I spend my days as an educator and even student on college campii. This year I am spending more time at a state school here rather than the private school. Two very different worlds they are too. What struck me immediately when I went on campus was that immediately after class everyone digs out a cell phone and starts talking. If you’re walking you’re talking. Pretty hard to carry on a conversation with them. The cell in the cell phone contains all their interests and rational plans, and only these. Anything outside it is just incidental. It’s a weird sort of techno-solipsism in a way I suppose.
(There is one student in a very large class who always comes in with an iPod plugging him off from the rest of us. It is unclear whether he takes out the earplugs when class starts. But just like the cell phone, they get plugged back in right after class. Of course his cell phone must be set to vibrate or he won’t notice it, let alone another human talking to him. But the iPodization of consciousness is another topic. It’s enough to say that plugging an external auditory meatus with an iPod earplug has the same effect.)
At any rate… the same kind of solipsism is created – phenomenologically – on a computer screen. You set up your desktop, set all your files aright, name your machine, set up your bookmarks and contacts and what do you have? Your own little world. This is one thing I think Apple gets – a computer isn’t just a tool it’s a means of self-expression. Even the cell phone people are getting this – you can now put your own picture on the screen – it’s yours and no one else’s. Anyway, at some point self-expression collapses into self-awareness and you have created your own little world.
In an article several years ago I suggested, phenomenologically anyway, that the ‘Net ‘diffuses being.’ What does that mean? Being of course is the condition of what is (sorry, but circular reasoning is inevitable at this level). Being – existence – has become thin. Ask yourself, “Where is the Internet?”: Well, it’s really no where, that is, not in space and time; yet it is nodal on my desktop where being concentrates itself on the computer screen. And with Being-itself thinning out, so does everything – our world is thin, I am thin, I sort of exist, but sort of not. I am not really being, or not-being, I am becoming and I can’t put my finger on being.
One of the consequences of diffusive Being-itself is that, ironically, tasks become easier. Since things don’t really exist, really, there cannot exist obstacles to my wishes and actions. Right? If existence can’t be defined I cannot be defined. At any rate, doing a task is reduced to an ontological nodal point at the end of my fingers (if I have any) – sitting on the buttons of my mouse.
Shopping? No problem! Don’t even worry about shaving, or getting dressed for that matter. Just point-n-click. Get cash, pay off, write off, get paid, bills delayed, hand out, acquire it, stand out.. all with a point-n-click. It doesn’t matter that the entity on the other end isn’t “brick and mortar” as the telling saying goes, it doesn’t have to exist at all. Just click and that strange action at a distance – something even action potentials can’t do across cell membranes without receptors on the other end – does its magic. It takes no effort to get something done.
And if something takes no effort that is exactly what you’ll give. And now back to those cell phones – caught in our own little world we have to make no effort to meet one another on equal terms in some strange way. Do you see the entailment yet? Anything outside that world requires little effort and will get just that much. Take away all those cell phones for a day and what would you have on campus? A bunch of people standing around, speechless, looking for the habits needed to relate on a one-to-one, face-to-face basis. Social disability. I recall, in a our move to a new house this summer, saying to my wife, “I have to get my computer up first because I can’t get a thing done without it.” Oh, really? Has my life been so chained to this machine that I am impotent without it – eMaculated! So once we got moved and I started to do the bills you know what I did? I took all bills that were on-line payment off-line so that I would have to pay them physically – so that it would take effort on my part. Effort did a remarkable thing for me – I suddenly felt responsible. Imagine that!! After all, effort requires an act of will and will (free at least), is a precondition of responsibility, so that if Being-itself has diffused, thinned out, so that effort is reduced, one’s sense of responsibility diminishes. And what do you have?
You have groups of people to whom things happen, but not who do things. Let me say that again – things happen to them, they don’t do things. Passivity not activity. The excitement of the moment, registering, campaigning, the feelings of elation and power, are all things that happen to them, not things they do. So when it’s gone it’s, well… it’s gone.
So you have lots of new iGeneration (let’s say the 17 percent of 18-29 y/o who voteed, the exact same percentage as the last election BTW) voters who register to vote – on-line of course – but then when the time for an effort of will arrives, there is a diffused sense of responsibility. Low iGeneration turn out. Or maybe, young people are just less responsible and all this is fluff and I’m off my rocker. But each generations’ irresponsible period is culturally incarnated into a context in which one lives and moves and breaths and has his being and the irresponsibility is always expressed through this, whether it’s flowers in your hair or an iPod plugging your ears. (Of course there is a gradation here, not everyone is the same.) Okay, it’s a stretch, but not of credulity. You see, sometimes you have to have confidence in nonsense, you have to follow it for a while before it reveals itsel, because at some point it’s always possible that nonsense suddenly turns into sense. This begins to happen, hopefully, around 30 years of age, as far as I can tell.
– David Schultz