The other day I fell prey to a dreadful thought: the more the 21st century moves forward, the less people there will be who’ve known the world without internet and the badly named smartphones. There will be no hope then of returning to at least a minimal existential balance, because if us 20th century survivors try to explain to people who were born with the algorithms encrusted in their grey matter how it was to live with mental space and silence, they won’t be able to understand, having never known them. I imagined a world in which every person of my generation and previous ones grows old trapped in this vile machinery and the fractured perception of reality that is its mark. I can’t imagine a more abject loneliness.
Unfortunately, this panorama isn’t the fruit of a rampant imagination. If invoking it left me in a rather dismal mood, it’s because that loneliness, and the incalculable loss it denotes, are in fact already part of my everyday life and the life of many of those who knew an abysmally different reality. There are in my life young people, teenagers and children whom I love dearly who haven’t experienced the world without the intermediation of digital technology and cyberspace’s phantasmagoria.
It is true that all generations must face sooner or later the dissociation between the reality in which we grew up and were young, and that of those who come behind us. It’s an inevitable and painful crisis, but it’s also a chance to mature and be open, with curiosity, to the promise of a new time and of the continuity of human experience. I doubt, however, that there’s ever been a generation gap more unbridgeable than the one that separates 20th century people from those who’ve been born in the 21st, because now it is not only a matter of changing moral codes, philosophical and political positions, ideologies, fashions or aesthetic tendencies, but a profound cognitive alteration. Human life as an appendix of the computer (and the pocket computer that mobile phones are) entails a convulsion in the way we inhabit and conceive the universe much more violent than that of the Industrial Revolution, even if it is a later consequence of the former’s insane cult of progress. Digital technology has already altered, in a seemingly irreversible manner, not only the contents of our mind, but our mental functions themselves.
There is of course a wealth of research and papers on what this means, and what are its psychological, philosophical, economic and political consequences (I recommend to follow in this regard author Naief Yehya’s keen reflections), but with the passage of decades, such research will be carried out by individuals whose cognitive processes won’t have ever been others than those of the fragmentation imposed by this technology, in an intellectual and even neurological loop from which there will be no escape.
For many of those who were born in the 20th century, the perception of reality in the 1920s seems much closer and intelligible than that of the 2020s, and I’d even go back to the 1820s and beyond. The cognitive crack happens there where living with the machines, with the manufactured objects which are an inherent condition of being human since the first arrow was created, becomes an existence lived almost completely from the machine.
I’ve mentioned loneliness. Few forms of loneliness can be greater than that of inhabiting an unrecognisable world; of feeling a stranger not in a country, but in the time you live in. You can’t flee time. It’s like living in an incomprehensible, hostile and sterile planet in which the foundations of what I conceive to be a human life are being constantly eroded, and in which sharing my uneasiness is hard because the language spoken has no room or words for what, in my experience, is the meaning of being human.
I don’t have a smartphone. I’ve resisted. I have a simple no-internet Nokia with which you can make or receive calls, send or receive text messages, and that’s it. You can have no doubt that society makes me pay for this tiny act of rebellion, for all the time there are more and more practical matters (various paperwork, though there’s no paper involved; medical appointments and an endless etc.) that become complicated because society assumes that we all have a smartphone, and that we all passively accept it as the intermediary between us and any manifestation of reality. As if it wasn’t enough that neither me nor anybody else have been able to defend ourselves from the imposition to sort out our life online, through the computer if by any chance the last bastion of resistance to the smartphone hasn’t succumbed yet. Like all of you, I spend a lot of time each day trying to work out issues related to the scaffolding of everyday life through mechanisms that I don’t understand, which fill my head with a proliferation of undesired images that induce mental lethargy and, often, depression. It makes me shiver to think of the elderly, for whom technology is much more alien than for me, trying to navigate this landscape of sheer artifice where personal contact is reduced as the language of the robotic-esoteric expands in a proliferation of self-referring loops.
It’s true that my skills for technology are rather precarious, in part because I loathe it, in part, I guess, because the area in my brain that holds such faculties isn’t very developed, but let’s not delude ourselves: in a couple of decades we have reached the fearful point where no one, not even the so-called IT experts, fully understands this technology. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has sought, through chats, the help of ‘expert’ technicians in moments of digital despair, just to find that the technician doesn’t understand the problem either nor can sort it out, a conclusion reached after hours, during which both the technician and the desperate person have descended into a hell of screen prestidigitation with elements that hold no discernible meaning.
Despite belonging to this civilisation, to this global dependence on the device that spreads at ever greater speed to the farthest reaches of the earth (and the space around, littered with satellites and scrap), I can’t help being astonished by the fact that such a civilisation is incapable to see the warning signs; that it can’t detect the state of emergency in our dependence on and impotence before the machine, and that we go on expanding the areas of our life and our society that depend on it entirely. I still find the docility with which we surrendered to the machine and the virtual reality it generates, without thinking of what’s going to happen to all of us the day the machine breaks down, perplexing.
