Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bitter About the Internet

Any time I hear a lot of people all clamoring for and falling over themselves to praise something--I get suspicious.

It's been happening recently with the internet, and specifically this "Web 2.0" stuff, which I'm not sure I quite understand (though this encyclopedia entry makes it sound like a convenient viral marketing system for ensuring corporate profits by encouraging an increasingly splintered community of marginalized cultural groups whose only common bond is their role as consumers--but maybe that's just me).

What spurred this little blog-rant? (Yes, I am aware of the irony; however, I am not all that interested in it, as I've had my fill of irony lately and would love a few moments of sincerity or genuine communication, for once, even if it has to be digital.) Partly this blog post, directing readers to this blog post, which mocked Elton John's concerns about the role that media plays in the realm of aesthetics and creativity, especially in music. Elton John reportedly said, "The internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff." And if, for a moment, you feel a twinge of isolation or alienation from all your fellow bloggers out there and are thinking maybe you should go out, walk in the rain, get a cup of coffee at the local bookstore and engage a stranger in conversation... look at this. There, don't you feel better? Who would take a man in a duck costume seriously? Don't you feel justified in your technobubble now, laughing contentedly at any old "fuddy-duddy" who might dare imagine life-sans-internet? Whew. That was a close one.

I'm also still in the process of grieving, which is influencing my bitterness. I'm not sure if this stage of grief is anger, or bargaining. I feel I've been through all of them several times now. What I can't seem to shake is this feeling of regret--not only for myself, but for my friend who, despite his twenty-five years on this amazing earth, confessed to me only a few weeks before his death that he still felt isolated from many of the people in his life, that his friendships felt shallow and his career goals directionless. Even though I'd never txted his cell phone or spent more than one evening hanging out with him outside of work, he mentioned several times how he considered me one of his closest friends. I feel a wash of guilt when I find myself wondering, as I did each time he said it, if he was being sincere, or simply playing to my ego and insecurities the way we are all encouraged to play to each other's egos and insecurities, in hopes that our own will be placated. Perhaps I will never really know if I really knew him--and I wonder if he regrets that, or if the dead even have such regrets.

What does this have to do with the internet? Not much. Except that it has to do with intimacy, sincerity, and a sense of community belonging. On the internet, nobody dies--they just stop logging on. With morbid curiosity, I recently checked my departed friend's MySpace and Facebook profiles--both eerily saturated with "I miss you"s and "Goodbye"s from virtual and real-life friends, messages sent out into the void of cyberspace, easily written and just as easily ignored and lost. I can't help but wonder if they provide any sense of comfort to his family--or if his family even knows about them or has access to them in the face of password protections and identity-theft precautions.

As wonderful as the internet may be, with its "democratizing of information" and networking capabilities, I do not believe it can provide those things which give a sense of context and meaning to our real, everyday lives as human beings. Sincerity will always be vulnerable to the mockery and misunderstanding of faceless strangers, strangers who will always be plentiful in a social network that undermines any notion of authenticity or intimacy. Without intimacy and sincerity, what is a "community" except a group of noisy individuals all clamoring for or about the latest gadget or political scandal or tragedy? In Web 2.0, there is no such thing as Gandhi's "minority of one." Every subculture becomes a viable corporate market, every quirk or idiosyncrasy becomes an amusing fad, every solitude is invade by the "democracy" of buzzing facts and the opinions of people without necessarily any personal investment in the situation or subject matter. There is no quiet into which the "still small voice" might speak timidly about uncertainty or complexity, might confess to unpopular passions or uniquely personal dreams. There are no personal dreams in Web 2.0--there is only the constant talking of people to people about people (and things)... talking and talking and saying nothing much at all.

This is, I confess, not really a blog. It is an old-fashioned journal, exposed on the internet because I have a certain penchant for masochism (or perhaps a desperation to be sincere and to seek intimacy even where it can't be found). I want everyone to know that I am grieving, I want to force that uncomfortable fact into everyone's view. In part because the family and friends who "irl" should be here supporting me, comforting me and allowing me to engage in the process of grief as part of a community, are too busy playing with their gadgets and keeping up on the latest political scandals, assuming a kind email once in a while is sufficient.

In the end, it is my own solitude that has been the most comfort to me this past week. Those who rule the Web 2.0 have not yet tackled the market of personal grief, they have not discovered any chat rooms or .com sites that can provide the same kind of closure and affirmation as a good summer thunderstorm rushing past your lonely apartment window and soaking slowly into the ground. If the internet has, as Elton John claims, kept us from "going out and being with each other," I can at least be sure it will not stop me from being with myself. And from the company of my own solitude, perhaps I eventually may create something worthy of my friend's memory.


