“People living alone get used to loneliness.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is The Night
“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying!”
― René Magritte
About two decades ago, while working on the 25th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper in Rockefeller Center, I stopped in the hallway to chat with the new marketing assistant from California. Fresh out of college, she was ethereal and chill, the first person ever to utter the phrase “juice cleanse” to me, her eyes could intuitively divine your moon sign by subliminally beaming into your aura.
Free spirit that she was, perpetually late to meetings and deadlines, in that greenish grey carpeted hallway by the men’s room, she posed the following question to me:
“What time is it?”
I looked down at my wrist, gave her the hour and minute, which in return, elicited a grateful, somewhat otherworldly, smile.
Perceiving more to this interchange than mere clockwork, I asked her, “Do you not wear a watch?”
Her response, which has circled the abstractions of my mind ever since, was:
“No. Time is just a human construct.”
Is it not?
The Surrealists delved into these philosophical quandaries through their art and artistry, exposing the nature of truth and fiction; the rational and the irrational; the expected and the unexpected. They dwelled in that infinite border between reality and reverie. And they kept us there…. both enchanted and horrified by the absurdity of life. Salvador Dalí’s famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory” bends time in a vision that is both real and a hallucination. Is time a human construct? Just look into Dalí’s melting clocks, and the existence of time loses all meaning.
Personally, the way my brain processes time is akin to being stuck in a surrealist painting. Time overlaps itself, melts, and blends together. I do not “recall” a prior moment, so much as experience it, in waking dreams and conscious memories. It’s a sensory embodiment of the past made present. It’s both linear and circular at the same time. It happened. It’s still happening. It will continue to happen. Both good and bad; beautiful and traumatic. This carousel of place, space, and being — in my mind, in my body — wraps around itself in what we otherwise characterize as “time,” with each calendar year, month, and date serving as mere bookends on a bookshelf that would befit an M.C. Escher drawing.
So when I am suddenly knocked off that stabilizing bookshelf — by oh, something like a pandemic — the entire library comes tumbling down at once. And that linear concept of time, most certainly, becomes meaningless. My past becomes present, while projecting into the future; a simultaneous evermore and nevermore, haunting ghosts demanding I live and grieve in tandem. My subconscious takes over, conjuring dreams reflective of where I was 365 days ago. And when I wake up, I’m still there. But I am also here.
Last year at this time, I was working on a feature story — Can Technology Save Us? — that would be published in Paleo Magazine later that summer. It explored whether our burgeoning artificial and virtual technologies are ushering in a new religion, a shift in how and what we worship. And if so, does this change who we are as humans?
I spent my springtime days and nights embedded in academic and empirical research. I attended a machine learning conference with press credentials. I spoke to data scientists and A.I. ethicists. I had lunch with a physicist. I conducted three-hour phone interviews with religious scholars from Notre Dame to Harvard. I binge-watched dystopian futuristic shows from Altered Carbon to Black Mirror. And I read countless books on digital technology and the sociology of religion.
According to the calendar, it’s been an entire year since then. And in that singular revolution of the earth, I’ve changed cities, jobs, relationships, and social circles. But as time crushes together, I can still experience exactly where I was a year ago today, in full sensory upload. I hear the hum of the espresso machine in the hipster cafes that fueled me with coffee; I feel the warm breeze in the air, sitting on a bench watching a hazy sunset; the smell of lavender in the yoga classes that centered me… the glasses of wine I shared with the friends who made me laugh… my heart skipping beats over the text messages that made me blush… and the pulse of the music that played in my ears… the soundtrack to this temporal segment of a personal data set: my “April 2019” archives.
Ok. So this all has a very “Follow the white rabbit…” essence to it. But if I am not really in the Matrix, then maybe this is my brain’s reaction to trauma overload. At present, it’s a trauma that we are all collectively experiencing as “pandemic,” but a trauma that we must each process and face individually. Our leaders remind us daily that “We are all in this together.” Yes, of course we are. But the truer perspective is: We are all in this alone, together. Our brain’s neural networks would not have it any other way. We are our own unique bodies, cells, DNA, histories, experiences, scars, fears, triumphs, strengths, weaknesses, talents, and enlightenments. It’s what makes us human. We are not (yet) a collective computer hive mind. So we must each process and move through grief, loss, pain, and trauma in our own unique ways.
Part of processing is adapting, and part of surviving is learning new strategies. It doesn’t take us long to develop new habits. Nowhere is this more evident (and often mind-numbing) than social media, with its self-isolation memes, DIY face mask cartoons, covid19 fact sheets, and celebrities narrating fairy tales from their mansions. And while #stayhome #socialdistancing #quarantinecooking might now be trending, those words will never embody the loss, longing, sadness, and insecurity now floating in those six feet between you and me. No matter your social capital, you cannot hashtag a pandemic. A viral tweet will never make this viral trauma disappear. For anyone.