Of course, I do know that internet, computers and even social media have many virtues, which we know well. However, at some point at the turn of the century, we humans decided that internet, computers, mobile phones and their spurious reality were more important than ourselves, and that we’d gladly offer up to them our whole life. Why?
I’m aware of the paradox: I am writing these lines in a computer, and you, readers, will read them online. This situation has many advantages, such as the possibility to write for a publication that I enjoy, that nurtures me intellectually and that I respect, even if I don’t live in the country where it’s created, or the fact that my contributions to Literal Magazine can be read in any country.
How was the experience of writing for a journal when I started my career? Believe it or not, I delivered my contributions to newspapers and magazines in person. I wrote them in a typewriter, using carbon copy paper. This rudimentary method offered enormous advantages too. The main one: to go to the publications’ headquarters, meet the editors in person and have a chat with them, even if briefly, and then go to the nearby café (there is always one), where usually I would find other authors, journalists, editors, to extend the conversation. That is to say, the world became broader, richer.
You’ll say we wasted much time. I ask, really? How much time have you lost in your life trying to sort out unfathomable computer or mobile phone problems, trying to register in a webpage because your work, the Inland Revenue or whatever demands it, trying to renew your passport, buy a plane ticket or carry out any of the innumerable actions that cannot be done any other way anymore? How much wasted time waiting for the response from the chat guys who’re supposedly going to help you, just to realise that the response is not that of a human being, but of a robot who doesn’t understand anything at all? How many lost instants, which accumulated become hours and days of the only life you have, in telling the pop-up window that assaults you when you open a webpage that you don’t want its cookies, that you don’t want to subscribe to anything, that you don’t want their messages, because if you don’t respond to all that, you can’t have access to what you were looking for? Your life spilling out between your fingers—digitally, we may say—and without the benefit of an interaction with a human being. And have you noticed the mental state in which this sad adventure leaves you?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who, in a fit of computer rage, has insulted a robot. It is sadly funny—to yell at the telephone, or yell with your fingers in the chat: “I want to talk with a human being, not with a fucking robot!”, then hear the said robot say sweetly, “So you want to talk with one of our representatives, is that right?” Robots have no dignity. They don’t, because they’re machines and products of the machine. We should stop calling them robots, which confers to them a kind of personality, a kind of life, and take them for the machines they are.
But let us go back to loneliness: the loneliness of living among addicts. To find myself in the street surrounded by them, stuck to the screens of their multiple gadgets, their mobiles already an extension of their body, everywhere, at any time. The fear, also, of what, eventually, the members of a society of addicts may be capable of, after decades of subjection to the mental deterioration caused by their addiction.
The issue of addiction has also been the theme of endless research, but personal experience is enough to understand it. Even without a smartphone, I can detect the symptoms in myself, for instance when I’m looking for something online and end up browsing through other sites, reading some news, watching some video, without any need to do so and, it would seem, with no will of my own. Like eating in one go a whole box of chocolates, or drinking a whole bottle of whiskey or whatever, simply because, in that moment, life stopped revealing itself as life; because, without even being aware of it, we allowed compulsion to drag us down. However much I try to resist, I have succumbed too to a great extent, and however much I try to be on my guard and defend myself, society forces me every day more to live immersed in this indescribable misery. My mind, the activity of my brain, aren’t the same they were in pre-Internet times, and therefore, the substance of my life is also altered. The machine has managed to intrude and interfere in my reality, transforming it in a hideous manner, and there seems to be no turning back, at least during my lifetime.
If this is depressing and frankly horrendous, how to express what it means that, for newer generations, there isn’t even the notion of a loss, because this is the only way of life that they’ve been made to believe is possible? How did we allow this to happen to us? How is it possible that, from the 20th century, when “this”—this monster—was bred, we thought we had the right to inflict it on our 21st century’s fellow men and women? To inflict it on our youth, on the future. For the responsibility is ours.
