As the years passed and I had numerous penpals as a teenager, I used to get a handwritten letter from afar often several times in a single week. I used to get birthday and Christmas cards in the mail. I always remember when someone was ill or had anything to celebrate, people used to actually do that. And it's funny now, in retrospect, because as a writer, there reached a time in my 20s when I hated people who would just buy cards from Hallmark or whoever and not even write anything inside of them but "Love, whoever." As someone who, since around 9th grade, began to write his every thought on paper to the best of my ability, I often struggled with measuring other's forms of communication with my own very prolific and elaborate ruler. But these days, I would kill for someone to actually take the time to pick out ANY card, even just a scrap of paper, and write "Hi, how are you today? How is that big bloody hole in your mouth where you used to have teeth feeling?" or "I'm sorry about your loss." and actually get a stamp and take the extra, absolutely minimal time it takes out of our daily lives and just send me something in the mail. I want to make little "Like" cards where you just fill in the blank underneath and mail them to people to mock our dependence on facebook and texting for everything. I hate how it's changed everyone. I hate how it's changed ME, and I have been the internet's biggest critic for practically the past decade. I hate to come home at the end of the day knowing that I just posted something intensely personal and vulnerable, or even amazing, like "Holy shit, I just got that job I always wanted!" or something and, upon scrolling down my wall to see all the other bullshit all my "friends" have been posting all day long and everything else that has been "liked" or commented on, see that my epic life-changing _______ I posted earlier, or my cry for help, or whatever, only has 3 notifications or something. But more than having that be the case, I hate that I care--that I have been brainwashed over the years to have it even effect me. I hate that whenever I have important things to talk about with someone close, that in order to reach them, first I usually seem required to send them a text message. I hate trying to write the message I really want, and having to continue to simplify and abbreviate it more and more to get it down to only 149 characters on my particular phone. I hate that I don't have the discipline to only check my "messages," all forms of them, as I once did only one time a day after I got home from school and would check my mailbox and my answering machine, so I only had ONE time to think about in my head that day whether or not "somebody loves me!" as I found a real letter from an actual person amidst my junk mail or I had a voice mail on the machine. These are, sadly, nostalgic feelings of the past that I can not explain to anyone under 20 any better than I can how on earth I lived with my grandparents growing up for several years without hot water, or a shower, or cable television in the MTV era. I feel it quickly becoming harder and harder to close that gap with the youth today as each new year passes, as each new updated I-phone is released.
I want to share with you two pieces of writing that for years have been very important to me. The first is a poem I heard in the one and only poetry class I ever took my last semester of college by a poet named Jeffrey McDaniel that has been permanently planted in my subconsciousness and become a theme in much of my writing and way of life ever since. I have never been a fan of many people's poetry, and I'm not even a fan of all of his, but I credit him as the person who I learned to use metaphors and analogies because of, and I recommend checking out his books The Forgiveness Parade and also The Splinter Factory. First, here is his poem:
The Quiet WorldIn an effort to get people to look
into each other's eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn't respond,
I know she's used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
Second, I want to share a piece of writing I began almost six years ago in NY that I have been slowly adding more to and editing slightly over the years. The last time I updated it was about three years ago now, and already it seems dated to me. It was my most important manifesto of sorts that I never fully felt satisfied with, but nonetheless used to read at open mics often to a generally positive response. I have been thinking about it a lot lately, especially now that I have far more of an online presence than I ever have. I owe the internet a lot. It has, after all, helped me to raise over $4,000 in four months towards my dental care. But it is a tool, not a way of life. It is something like an oven that we use when we want to bake a cake for a friend. It should never become a substitute for the cake, or the friend. It should be secondary to how we live.
Though when I was a kid we did not have touchscreen cellphones or any of this tremendous technology, one thing we did have was Atari. And don't get me wrong, Atari was the fucking shit back then! If you didn't have one, you just didn't even count. But back then, to me at least, even though I played my Atari practically every day...it was NEVER a substitute for real life. Yes, I know, games are far more realistic now and mimic real life much more closely, but still! Even if I was in the middle of a game, and one of my friends showed up and wanted to play outside, or if someone in the family was driving somewhere or if my Grampa was tinkering with something in his shed or something, I would have dropped everything to do THAT instead. Because, it was
It was never a substitute for REAL Adventure. Even if I lived in the middle of nowhere in a town of like 800 people on 25 acres of farmland. It absolutely disgusts me how much time and human potential is being wasted worldwide every second on shit like Farmtown, or even just scrolling through the latest boingboing links. Plant a real garden already. Build relationships with the people in your community IN person, by talking to them. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. See if they need help when you come home and the hood of their car is up. Keep the dying art of letter-writing alive. Answer your phone without looking at it to see if that person is "good enough" to take up your time right now, and simply be happy that someone else out there in the world is reaching out to you--that they are even aware of your existence. Or better yet, turn off your phone and computer for a day, and learn what life was like only a short time ago. Give your carpal tunnel a rest and enjoy the silence...
