Communing in some ancient way

The idea is taking shape in my mind that the best writing on how technology impacts our thinking and being is done from a phenomenological perspective.  This is probably because we immediately recognize our own inner world in such writing.  Gary Shteyngart’s “Only Disconnect” just reinforced my intuition.

Describing his experience after procuring his first IPhone, the most important purchase of his life according to the Apple Store “glam-nerd,” Shteyngart writes,

The device came out of the box and my world was transformed. I walked outside my book-ridden apartment. The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof. The city I had tried to set to the page in three novels and counting, the hideously outmoded boulevardier aspect of noticing societal change in the gray asphalt prism of Manhattan’s eye, noticing how the clothes are draping the leg this season, how backsides are getting smaller above 59th Street and larger east of the Bowery, how the singsong of the city is turning slightly less Albanian on this corner and slightly more Fujianese on this one — all of it, finished.

In his closing paragraph, Shteyngar gently reminds us of pleasures that await if we “only disconnect.”  In light of Ronald Dworkin’s essay I commented on earlier today, recovering the deep, meaningful friendships we need to sustain us through the long, sometimes harsh path we tread, may require us to disconnect more frequently.

Soon my friends will get off that Amtrak, they will help me roast an animal and some veggies, even as they point their iTelephones at the sky, praying for rain. Their prayers will not be answered. Connecting. . . . will flash impotently on the screen, but they will not connect. In the meantime, something “white nights” will be happening out there; the sun has set and yet it has not. With the animal safely in our stomachs, with single malts and beers before us, we can read or talk softly about what we’re reading, about the glory and sadness of finding ourselves this close to the middle of our existence (cue the Chekhov, cue the Roth) and as we do so the most important purchases we have ever made in our lives are snugly holstered in the pockets of our shorts, useless, as we commune in some ancient way, laughing and groaning, passing around lighted objects and containers of booze while thoroughly facebooking one another for real in the fading summer light.

Ross Douthat’s reflections on Shteyngar’s essay, “Reading as a Luxury Good” are also worth taking into consideration.

3 thoughts on “Communing in some ancient way

  1. Thanks for this post, Mike. Shteyngart’s point about a more frequent (and deliberate) disconnect is striking to me. A short while ago, the electricity “went out” in the apartment complex in which I live. Amazingly, when the electricity went out, so did the people. Neighbors I had never seen before (and mind you, I had lived there for 18+ months) were suddenly in the breezeways, stairways, and what suffices for lawns in apartment living. And they weren’t just “out,” but connecting and talking. And while most of the coversation pertained to the power outage, there it was – conversation and interface of, as Shteyngart says, “facebooking one another for real.” Humorously, many were bleary-eyed and resistant to the Louisiana summer sun, having been exposed only to plasma bulb or LED-induced light sources, but it was perhaps the only time I ever saw any real “community” from a people who live close enough to hear the toilet flush through the walls and ceilings.

    1. Amazing what happens when the lights go out. Very apropos, Kevin. Thanks for sharing that. Loved the image of the “bleary-eyed” wandering out as if released from some magic spell!

  2. Reminds me of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Miami. With the power out, the water dry, the world stopped, a transformation occurred: as the people streamed from their insulated homes out onto the streets, they met each other, in many cases for the first time. First encounters with neighbors who had lived on the same street for decades in some instances. Neighborhoods became, well, neighborhoods in reality: hoods (communal areas) of neighbors rather than hoods of houses and mailboxes.

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