Get a Horse

About a week ago Sherry Turkle's TED talk went live.

She says that we love twitter, Facebook, and sometimes even that metallic “droid” ring tone, because they deliver on 3 gratifying fantasies:

1. we can put our attention wherever we want it to be
2. we will always be heard
3. we will never have to be alone

PARO both looks and sounds like a baby harp seal.

Turkle was surprised when researchers and nursing home orderlies gushed seeing an elderly woman pour her heart out to PARO the empathy bot. She says,
“I was thinking, that robot can't empathize, it doesn't face death. It doesn't know life. And as that woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn't find it amazing. I found it one of the most wrenching, complicated moments in my 15 years of work.”
Margaret, my grandma, passed away a couple weeks ago. Four days before that, I read a book on bonsai while she slept, helped her drink water, and helped her to the bathroom when the orderlies were 15 minutes overdue. Recovering from the hospital, a couple months ago, she'd spent a few weeks in a well-staffed assisted living place. Sitting with her, I heard at least three distinct voices shouting from down the hall. They all said the same thing, “Help me.” I never saw visitors for the two elderly women sharing Margaret's room. Spending time with the elderly is not glamorous. It is by nature wrenching, and complicated.

Sounds good.

Maybe it shouldn't be much of a surprise that at an event called the “Tacoma Noise Rodeo,” plenty of hip youngsters, and decidedly un-hip 30-year-olds, had their phones out during the music. Everyone seemed to text, at least once. And once one person saw a phone, it wouldn't be long before they took out theirs. As if they all felt compelled to say, “Look how many other things I could be doing now, how valuable I am. How much is at my disposal, how disposable you are. God I'm fucking cool.”

At that point, says Turkle, people stop being people. Recipients and respondents to electronic pawing become, “spare parts to support our fragile sense of self.” So if we want to be heard, knowing how little we actually want to listen – why not tell 64 followers on twitter, or our 356 facebook friends (at least, the 36 who haven't blocked our feeds)? No risk of intimacy, with all the fruits of friendship. Why on Earth would anyone sit down to listen to some goddamned music? Not possible. We need that escape hatch unlocked – ready at any time, for any reason.

Until we don't. Last week Chris, a classy English gentleman, was visiting Seattle. We arranged the meeting details via email, text message, and phone. Chris, who I'd met over noir movies and 24-hour McDonalds take out, in a Malaysian hostel, was traveling up the West Coast with his fiance (the engagement was very cool, very new news, which they shared in person), and a couple from California. We wandered from the Space Needle to Pike's Place, got some donuts they'd seen on a British travel show (that I, Seattle native, had not heard of), drank, drank some more, ate some Dick's at Gasworks park, saw a troll.

Yes, and they're delicious.

It's nice to think that would have happened in an age of handwritten letters.

I write a lot about this one guy Jared, a.k.a. Sasquatch the Rock Notch. Never would have met him without games, instant messenger, and an ability to build real connection through fiber optic wiring. The guy lives three, maybe four hours away, over a mountain range and through at least two distinct climate zones. I hitched a ride to the tri-cities a couple weeks ago, in order to participate in his 12-team beer pong competition (team names included: two girls, twelve cups; sparkle motion; prestige worldwide). At the party, easily 30 people cycled between a garage outfitted with pong tables and couches, a kitchen, and other parties. Phones came out, but they didn't dominate conversations. A person whipping out their phone was phasing themselves out more than anything. Technology wasn't, basically, that big a deal. Sinking ping pong balls into red plastic cups was.

Turkle mentions people texting during funerals. I can't really speak to Grandma's, since I was in the front row, but I can say that two cellphones rang at inopportune times. After the second, a third one crooned as it was preemptively shut down. One of the offending telephones was understandable – it belonged to my mom, who'd spent the last five years caring for her mom, the last three months spending every day (sometimes whole days) taking care of pills, procedures, paperwork, and the last week with details - she was, frankly, exhausted. The other two phones? I'm not so sure. But the crowd was mostly over 50, or under 15. It was probably less disrespect, and more a matter of skill with technology.

I'm torn – it's tempting to see tech fetishism as a series of simple faux paux, thoughtless little indulgences driven by novelty (“holy shit, cars are new!” vs. “heyyy, new car smell!”) – most of us, presumably, will eventually figure out how to drive. Or how to avoid the careening Ford Model Ts. But I like the note that Turkle ends things on.

Why don't you chill the fuck out?

“An ad campaign,” she says, “promises that online, and with avatars, you can, quote, finally, love your friends, love your body, love your life.” But our real lives? Our own bodies? New technologies are at their best when they empower some form of true growth. And there's a whole world out there. Riding a horse across a green, or just walking, is a fundamentally different experience than whizzing by at 70, or floating over at 10,000 feet. Technology gives us utility, but that's no warranty on happiness. It reminds me of Stephen King, saying that, “Life isn't a support system for Art. It's the other way around.”

Some of us figure that out. Rest well, Margaret Chapman (1916-2012).