we are all in a constant search for what we feel is "missing" from our lives. well, not everyone actually "searches," per se, but there is still at least a subconscious desire to fill the voids in our lives with...people that we hope can give us what we need. conversation, affection, praise, respect, love...we are all attention-farmers, cultivating fields of dreams--each day writing the screenplay for the movie of our lives, where every new face we stumble upon we treat as a casting call. we're constantly sizing everyone up. we have an imaginary application for friendship in our minds that we are secretly offering each day, to every soul our eyes lock with. we're desperate for attention, whether we live in denial of that or not, we are. the one ultimate goal of every human being on the planet is love, connection. we are highly social animals. we must form bonds, build friendships, nurture our family relationships to stay mentally healthy, and survive.
the irony is, we are the most "connected" we have ever been in the history of humankind, yet we are all slowly dying of loneliness. we're becoming more and more anti-social and detached and alienated as people with each passing year. our technology is quickly becoming the new "terrorist" threat, and the internet its leader. our keyboards and mice and cell phones are the slow poisons with which we are slowly yet more surely than ever depriving ourselves of life. we, all of us with cell phones and computers, constantly plugged in to myspace and facebook and texting away our days are closer to being "cyborgs" than any abomination science has yet created in a movie than we've ever been.
we've gone from being scared that big brother is watching, to filming our own movies of our lives, sent every day in a self-addressed stamped electronic envelope to the world. the internet allows us all to be our own celebrity. the center of our own little universes, surrounded by an endless web of fiber optics, complete with live video feeds, constant status updates of banal, everyday activities that will never be as exciting in new digital pictures as they were in person to us, so can we just stop it, already? we are slowly-dying spiders, our webs extended in every direction yet with no place really feeling like the home sweet home it once did when all we had was Atari and a shared telephone. we're a generation of needy, attention-starved children, locked in a constant role-playing mindfuck of narcissist and voyeur, with no big pay-off at the end, just wasted time, running in place, hoping someone out there is watching. we're the presidents of our own networks, and star of our own hit television show, forced in a constant fight for ratings with everything else everyone on the planet with a computer has ever created.
we're terrified of living out our real lives because we have electronic parasites permanently attached to our every move, sucking our real life dreams away for the sake of instant and CONSTANT gratification online. and we've all played right into it. if you don't have a cell phone in this day and age in america, you're worthless. we've gotten so needy. in the 80s, we used to wait by the phone, expecting a call from whoever, now we take our phones everywhere, permanently "waiting." roaming. "i'm sorry, i'm going to have to put my life on hold right now, i've got someone on the line. i can't talk to you, RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME." It's either that, or our cell phone's constant prom popularity contest 4 word sentence challenge:
what’re you doing? i'm doing this, what’re YOU doing? OH. well, tell me how it is when you get there. i might do something else. i'm here. who's there? oh. i'll text you back in 5. hey. why didn't you text me back? what’re you doing now? well. this sucks, let's do something else? okay, wait, i'm doing this now. who are you with? i thought you wanted to go with ME? but...