With infinite sadness, I want to tell those young persons that it isn’t normal to spend all your waking hours depending on an artifact that you simply can’t let go of, the incredible speed of which is not something created with your benefit in mind, but the product of competition among big companies to beat each other in the dominion of the absurd, as well as of the “progress” of military engineering; that it’s not normal that this one gadget rules your entire life, while you’re living under threat of being stripped, through the very same gadget, of your data, your money, your identity, your work and even your face, which anyone can steal to simulate that you’re doing something you’ve never done, through the deepfake technique; nor is it normal that thanks to these very methods, you can never know whether what you watch obsessively is actually real or not; that it isn’t normal that, in order to protect yourself, you must prop up your life with a heap of passwords impossible to remember and security codes, the owners and controllers of which are the gadget and the invisible web, cloud and technology that controls them; that it isn’t normal that you put that gadget and that technology in the hands and mind of your children at their earliest age, nor the fact that through them your children are under the constant threat of predators; that it isn’t normal to rule your love life through the above-mentioned gadget, nor projecting the whole of your emotional life on that simulacrum of communication called social media; that it isn’t normal to take pictures of everything, compulsively, to then “upload” them on a multiplicity of “platforms”, even when neither the pictures nor the platforms have any meaning whatsoever, thus multiplying the avalanche of dissociated images that subjugates us, and even less normal to take those pictures instead of seeing what you’re photographing—instead of living; that it isn’t normal to walk (stumbling) down the street or go around in public transport like a zombie, oblivious to your surroundings, without seeing the light or darkness or the time of year, or the people around you, because you’re engrossed in the squalor of that endless, inane procession of images, videos and vacuous information; that it isn’t normal to ask your gadget everything you don’t know or have forgotten, even if you’re not particularly interested to know, due to a neurotic anxiety that renders you incapable of bearing silence, the natural rhythm of time, uncertainty or solitude, and furthermore, without realising that this anxiety makes you sink deeper into loneliness and alienation; that it isn’t normal that in every public space we’re at the mercy of the vile noise coming from the gadgets of others who’re in a phone call, listening to music, watching football matches, ads or any other “content” with their speakers on because they have no notion of the respect due to the space and silence of others; that it isn’t normal to entrust your whole life to that gadget and believe that it will protect that life, nor to make of it your map, losing forever the opportunity to get lost and discover something new; that it isn’t normal that through that contraption and that technology anyone can know where you are; that it isn’t normal to be “connected” 24 hours a day with other gadgets or “the cloud”; that it isn’t normal to hand over all information about our identity and our own affairs to that technology, and accept the surveillance of governments, marketing schemes and any other rogue without even thinking of defending ourselves but, on the contrary, gladly surrendering such information; that it isn’t normal to believe that the gadget you can’t let go of is your mirror (it isn’t), or to believe that the “enhanced” pictures that you take thanks to its sophisticated technology are reality; that it isn’t normal that, while you’re working, you’re being besieged by pop-up windows telling you that your computer is at risk and you have to restart it or install some software you don’t understand and do not know whether it’s good or bad because you don’t know if you can trust the pop-up window; that it isn’t normal either to read some source of information while more pop-up windows make you turn elsewhere, announcing products or talking about something else; that it isn’t normal to read, get informed, follow, for instance, the news about a brutal war while the aforesaid bombardment of images and words try to divert your attention elsewhere, turning what you read into spectacle; that it isn’t normal to live, work and get information under the yoke of a relentless method of distraction; that it isn’t normal to feel that if you lose your smartphone you’re losing your life and are at risk, that you have lost yourself, without noticing that the losses and risk are in fact due to your smartphone.
Those of us hailing from the already remote 20th century remember very well a time when none of this fragmentation, this nightmare, was necessary. We did have our many and dire problems. The famous King Crimson song, the title of which I’ve borrowed for these musings, is really talking about those problems, and not about what it would be our lot to see in the 21st century, because Peter Sinfield, the author of the lyrics, couldn’t have possibly imagined, in 1969, the hell we would enter voluntarily, without complaint. We have witnessed how from the useful, the novel, the genius elements even in the new technology, we slid down into this state of collective alienation and numbness, first without noticing, then without being able to defend ourselves. It is no wonder that so many people now seek in meditation and mindfulness a hold so that they don’t go insane, but there is no meditation that can save us if we don’t first turn off the phone.
It is curious how we engage in protests and campaigns against violence, the climate catastrophe, racism, corrupt governments, all sorts of discrimination, injustice and inequality, yet nobody protests against this atrocious slavery. We walk meekly towards the slaughterhouse, smartphone in hand.
The dimension of the loss of our humanity in this fragmented world is inexpressible, and it is not—it never was—inevitable. We’ve permitted it out of weakness, ignorance, frivolity and indolence. It’s about time to wake up—it’s getting late.
-Imagen by Fouquier
Adriana Díaz-Enciso es poeta, narradora y traductora. Ha publicado las novelas La sed, Puente del cielo, Odio y Ciudad doliente de Dios, inspirada en los Poemas proféticos de William Blake; los libros de relatos Cuentos de fantasmas y otras mentiras y Con tu corazón y otros cuentos, y seis libros de poesía. Su más reciente publicación, Flint (una elegía y diario de sueños, escrita en inglés) puede encontrarse aquí.
©Literal Publishing. Queda prohibida la reproducción total o parcial de esta publicación. Toda forma de utilización no autorizada será perseguida con lo establecido en la ley federal del derecho de autor.
Las opiniones expresadas por nuestros colaboradores y columnistas son responsabilidad de sus autores y no reflejan necesariamente los puntos de vista de esta revista ni de sus editores, aunque sí refrendamos y respaldamos su derecho a expresarlas en toda su pluralidad. / Our contributors and columnists are solely responsible for the opinions expressed here, which do not necessarily reflect the point of view of this magazine or its editors. However, we do reaffirm and support their right to voice said opinions with full plurality.