Friday, June 21, 2013
I started running across discussions of “postmodernism” sometime in the 1990’s. The basic argument was that technological changes associated with computers and electronic modes of commmunication had radically transformed the nature of society and the very psyches of its members. At first I was skeptical, but now I find myself rethinking the question. Between the Internet, cable TV, smart phones, social media, etc., the world strikes me as radically different -- a dramatic increase in available information, access to entertainment, and the quality and range of one’s social contacts. While there are obvious benefits, there’s also increased strain, a state of affairs that I’ll label technoanxieties.
One example stems from my joining a website which I’ll call “MeetYourNeighbors” (a pseudonym) which is designed to increase communication among members of local neighborhoods. Now our own virtual neighborhood is approaching a thousand members, and I get multiple daily e-mails about this and that. Overall, the website does increase communication. I’ve probably had twenty times as much input from “neighbors” in the last six months than I have in all my prior years of living in Cincinnati, and I do feel like a better-integrated member of my community and its discourse. I like best the messages about lost dogs (because they always have a happy ending). People also advertise various goods and services, share recommendations about service providers (e.g., plumbers, piano teachers), give away free stuff, and announce community events of interest.
Not all neighborhood exchanges are positive, of course. Righteous indignation and outrage seems to be one reason for participating in public forums of this sort. Fear is another. Recently a number of people seem annoyed by dog owners who don’t clean up after their pets, and they call for more active confrontations of the ne’er-do-wells. Even though I’m a faithful cleaner-upper, all the anti-dog-owner talk makes me edgy. Other disturbing stuff is literally close to home. Somebody reported seeing two drug transactions at our street corner, kitty-corner from our house. A guy around the block said his father’s car was set on fire one night, along with somebody else’s a block away. A half dozen cars in walking distance of our house had their windows smashed this week. Incensed that his teenage son had been mugged, an upset father recommended that people “pack heat or bring a mean dog” when they venture out at night. Another resident was enraged that a new neighbor dismantled the fence between their properties and was seeking a real-estate lawyer who would initiate a lawsuit in exchange for store merchandise. Somebody around the block from us was convinced that mysterious dealings were going on at a nearby house where owners kept the garage locked, seemed to never walk their dogs, and had strangers coming and going in the night. Various MeetYourNeighbors members said this was an intolerable situation and urged that the writer call the police, animal control, and various other city officials. It turns out that the suspect residents (who were identified by name in the postings) were “a lovely family” who had lived there for thirty years, kept their garage locked to protect valuables, regularly walked their one family dog, and whose night-time visitors were pizza delivery men. In a vitriolic exchange about historic preservation one writer disparaged the “fascist liberals” in the neighborhood and a second party replied that the writer was destroying the last vestige of respectability left to his family (also identified by name). I do have to admit that I read MeetYourNeighbor postings faithfully out of curiosity. But, even though I’m more a part of the community, I also have come to view my neighborhood as more perilous and more inhabited by cranky eccentrics.
A very different sort of technoanxiety occurred recently when I tried to get into my word-processing program on our computer and got an error message that said I didn’t have enough memory space to access it. That set me into a state of total panic and a fear that my computer was on the verge of melting down. I told one friend that that would be the end for me since most of my life now resides inside the computer. The friend explained to me how to check my storage capacity, and it turned out that I’d used up something like 800 billion bytes of space. A third of it was taken up by the 16,000 photos that I had stored on the computer. Not knowing exactly how to pinpoint the source of my memory problems, I started deleting hordes of photos that I’d accumulated over the past decade. This amounted to days of work, looking at photos one by one, and making yes-no decisions for each. Despite incurring lower back pains and headaches, I did get my available memory back up to about half of where it should be. The computer hasn’t crashed yet, but I get nervous whenever I start it up.
Another crisis occurred when we changed TV/phone/Internet providers. A competing company had made a rate offer we couldn’t refuse. When the cable guy arrived, his first tasks were to run a new wire from the telephone pole across the street and drill holes in our basement and second floor walls to add new connections. We already had plenty of wires and holes in our house and I hadn’t thought about adding more, so the drilling noises were aggravating. Eight hours later the job was done. When we tried out our new cable TV, it seemed to be missing some of the fancier options that our old system had, and I decided that the new company had lied to us. Then I realized I’d lost all of the DVR movies I’d carefully accumulated over the past couple of years. The even worse realization (which we should have thought about) was that we’d eliminated our long-time home e-mail address and all the messages in the inbox it contained. It took days to contact all the relevant parties about our e-mail address change, and I’m sure I missed a bunch of them. I’m still recovering from the trauma of it all.
I do spend much more time nowadays in virtual reality, but it’s pretty nonsocial and sometimes lonely. Compared to some years ago, we currently get much more input about the world we live in – national and international events, politics, corruption, scandal, natural disasters, terrorism, social conflict, etc. However, all that information doesn’t necessarily enhance one’s personal state of peace and well-being. Further, when things go wrong with our gadgetry, I experience feelings of technological incompetence. I don’t like being dependent on things I don’t understand. Sometimes I try get away from it all by going camping. The trees, the bubbling brook, and the songs of the chickadees are pleasant and relaxing. But I have to admit that I get nervous being away from the computer and the cable TV for too long.