Science & Technology

Nothing Personal, But You Look Stupid When You Text


Is Web 2.0 the end of Humanity 1.0? The Washington Post supposes so in a misty watercolored think piece about how all this constant interconnectedness is making us miss the smell of the roses, or something like that:

Technology has drawn us into our interconnected webs, in the office, on the street, on the park bench, to the point that we exist virtually everywhere except in the physical world. Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, laments that when students pass through the school's visually stimulating campus, iPhones, BlackBerrys and all the evolving devices and apps draw them into their blinkered personal realms. "Most of the groves, courtyards, gardens, fountains, artworks, open spaces and architectural complexes have disappeared behind a cloaking device, it would seem," he writes in his book "Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition."

This retreat from the natural world is most evident in the young, but it is not a generational phenomenon, he argues. Instead, the ubiquity of the computer is changing the very essence of the human animal. We are in the midst of a historical change in "our mode of vision," he says, "which is bound up with our mode of being."

Reason completists will recall Harrison as the author of Dominion of the Dead, a lovely study of funerary practice mentioned in my zombie cinema woolgatherer of yore. Harrison's diffidence about rude digital communication is in a different mood than but akin to the techno-utopianism of another Post subject:

Actually, we have become symbionts, says Katherine Hayles, author of "How We Became Posthuman." Just as a lichen is the marriage of a fungus and an algae, we now live in full partnership with digital technology, which we rely on for the infrastructure of our lives. "If every computer were to crash tomorrow, it would be catastrophic," she says. "Millions or billions of people would die. That's the condition of being a symbiont."

Hayles is among a number of intellectuals who see this dependence as not necessarily bad, but as advancing civilization and, above all, just inevitable. "From Thoreau on, we have had this dream we can withdraw from our technologies and live closer to the natural world, and yet that's not the cultural trajectory that we have followed," says Hayles, a professor of literature at Duke University. "You could say when humans started to walk upright, we lost touch with the natural world. We lost an olfactory sense of the world, but obviously bipedalism paid big dividends."

Back in the 1990s, a group of my friends and colleagues—using the combination of smoke signals and semaphore that passed for instant communication in the Clinton era—banded together to form something called the TechnoRealist movement. I didn't join in, though I did help out with the parody CryptoFabulist movement, which unfortunately didn't survive the Y2K catastrophe. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe we need some of the TechnoRealist sensibility these days, to chart a course between the doomsaying of nostalgic professors and the obnoxiousness and arrogance of everybody who's got the money (or, let's be honest, the debt) to keep funding a generous monthly data plan.

Because the luddite and the utopian are both overreacting to what is essentially a stylistic change. Not to put too fine a point on it, but every person on earth looks like a slob when he or she texts. Presidents look like slobs when they text. Starlets look like slobs when they text. Slobs look like slobs when they text. My friends and and family look like slobs when they text. I look like a slob when I text.

Understand that I am not commenting on the goldenness of your particular data stream, bad as that may be. (It's not so much that Twitter is for old people as that the form of the Tweet inevitably reads like senile raving.) I'm talking about how you actually look when you text: the hunched shoulders, the slack jaw, the bunched-up sea otter paws.

There's no shame in looking like a slob. The shame is in not knowing. It was for just this reason that our Cro Magnon ancestors used stone tools to build crude telephone booths, that the Romans (the original exporters of data-rich globalization) adhered to the principle that trade follows the water closet. There are plenty of activities worth doing that are not worth doing in sight of others. Yes, it's exciting when you learn that the power of symbioncy—like the power of orgasm—is right in the palm of your hand. That doesn't mean the rest of us want to look at it. It's enough to make me nostalgic, not for a less technical age but for an age when upight Americans still drew a line between Decent behavior and Common behavior.


Don't believe my shilling for Facebook. Gawker explains that Facebook has become evil.

Stephen King takes the rise of the post-human datasphere to its logical conclusion.