As I struggle to organize and synthesize thoughts for a slew of papers -- stopping frequently to gaze out the window at winter's first brushstrokes on the backyard canvass, or play a game of online pool to which I'm hopelessly addicted -- I also find myself confronting a terrible fear. Like most of the thoughts I struggle to articulate, it's probably already been organized, synthesized and better articulated by someone else. And I could probably find exactly how, and by whom, by Googling the title of this post. Within moments, I'd have access to dozens of eloquent disquisitions on this very topic. But, for reasons that may become clear below, I'm not going to submit my forming thoughts to Googlization. It would be antithetical to what I'm trying to say here.
The passing of my brother-in-law Jacques has given added urgency to the fear I hope to properly characterize in this little rectangle of virtual contact. Jacques was a person who was held prisoner, not just by the Russians, but by life itself. Life coddles some of us and kicks the ass of the rest. We all know who we are. We live in fear that life will shunt us from the former group to the latter. Perhaps it was Jacques' ironic good fortune to have been transferred to the ass-kicked category before he was really old enough to confront mortality. He spent the rest of his life staring it down. When I think of his life one word flashes in neon in my mind's eye:
My fear, quite simply, is that we are living in the Age of the Death of Experience. Within the past two decades, every action and interaction has begun to be submitted to the mediation of the experience and perspective of others, at greater speeds and depths, so that now, unmediated, uncontemplated experience -- a shock to the system, a real live threat or opportunity, the sensory thrill of the immediate and unexpected that even the angels cannot know -- is something for which younger generations are becoming thoroughly unequipped. The idea that you lean into the world with your physical being is vanishing. You now deputize technology to lean for you. Search engines, touchscreens and digital hieroglyphics cease to be tools, and become replacements for experience.
I worry about this mostly for those in subsequent generations, because I have already been formed by seeking and sifting experience, and for me, the hegemony of the digital is a graft onto reality, not reality itself. The brain is a tremendously adaptive organ, and I see, especially in my fellow students and in my children, the extent to which authentic experience -- which I guess I would define here as what is undergone -- comes after the screens of categorization, rather than helping shape them.
I am not saying we should all live as Jacques did -- what he experienced as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag was not something that most people could survive physically, let alone psychologically. Nor am I saying we shouldn't attempt to order and interpret our experience, or refuse to benefit from the experience of others or technology's capacity to help us have more beneficial, salutary, thoughtfully orchestrated lives -- in other words, better experience.
What I am saying, or trying to say, is something very important is passing away, and its passing is dangerous. What's passing is instinct, sensory acuity, and sponteneity. Without these three qualities, experience is shallow, packaged, lacking individuality. It becomes more like a package of gum, and less like a meal from scratch.
We still do things. We still have experiences. But more and more, they are set up for us, in rows, by engines of organization. They lack immediacy, because immediacy is dangerous, unpredictable, and often inefficient. And an experience that is orchestrated or anticipated is moved far enough away from the narrow ledge of immediate life that, imperceptibly, we get bored by the here and now, and seek more rather than less ordering of experience to give it more customized depth and flavor. We wind up sucking the life out of life.
We also have abandoned the parental, generational responsibility of letting our children find out how to improvise around life's sinkholes. They are now children of ordered experience, and when immediacy raises its head, they panic, and speed-dial us from their smartphones.
The vast generalities I'm throwing out are, I know, vulnerable to real and legitimate criticism:
- I'm romanticizing experience. "Experience" is a euphemism for being ground down by the mortar and pestle of life, something that still happens to 99 per cent of the world's population, which would just love a little less experience, thank you.
- In writing this, I'm casting stones at the glass house in which I live. Here I am, happily typing on a keyboard, publishing thoughts that don't deserve publication, bloviating about nothing because I can, being abstract because technology makes it so easy. When I could be out "experiencing."
- In fact, by going back to school, haven't I, in some sense, chosen to shield myself from this "experience" that I'm romanticising?
- The ability to order and direct experience, and to organize and synthesize information, is one of the hallmarks of progress, civilization -- even evolution. What could be wrong with that?
- Aren't I just being a Luddite? A cranky old man? "In my day, I walked 12 miles to school! Uphill! Both ways!" Am I just longing for what was, sensing my own obselescence?
- There's no such thing as the "death of experience." The numerous mediations we place between ourselves and the immediate and physical don't by one iota change the immediate and physical nature of life. It just makes it more possible for us to order and understand it, which can't be a bad thing.
To take these objections one at a time:
- This criticism fails to distinguish between "experience" and "life." While it's true that life is hard and our screens on experience are meant to sift out the unpredictability and increase individual control, the ability to simulate, orchestrate and customize also, inevitably and increasingly, deadens our senses.
- It's true, I live in the glass house. I'm throwing stones at it so I can break holes in it, and let in real air and light.
- Actually, school, so far, has been one of the most rewarding episodes of my life, precisely because it's helping me evaluate and analyze experience, which I've actually had. Although graduate school is clearly designed for younger, suppler minds than mine, it's built on a medieval monastic model of intensified concentration; distilled experience. In that way, we students are like time travelers. It feels as if we're part of an institution desperately trying to stay relevant, and doing so the old-fashioned way, by throwing us into a cloister where together we can intensify each other's experience of learning and growing.
- As a culture, or perhaps a species, we don't know when enough is enough. Like the sorcerer's apprentice, we can't stop what we've begun. There comes a point on the curve where we cease ordering our experiences, and the tools we've fashioned to order our experience begin to order us, begin to modify us to conform to its own existing strengths. I suppose the Terminator films, The Matrix, Transformers, Iron Man, the Tron movies, and countless others are popular attempts to come to grips with this notion.
- I am a cranky old man. But I only walked a block to school, and it was flat.
- Again: we are approaching a point on the experiential curve where we will be understood by our technology more than our technology will help us understand. It has begun to order, rather than deepen, our experience.
What's bugging me might be very basic: with my colleagues at school, with my son at home, I see the world being learned through screens, and I see the neural wiring being not assisted but defined by technology. This represents a huge shift in the nature of human experience. Technology has gone from shielding us from the natural world to shielding us from each other. We live in a fully-body condom of computerized conformity from which, in our corner of the world, there are fewer exits than entrances. Our growing inability to govern ourselves, to see past our own interests, to put an idea instead of a need at the center of our consciousness -- to actually do anything or make anything -- will be our undoing. (I'm reminded of the late comic Greg Giraldo's lament that we don't "make anything in this country anymore, except porn and autistic kids.")
Experience has until now begun with contact. Now it begins with a Google search. What's lost is the ability to improvise one's way through upheaval. We have, in varying degrees, the necessary sensory and mental equipment to improvise through upheaval, but that requires instinct and improvisation. When everything is ordered and rehearsed, packaged and delivered, instinct and improvisation become quaint. Communities of inquiry and spiritual seeking become little more than early music ensembles, sawing their tunes out on the ancient contraptions for which they were composed and on which they sound, to our modern ear, depressingly alien.
We will each soon be the center of the universe, and our individual ethers will be composed only of delectations chosen from our own personal menus of deliberated delight. Our days will consist of indulging in our own preferences, and our relationships will be carried on on keyboards, in chat rooms, over electronic transoms, in virtual time, from separate rooms.
Or not at all.