machine" knows it all and people, including Kuno's mother, practically worshiped the machine.
"You talk as if a god had made the Machine," cried the other.  "I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind."
She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.
It is so eerie to think that we are now living a life that the likes of Forster worried would happen.

For a few years now, I have been doing annual trips to visit with the parents and sister and my favorite aunts, which then becomes an opportunity to connect with a few more in the extended family and friends.  A trip or two every year to visit and spend time with the daughter.  A good chunk of the disposable income gets spent on these travels.

Of course, these are all part of my definition of what it is to be human.  It is also why I have had a love-hate relationship with Facebook ever since I signed up there.  While it does help me maintain my connections with old friends and family, it can also easily lull one into thinking that Facebook is the real thing. It has been a couple of months since I disconnected from any daily presence on Facebook.  As I told a few real friends, I am seriously evaluating the benefit of spending time there.

It does not surprise me that Facebook is also concerned that there are people like me who are "users" but do not spend a lot of time there.  Further, even those who spend time there are not providing original content but are merely recycling memes and posts from newsfeeds.  Facebook is worried, writes Nicholas Carr:
Because Facebook feeds on personal sharing the way a vampire feeds on blood — the more intimate the information you publish, the more Facebook knows about you, and the more precisely it can tailor ads and other messages — any decline in personal sharing is ominous for the company. It’s no surprise that Facebook is now trying to figure out some interface tweaks and tricks that will, as a company spokesperson puts it, “make sharing on Facebook more fun and dynamic.” It’s hard not to hear a hint of desperation in that statement.

The business model collapses if users do not share it all in Facebook.  And Carr writes the following, which is a gem:
There’s something else going on here, too. We’re learning how difficult and exhausting it is to sustain a mass-media presence. The problem with broadcasting everyday experience is that everyday experience is inevitably repetitive, and repetitiveness is, in a media context, the kiss of death. To remain interesting when viewed at a distance, when viewed through media, a person has to display continuing novelty — novelty of experience, novelty of thought. Very few of us can do that for very long. I imagine that, on Facebook, even Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker would have worn out their welcomes after a while.
The repetitiveness of our lives remains interesting to our family members and close friends, but outside that intimate context it gets boring. As reality-TV stars, we all face declining ratings and, in the end, cancellation.
My quest to understand what it means human leads me away from "the machine."   I  have better ways to spend the very little time that I have before my very boring show is canceled forever.


Ramesh said...

Where goes Facebook; there follows Twitter :)

No substitute for the in person meeting. Which is why even in the sterile business world, air travel has actually gone up despite email, video conferencing, etc etc. In the personal world, even more importantly so.

I admire you for the once or twice a year visit "back home". Not many of those who have flown away, do this. Bravo, my friend.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, travel to the other side of the planet, to visit "back home", is increasingly painful for this middle-aged guy. But then I remind myself that if I think I am getting old for this, well, there are much older people whose futures are statistically shorter than mine ... so, no way but to put up with the pain of long flights and bad food and everything else.
So, when I come to India next time, do not expect me to come crawling to your palace in a far away Bangalore ;)

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