Humans in the Shadow World

First you use machines, then you wear machines, and then…?
Then you serve machines.  It was obvious.–John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar

Stand_on_Zanzibar_workingA few days ago I mentioned I had spent half a day online.

Half a day. That’s a lot of hours.

It upset me.

There I was, teary-eyed because I couldn’t get offline.

Ridiculous, I know.

I don’t look like an addict.  I don’t/can’t drink.  I don’t/can’t take drugs.

I’m now like a character in an SF novel.

Suddenly the computer takes over and….

No, it’s not 1968, the year John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was published, but everyone should read this postmodern science fiction classic.

As Brunner knew, the computer can be used for the good or the bad.

And so I went offline for several hours yesterday to read.

I almost finished Miklos Banffy’s They Were Counted, a Hungarian classic written in the ’30s, the first of the Transylvanian trilogy. Set in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this brilliant novel shimmers with vividly detailed descriptions of parties (one lasts 100 pages), hunts, gambling, politics, and adulterous love.  It is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, two of my favorite books, yet somehow I hadn’t made much progress this month.  It was all the online stuff.

I read 100 pages.

I am relieved.

I am still here.

Yes, the same person I always was.  A reader.

I value my online friends, their emails, and their blogs, but being online can be addictive.

When you’ve been off the computer for a day, you know what hurts your eyes?  Twitter.

It looks like this:

Europa Editions ‏@EuropaEditionsOur first ever hardcover at @banksquarebks in CT–looks delicious! Also catch @JonCG at @TheIvyBookshop tonight!

What the f___ does that even mean?  (though I love you, Europa Editions!)

FOR GIRLS ONLY.  My vivacious cousin the librarian has gone on four dates this month.

taintor magnets-fortunately-for-him-she-had-just-that-minuteShe has gone out three times with a guy who used to be “in the military.”

“What does that even mean?” I ask.

“He’s 40, a retired…officer?”

We dragged in a table from the porch and I arranged my plants on it.

There!  A Christmas cactus and three geraniums.

Having the plants there makes me want to look at the computer screen less.

“He’s very reliable…seems to be…and pays for everything…but…”

There is always a “but…”

“But he was half an hour late and…there was lipstick on his shirt.”

Probably his own lipstick, I thought despondently.

“And then he admitted he had been on another date…”

I knew this story wasn’t going anywhere I wanted it to go.

“Well, at least he was honest.”

“Honest?  Do you like him?”

She was quiet.  No, not that much obviously…it’s October…find someone now or you’re alone all winter.

“Honey, no!”  I said absent-mindedly.

Story, characters, sadness. That’s not what we’re all about in my family.

And we’re not really much about the military, either.

We looked at her latest email.

“You have 16 new matches…  Because you interacted with ____, _____, and _____, we think you may like these matches.”

“It’s better than hanging around in a bar,” she said in a quavering voice.

Is it?  Yes, of course it is.

We start reading profiles.

“Maybe I’ll just have a tiny drink,” she says.

I forbid drink, but give her an oatmeal cookie.

Stuck on the Internet

At the coffeehouse.

At the coffeehouse.

I have been online half the day.

“Get out of the house!” I told myself.

I know addictive behavior when I see it.

I had no pleasure in surfing the net, and yet I couldn’t stop.  It had been like that for a couple of days.

I am the person who was never supposed to be an addict. See me?  “That’s me in the corner…” chatting, drinking Diet Coke.

That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
–“Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.

“You’ll never have an addictive personality,” my doctor once said with satisfaction.

But, alas, on my Nook tablet, I click all afternoon between my book and my email.  I preferred my Original Nook (which broke), because it barely could get on the internet.

So I go out and walk.

I can breathe outside. I am not clicking on a screen.  It’s raining, but I smell the mud and watch the leaves fall.

I stop for coffee.  There is a minimal sense of human connection at a coffeehouse, which I very much need after a day on the internet.  You recognize the same people from day to day, or at least some of them, and you can nod to them if you’re feeling sociable.  And you don’t have that crazy impulse to (almost) reply to a tweet of Ron Charles, the Book Editor of the Washington Post, when he says he is the last one to publish a review of Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch  (on the actual publication date).  He might have been surprised to hear from me, since he doesn’t know me:  “Thanks! I get tired of reading reviews before the books are out.”

No, I love my coffee.

“Friedrich’s is the best,” another walker said as I strolled down the street sipping from my cup with the logo.

“Yes, I agree!”

If it had been a little quieter at the coffeehouse, I might have sat in a comfortable chair.  I had a book with me, The Diary of Anais Nin.

But it’s a bit crowded today.

And so I go on.

Down the tree-lined street with the meridian, past the houses for sale that I always want to buy even if they’re in a bad neighborhood, past the Little Free Library, which is not kept well-stocked, and features mainly thrillers and Guides for Idiots, and for once there are no dog walkers.

And I am not online.

And I want to read my book.

And I don’t know how I’m going to read if I have to be online all the time.

Today Brian Loging at his excellent blog The Wannabe Saint discussed our society’s obsession with zombies.

I have seen the undead at times walking in the mall, waiting in a check-out line, jogging down a street. Heads down, mouth mumbling, staring at a screen.

And I hate to think that this is me.

I don’t actually have my device out in public, because I don’t have a phone.

But I need more quiet than I’ve had lately.

I know how to provide this quiet.  Turn everything off.