But habit-forming we are. And looking out my window as I have for the last 6 weeks, not only have I observed the mysteriously fascinating social lives of squirrels, but I’ve noticed that we’ve become mini tribes within ourselves. Family units, roommate units, household units sharing pathogens and immunities, making collective decisions for the good of the unit, walking single file down footpaths, shopping in sync, cooking together, and playing together. On a good day, this appears comforting. On a bad day, it appears to be a disturbing mash-up of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Harry Potter. Perhaps eventually each house unit will have its own emblem embroidered on their face masks and pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer. This could be a remarkable moment for logo designers.
Then there are those of us who are alone. Single, isolated, solitary, quiet. No small unit of souls for foraging, crafting, or dining. Just me. In what feels like the ultimate disconnection. A perpetual mourning. The loss of people, suddenly taken away from me. All of them. At once. It’s like every single person in my life died and reincarnated in a Brady Bunch square on Zoom.
For anyone in a group unit who is currently reading this while hiding in a dark coat closet from “too much togetherness” with their housemates, believe me, I understand. But there is an equally dark flip side to that personal space overwhelm. There’s a deadening silence to my days. A frailty to motion. A purposeless to speaking.
As someone who is severely immunocompromised from a lifetime of chronic illness, on strict directive from my physicians, I was one of the first to shut her door, lock-up, and stay inside. And I’ll be one of the last who can emerge back “out there.” With no human contact since early March, I have a deep desire to return to touch. I need and want a hug. A real hug. Not an emoji hug. But I am now equally terrified of the day that might allow such contact, petrified of being turned to ashes by a single touch. I hereby anoint my therapist to embark on this epic quest with me.
But regardless of how many people are filling our physical dwelling spaces, we have all been thrown inside. And without realizing it, we’ve shifted ourselves to live in yet another human construct. And this one is virtual.
From a functional standpoint, I give a humbly grateful and honest shout out to all those techies in Silicon Valley and beyond. The physical world may be shutting down, the economy is plummeting, businesses are shuttering, people are dying, but their connective technologies, tools and devices have enabled so many of us to keep working, banking, eating, shipping, communicating, functioning, and living. This is the epitome of technology used for good. That in itself is part of our humanity… creating tools to fulfill our needs and wants. Brilliant minds have not only created these technologies and portals, but kept them going, under unprecedented demand and duress, when they themselves had to leave their offices and hide inside their homes. We’d be absolutely no where without them. We’d all be alone, silent, in the dark. With nothing.
And yet… the surrealist René Magritte would have something to say about all this. His famous painting, “The Treachery of Images,” depicts an illustration of a pipe, with the words underneath “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe.”). It’s true. This is not a pipe. It’s an image of a pipe. It’s a rendition, a drawing, a painting of a pipe. But it is not actually, physically, literally, materially, a pipe. Magritte’s work, in its deceiving simplicity, says so much about the relationship between an object and a representation of that object. What “is” versus what “is not.”
Throughout my day, there’s a unique ding of each digital ping announcing contact with the outside world … the mellifluous tonality of Facebook’s Messenger; the brash accordion of a Google Hangout note; the raindrop tingle of my mobile’s text notification; the whomping brush of Telegram’s hello; the underwater scuba music of a Skype request; the cartoonish kerplunk of a Teams chat; and the lone triangle vibration of a Slack memo.
This is what “people” sound like to me now.
But if I disable the audio notifications on my computer and my phone… then people sound like absolutely nothing at all.
Which is, of course, the truth.
People are not a ping. A sound. A ding. People are not words or emojis in a chat bubble, housed in a phone or a laptop. People are not a digital rendering of their faces in a box on a screen.
It’s people that I miss. Human people. Real people. Their voices, their energy, their vibrations, their touch, their physicality, their existence. There is no representation of a person that is commensurate with a person’s humanity.
A century ago, while the world was on the downturn of its last pandemic, the Spanish Flu, a group of writers emerged out of the death and destruction of World War I. Coined “The Lost Generation” by Gertrude Stein, these writers were disillusioned and disoriented by the horrors of war and the deception of the American Dream. You know their names. Recognizable members included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Their literary works evoked shallow excess, over-indulgence, and reckless hedonism. It was how they adapted to their broken world. Their parties. Their unbridled laughter. Their gender-bending experimentation. It was what they could do to survive.
Now here we are, a century later. Tasked with a similar yet dissimilar world.
We are not the lost generation. But we are the generation that could lose it all. If we’re not careful. And by generation, I don’t mean the Millennials who seem to get blamed for everything (and honestly, from my estimation, most of them have their shit together, and no I’m not one of them). Nor do I mean the social media wars that pit Gen X’ers against Boomers against Gen Z’s.
No. I mean our collective generation. All of us who exist on this planet earth right now. We are the human generation. That’s the chapter which could end in our lifetimes.
Will a post-humanist world emerge out of our pandemic isolation? Where are we in time? What do we see? A specter of what was, or what is, or what could be, morphed together as one… a future misplaced, a lifetime sequestered… A radical escapism of our broken world redirected and deflected into the virtual?
Maybe I was right. Maybe technology can save us? But when the time comes to unlock our doors and stand in front of each other again, we must remember… it is our humanity that’s worth saving.