  1. Ali,

    First, the internet: I love Elton John, but he's just wrong. :-)

    The internet is certainly not keeping me from having a real life. I am happily married with four kids, I have lots of time to spend with them (in fact I can telecommute, which gives me more time with my family than if the internet didn't exist), I have all the friends and clubs and stuff I can handle, I exercise daily, etc. I fit the internet around the edges of my life.

    And as a medium of communication, the internet has enriched my life immeasurably, through friendships I've made online and information I've gathered that's changed how I see the world. And when I say that, I guarantee you I am being absolutely sincere and truthful. There is nothing you see of me online, either in my comments here or on my blog, that isn't 100% Jeffrey Paul Lilly. My openness and sincerity is always heartfelt, and I like to hope that it brings out the same in my readers. I have never -- not ONCE -- had to deal with a snarky, sarcastic comment on my blog; and as you know, I get a lot of comments. I have made friends with whom my communication is very sincere and very intimate. Of course the internet cannot replace real life -- not for an instant! And it can be misused. But it's a big jump to go from a "CAUTION" label to a complete ban.

    And secondly --

    I can't give a reference -- perhaps it was in "The Art of Happiness" -- but there's a quote by the Dalai Lama that your post brings to mind. He noted that the whole Western worldview, including science, was skewed because there was no acknowledgment of reincarnation. Without that, the whole search for knowledge was like trying to figure out what's going on in the world by studying a single room.

    There's a lot in what you've written that implies that you really believe your friend to be GONE -- gone beyond communication, beyond intimacy, beyond hope; that he had this one chance to make life work out, and you had this one chance to reach out to him, and now it's over.

    But if you're any kind of Christian or druid, you know that's not the case! He's there, looking over your shoulder as you read this. He knows perfectly well what messages were left on his MySpace page, and he knows what was in the hearts of those who left them. He can visit you (and probably has visited you) in dreams, to try to comfort you in your grief. And you will surely see him again when you pass on yourself.

    As for having regrets -- either your regrets, or his regrets --: as a Christian, you know that God understands our imperfections and forgives them. As a druid, you know that this life was only one of many.

    I hope I'm not coming off as callous or blase or know-it-all. Please, please forgive me if that's what's coming across. I'm not trying to pretend that I understand your grief -- I've lost people, too, but everyone's grief is surely their own, and unique. But it seems to me that you are taking a very secular view of death, here, and I'm wondering why that is.

    Finally: I almost didn't post this comment, because this IS an intimate and sensitive topic, for both of us. Why risk opening the can of worms? But then it occurred to me that this is exactly what you're talking about -- the lack of true intimacy on the internet -- and I DO care about what you're going through, dammit, so I've tried to open up the doors of intimacy a little wider, if I can. :-)

  2. Jeff,

    As always, I very much appreciate your comments and have no doubt they are sincere. I would say that you are one of the refreshing exceptions to the phenomenon of insincerity and "ironic distance" I was referring to, except then I'd probably find myself with a sudden onslaught of exceptions--and with so many exceptions, I guess I'd have to rethink the rule. ;)

    You've caught me in the act of discussing my personal experiences as if they were the common experience of everyone. I am, quite frankly, jealous of the role the internet and other such technologies play in your life. Over the past few years--since before I graduated college, really--I've found my social relationships dominated and defined by such technology and its feeling of inhumanity that, for me, it always carries with it. I feel as though, lately, my life has become nothing but a struggle to engage people who would rather be entertained, and to seek intimacy with people who would rather retreat into the cold matrices of video games or the warm-fuzzy melodramas of inebriated promiscuity. I would like to grow up and get on with things, but sometimes I feel as though I'm the only one.

    So I can understand why you disagree with Elton John. Personally, I think the article probably took his musings out of context and stretched them a little too far. As a poet, I'm all too familiar with the feeling that there is an ocean of mediocrity out there to contend with, part of which at least is due to the fact that it is easier than ever to make a living "as a poet" and reach a global audience. Who hasn't wondered what would happen to the community of artistic creativity without our current technologies feeding into them and allowing them to thrive in "niche markets"? Who hasn't imagined a world in which, just for a little while, we were restricted to dealing only with the people, creatures and landscapes immediately around us? I only just got back from a vacation in a national park where not only did I not have any internet or cable television, but half the time my cell phone didn't get service. I have to admit, I didn't miss it at all. On the other hand, I had my cousins with me, who provided the company that I usually have to turn to the internet to seek.

    I think it was in one of the OBOD gwersu that there was a discussion of the Druidic value of solitude and establishing a natural, low-tech "retreat" from the constant buzz of modern life. I certainly don't think a complete ban on technology is necessary, or even a good idea. But some perspective and maybe a little quiet time is always appreciated. Even if we're only day-dreaming or musing about its possibilities.