for all of their convenience, cell phones have become a substitute for real, in-person conversations, and texting a substitute for actual speech. 5 text messages to figure out what could have been communicated in ONE 30-second call. because, it just "saves time," right? why drive to spend time with someone, when you can spend phone "minutes" with them WHILE driving? our time is the single most precious gift we can offer to another while we alive, and now we BUY that time from Verizon wireless. Sprint. we FIGHT over the cheapest rates! nobody wants to be OVERCHARGED for the time they spend talking to people on the phone! and everybody wants the most minutes they can possibly get.. you gotta shop around...for that good QUALITY time...spent ear to ear with loved ones while you both sit ALONE in the world somewhere. because it saves time, right. why go out into your community and make real friendships with real people you can touch and feel and experience real emotions with when you can just sit home on your ass and talk to anyone in the world who has a phone or a computer? pretty enticing, i'll admit. far from the days of pony express or even the always romantic olden days of snail mail and mixtapes sent to friends and penpals. letters got soldiers through wars. will your facebook page ever save anyone's life? penpals are a thing of the past now. can you imagine a world where handwriting isn't taught anymore because everyone has computers as children? a world without stamps? you used to go to coffee shops to meet people, now everyone there has i-pod headphones or Bluetooth permanently attached to their heads, while texting someone and checking their "profiles" they've cleverly fashioned to take their place on their laptops. look around you throughout the day, in crowded public places, and everyone is always talking to someone who is not even there. letters show a tangible reference of a person's existence and time and love. how personal can a text message on a cell phone, assigned a special ring really be? an instant message with an emoticon. OMG <3. yet we define ourselves with these things. the color of our i-pod or the kind of cell phone we have or how our myspace pages are layed out are personality traits. "oh my god, do you see how tacky his page looks? i'm not gonna add him." somebody shoot me, my icon has become obsolete. my phone doesn't have enough bling. time to download a new layout, take a new picture
"LOOK, it's me, right here, right now, with my new and improved tattoo, taking a shit. LEAVE COMMENTS!"
the internet is the biggest promise of false hope that we have in this century--the new American DreamTM--the cure-all for the postmodern condition, for loneliness, despair, and terror all in one, which no new designer depression or anxiety medication could come close to...but will it be our savior, or our downfall? here, plug in, shut up, be happy--"what the fuck was it like before we got a high speed connection--how on earth did we LIVE? finally. things are looking up. our lives are no longer BUFFERING...now they can load instantly for everyone to see." the internet makes us so important. we don't have a few close friends anymore, whom we could count on in life or death situations, or hell, even neighbors to borrow a cup of sugar from, we have "buddies." we have "friendslists" categorized into little groups where we can meet in imaginary places and chat away the night with people we've never even looked in the eye. we can take quizzes and surveys all day long at work to show the world all of our favorite things while using no real words of our own, but trading in stolen images--our OWN personalities a thing of the past as the sign takes the place of the signified and we all lose meaning and purpose. We are no longer ourselves, but a laundry list of commodities posted on an imaginary fridge telling everyone what we've bought, but nothing about the REAL US.
And we can't fucking get enough. we're getting caught up in a hyper middle school note passing frenzy of instant messages and self whorification. sure, maybe we don't pay for sex, per se, but we're all johns and whores online. and while we might not get HIV over a computer, we're getting an overall highly-diminished source of communication, and paying for it with our lives. we are every day getting "fucked" with every second of our lives we waste while "connected." and there are no condoms to protect us from the internet-there's nothing to protect us from this disease that's slowly killing us, even abstinence. because the only thing that feels more lonely and depressing than a life spent online, is trying in this day and age to live your life WITHOUT a computer or a cell phone. because no one takes the time anymore to write letters or talk to strangers in real life, we're too busy being machines. we'd rather save all that time to just run in place. wasting potential. waiting for extinction. and in these days, if you’re not connected, you're broken, obsolete. nobody needs anymore what you have to offer. they've "evolved" and left you behind. you're worthless. you may as well not even exist. "EXCUSE ME, don't even TRY to talk to me right now, can't you see, i'm on the fucking phone?!"
but i still cant quite figure out...what will we all do one day if the power goes out, if the reception is lost, if we're disconnected for a few days. Weeks...longer? how will we communicate, if not through some sort of electronic middleman? i imagine, if its' at all possible, that something beautiful might happen.
don't forget who you were, and what your life was like before the internet. unplug for a few days, and see how it feels. write a letter. go for a walk. ride a bike to your grandmother's house and let her tell stories of her past...YOUR past. let's carry on the traditions of what life was like before all of our neat little electronic friends gave us our modern lives of detached convenience, so we can carry them into the future with us, before there is no one left alive who remembers. all the greatest friends and lovers you will ever have in this lifetime started out as "strangers." isn't it time you turned off your technology, and said "Hello?"
(Epilogue: Consider this a really elaborate dare for you to write to me. If you are reading this and are interested in sending me mail of any kind, please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Unplug" as the subject and I will reply with my address. I promise to also reply in some fashion as soon as I can with some form of tangible evidence that you can touch and feel and prove to yourself that I ever truly existed. Thank you.)