The people we know are the people in our family and people we’ve met by chance, gotten to know, kept in touch with. For most, this is a fairly small circle. Back in the old days, as in more primitive societies today, kids were raised by an entire village, knew everybody there. The psychological advantage of this is easy to grasp: the odds of knowing someone attuned to your particular personality are much higher, I would think, when you know everybody and have known them since you can remember.
Today, here in the West, we keep in touch digitally, with little electronic messages, birdbrained tweets, posts on Facebook walls. In law school a classmate used the term Cyberia to describe this void where we often exchange our modern intimacies. I don’t know if she coined the phrase, but it’s a pretty good image. A vast stretch of darkness, and coldness, with little blips of this or that, personal messages coming through, dinging our phones nowadays.
Luddites are always among us, and I am not disparaging this latest technology, even as I see some inhuman tendencies in it. It has always been this way with new technologies for communication. I’m aware that people were aghast when the printing press came in, convinced that it would ruin interpersonal communication. The telephone must have alarmed people who were initially horrified by a mysteriously disembodied voice in their ear. I’m sure there were people railing against the radio, the way it turned everyone’s attention to disembodied voices coming through a speaker, mysteriously in the house via wireless waves.
It must have been scary to some, being in a room full of people who in earlier times would have been talking, reading to each other, playing musical instruments and singing, now passively sitting around, wholly focused on a box. TV, same shit. These days we have the internet in our pockets, and on a day when I wake up and the monopoly that provides my internet service is asleep at the switch and I have no internet connection, I truly feel cut off. Hanging precariously in the world by my cellular phone.
Way back in our hunter/gatherer past, every individual had to know pretty much everything. This was before the agricultural revolution, when people could do one or two repetitive jobs for the planting, growing and harvesting seasons, and eat every day without knowing everything about the world around. The early homo sapiens individual had to know which plants were edible, which were deadly. How to make clothes, tools, weapons, how to stay warm, how to find water, how to make fire using flint and sticks, how to not die from a wound, how to survive a blizzard, a heatwave, a snake bite.
In our increasing specialization as a species we have produced millions and millions of individuals who can survive knowing very little about the world aorund them. Everything we need to know is on our phones, available in seconds, as long as the power grid is up and running everyone is cool, we are all geniuses. This diminution in general knowledge of the world is one price we’ve paid in becoming a consumer society. Our main value is consuming, having the coolest shit, the best brands, the things that make us momentarily forget we are all connected to whatever happens on our planet. Buy a nice car and for a few days drive around with no thought of death, disease, global climate catastrophe, the enraged Tweeter-in-Chief angrily preparing for the next senseless, endless war.
An old woman is on her deathbed, waiting for death. She is in and out of pain thanks to the medicines now available. Her grandson hears her talking to somebody, goes into the room– there is nobody there but the dying woman.
“Who were you talking to, grandma?” the boy asks.
“I was talking,” the grandmother begins to explain, but she is too out of it to explain. She was talking because we humans need to talk, need to connect. If there is nobody physically available, we will write a letter, or today, a text or email.
“Who the fuck are you talking to?” a demon asks me pointedly.
Same answer, motherfucker, I tell the demon.