Letters at 3AM
By Michael Ventura
MAY 18, 1998: The poet Wallace Stevens said it elegantly: "One cannot spend one's time being modern when there are so many more important things to be." Today being modern means being technological, which in turn means being linked umbilically (plugged in!) to the corporations. My resistance to technology isn't an aversion to the machines but to the people behind them - faceless people who want things from me, from us. They want profit, power, our accessibility, our (precious!) time. They want us to become dependent upon, addicted to, information and goodies that they control. When they consolidate their power; when one line into my apartment is the only means by which I can receive information, entertainment, personal communication - then what will be my recourse when they raise the rates? If I don't behave (and, frankly, I have a long history of misbehavior) will they cut the line?
Sounds paranoid, I know. But I grew up on the famously mean streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, streets even meaner (because their meanness is more subtle) than in the movies. Though middle-aged, I still sometimes refer to myself as "a streetkid," and I play by a streetkid's rules: "I'm not going to trust you, baby, until you earn my trust. And dig: It can take a while to earn it and an instant to lose it." I haven't forgotten that in our Century of Progress people have used every conceivable means to do horrible things to each other to gain and extend power. Technological dominance is power, and history teaches one lesson, over and over, in blood: Power is never to be trusted.
Yet I, too, am a child of the age. Literally. Mama and I would not have survived my birth without medical technology. I owe my life to progress, but it's still my life, and I'm very careful about who and what I connect it to. I'm not willing to plug in simply for convenience. I'm stubborn. I need a better reason.
Granted, my instincts are primitive. Tribal peoples have always insisted that everything, inanimate as well as animate, is alive and its own sentience. This conviction was confirmed for me when I spent some years, off and on, as an actor. You can see how alive an object is when you place it on a stage. You're playing a scene that requires a chair, but which chair? In rehearsal you use one chair after another. A certain kind of chair makes the scene impossible to play; another lets the scene flow easily. No one can say why, but any actor can tell you this is so. The chairs have a kind of life, a vibe; their presence makes a kind of statement. You can't define it, but you can feel it.
And you can feel it with a car, a computer, a washing machine, a lamp. Walk into someone's home and the objects tell a great deal about that person - which is to say, the objects speak, they have a life of their own. Technology partakes of that same realm of life. A computer and a typewriter are different forms of life, and foster different modes of being. A typewriter sits self-contained on the desk for you and you alone. A letter appears in your mailbox and you can open it or not (sometimes I take weeks to open a letter). But a modem-equipped computer sits on your desk connected to God-knows-whom and God-knows-where, absorbing messages from strangers as well as friends, even while you sleep. Unless you unplug it you're never really alone - an uncomfortable sensation for someone like me, a cherisher of solitude.
This Mac PowerBook I'm typing on was a gift from good people who care about my work and who don't want to see me left behind by my century. Very handy for short pieces like this. But for novels and screenplays, I still prefer the big typewriter. I like messing around with pages. I like re-typing. The way some people like to wash dishes or fix cars. I like the messiness of all those pages piling up on the floor, all those notes scribbled everywhere. Mess feels alive. For me, a Sicilian Catholic from the streets, the computer is too squeaky clean, too logical, too WASP.
After all, what could be more middle-class, more chickenshit, than entertaining the delusion that you're involved with faraway places and exotic people when really you're sitting on your ass alone in your room?
Some computers compose music, paint, and generate stories, all on their own. It's said that the music is affecting, the painting interesting, the stories readable. I have no reason to doubt this, for, as a primitive man, I come to the computer assuming it's alive. It doesn't seem at all strange to me that the thing talks or paints. If it has something to tell me, fine, let's hear it. But I doubt a computer has much stake in the art it makes, while human artists put their lives on the line with what they create. That's what's most valuable and most threatening about art: Somebody's putting their life on the line, and daring you to do the same. What does a computer dare, how can it accompany me in my dare? And the dare is what I love. So this development has little to do with me.
And that is the point: To step back and ask, what has this to do with me? With what I love? With how I love?
For one day I will die, and on that day I want to know that my life has had something to do with me, rather than with some collective blind momentum called "society," "progress," or "technology." I take from society and contribute to it, as best I can; I love it, so I necessarily have lovers' quarrels with it, trying to change what doesn't suit me and preserve what does. Sometimes my society supports me, sometimes it has tried to destroy me - this is true of all of us, and, as with all exchanges of love, it is fair. But I don't want society, or any lover, to live my life for me. To determine my limits. Control my pace. Or to enter my room without knocking.
Technology has given me much that I cherish. Recorded music. Affordable books. My car. Movies. The voices of distant friends on the phone. It's given me my livelihood: the photo-offset press that made small weekly newspapers possible. It has also threatened my life - with guided missiles, chemical weapons, indiscriminate gun sales. Which is to say: Like anything else alive, it gives and takes. That's to be expected. But as with any exchange among the living, I reserve the right to be on guard - not against the machine, and not against you, but against permitting too great a gap between what I am and what I do.
That gap, that place of vertigo, between what we are and what we do, is the only real threat. Technology may heighten that threat, but it didn't create it. If the space between what we are and what we do becomes too great, we become lost. Worse, we become susceptible to manipulation by forces that care nothing about us except to use us to increase their power. We buy things we don't need, and act for reasons instigated by others against our own and our community's welfare. Technology is dangerous mainly in that it gives us the most convenient opportunities ever devised to increase the gap between what we are and what we do.
Technology is dangerous for the oldest of reasons: It is, as an entity, one marvelous, enormous, many-outletted machine for hiding from ourselves. It needn't be used that way. But, since hiding from ourselves is our favorite (and most expensive) pastime, that's the way it's mainly used.
But we've created these machines. Thus they are not only objects of utility; they are also expressions of our spirit. The atom bomb had to always have existed within us in order for us to create it. How else could we have created it? The inner sense of flying, and going faster than the speed of sound, had to be felt within us before we could create machines to manifest that feeling. Cyberspace and the Internet must be expressions of our psychic connection with each other, or why would we have wanted to concretize that connection with machines, and why else would these machines so quickly have gripped us?
So technology is not really progress. It's just us. Just you and I getting ourselves into the same kind of trouble we've always gotten ourselves into, by distracting ourselves from our deeper natures because we're afraid to face those depths - and then having to face ourselves anyway, sooner or later, but with even more difficulty, for now we have to face ourselves through the veil of our distractions.
The technological vertigo through which our society now reels is an expression of the gap that yaws between what we are and what we do, when what we do doesn't reflect or express what we are. The power of our new machines has empowered that gap. Technology merely magnifies us. So it magnifies our mistakes. A small mistake in distance perception that I wouldn't notice on a walk could kill me in a car. Kill you, too. Living in the gap between what we are and we do - when neither truly reflects the other - is just as deadly. A different kind of death, but death nonetheless. It seems so obvious to say, and yet it has become the death-in-life of so many. And for what? To discover the nature of one's own soul is still the great task. That information isn't on the Internet.
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