    As far as death and grief, I actually find it kind of strange that I came across as so "secular" in my post. Far from it, while on vacation out in the beautiful Acadian woods, I had two dreams in which my friend did "visit" me in very vivid and literally breath-taking dreams (I woke up gasping and shaking both times), the night before his death, and the night of, days before I heard the news. I think in some ways I do not simply believe in reincarnation, but I know it to be true. Part of my struggle with grief recently is to reconcile this firm conviction with the fact that no one else seems to acknowledge it even as a possibility. Would you believe it, I haven't had a single person try to reassure me that my friend is "in a better place"--not even my devout father, or other friends who knew him. It seems they feel that would just be trite and I wouldn't believe them anyway. I wonder if this is just a part of not wanting to admit that, although death is not a permanent "end," it is still a real thing, a real process that we go through, and that the grief of such a process is also very real. I remember, for instance, something I once read about the story of Jesus weeping over Lazarus, before he raised him from the dead. Surely, he must have known that Lazarus wasn't lost, wasn't "gone for good"--and yet, Jesus still wept and grieved, just as he wept in the garden before his own death. This has always struck me as a paradox, a mystery about death. Death really is something, at least, and it is not useless or unnecessary to grieve--it's more like grief is an essential part of the transition from state to state, in some way.

    I think part of me is caught up in wondering if, given our less-than-intimate relationship while my friend was alive, perhaps he wouldn't even "recognize" me once the personality-veils of this manifestation fell away... He was, after all, a very secular person himself, and I don't know how a person's spiritual beliefs or experiences in life affect their experience of death and what comes next. Does that make sense? I feel as though I can barely articulate it here--so I'm feeling especially isolated from family and friends who won't let me talk about these questions at all and who always seem to fall into stony, uncomfortable silence when I so much as mention the topic. In some ways, I feel as though I have a greater opportunity to share an intimacy with this friend now that he has died and is free of some of the complications (such as a girlfriend prone to jealousy) which, in life, caused him to keep me at arm's length... But my own sense of life-affirmation reels at this idea, wants to back away from it. I don't want to be better friends with the dead than the living! The living--the people who are alive, here and now, on this earth, in the traditional, secular sense of the word "living"--seem to carry so much baggage and have so many walls built up, so many insecurities to overcome. I know in several mystic traditions (including Christianity) there is the idea that you must "die before you die," and sometimes I'm afraid I've been horribly successful at that. At times I feel as though I'm more acclimated to what most people call "death" than I am to "life." That seems backwards! I'm still a young woman, I should be deeply enmeshed in life--this life--and worrying about building a career and starting a family, not seeking the company of souls and beings that most people I know don't even believe in but which I can't seem to ignore. I mean, that practically makes me crazy, doesn't it?

    In any case, I'm frustrated and lonely, but only on the social/emotional level--while in a spiritual sense I feel increasingly connected and at home with Spirit. To be perfectly honest, I think I'm grieving more for myself than for my friend. The last time I saw him--in dream--he radiated such peace and appreciation, the effect was quite dizzying, even ecstatic. I don't want to say I'm envious--that would be morbid, not to mention coming across as a bit suicidal, which I am the opposite of, I assure you--but I do wish I weren't so inept at navigating the obstacles and egos that, though they seem completely unnecessary to the reality of Life or Spirit, most people seem to insist on preserving anyway. I guess I was hoping my friend's death would break down some walls among the rest of us, but instead I find them intact, if not stronger than ever.

    Still, I really do appreciate your response, and I hope I haven't convinced you, or too many other people, that I belong in major therapy...

  3. Ali, I'm amazed and sad to hear that so many of your relationships are focused electronically; and it's even harder to hear that your friends and family are difficult to discuss death with. I wish I could invite you over for dinner, and we all could just talk! (We will actually be in Pennsylvania next week, but over on the Philadelphia side, visiting family.)

    But you aren't the first person I've heard of who has been at a bit of a loss socially after college. Most people end up marrying a college sweetheart, and then they're set. But if you're out of college, and you aren't yet married, where do you ever get to meet anyone -- for intimate companionship, or just great conversation? Only at work -- but that isn't always the best venue for finding people that share deep interests. Do you find that's the case?

    There are half a dozen other things in your comment that I'd love to talk about -- what happens to your religious beliefs after you die, practical solutions to creating the kind of natural retreat you mention (which I wholeheartedly endorse!), the character of the death passage (because you're right -- there must be more to it than just continuing your life some'where' else), and your sanity (sane? yes. Normal? no. Kudos to you!)... But I have to go. More later?