Embodied Lives?

Every generation has its utopia; its distress too. Often I feel they are two sides of the same coin, the way that an invidual’s greatest strength is his or her weakness. If the Apocalypse of the Cold War was the success of the Cold War (all those stockpiles of weapons and so few enemies) the Apocalypse now is the distress of a world made into a village, with nothing left to discover and only platitudes to exchange.

This week I read an article by Sherry Turkle, the first psychologist of the online world.

She writes about being tethered, about how the online “second self” she proposed in the 1990s is now becoming something else: itself. It is not that we have an online life that is separate or secondary to our “real” life, but instead we have a life in which we are connected to bots, profiles, avatars, search engines. What is the embodiment of life when we have no time for reflection, when turning off our devices is psychological torture because we invest in them the power to make us feel? I feel this torture myself when the icon next to someone I love indicates his absence. Maya, has written about projecting her anger on to one of these icons — the double absence of her lover all the more poignant in its embodiment in a small green circle.

With all of this mediation, how do we determine how we are alive? In her article, Turkle wonders about our evocation of “aliveness,” in the age of robotics. What does it mean that something is alive? That it can interact? Or is there something more fundamental to life itself? Is it important to have live endangered animals in zoos as opposed to animatronic ones?

Aliveness becomes more poignant in a world with fewer different live things to encounter. Endgame an article in Harper’s magazine about the disappearing wilderness, discusses the “shrinking wilderness”. Edward Hoagland is an elderly man living in the woods in Vermont. With slight melancholy, he enumerates the animals with whom he shared his space, describing their interactions with each other and with him. He then criticizes contemporary environmental movements of becoming meaninglessly abstract: instead of talking about saving wild spaces that people have experienced or animals like the ones he lives with every day, they now talk about carbon offsetting, wind production, climate change management. Even saving nature is becoming disembodied – a task for the connected and digital and not for the settled and rustic.

Hoagland and Turkle both evoke a world with no mystery – a world where everything is known, every path travelled (even the tourist trail to Antarctica). There is a distress in both of their articles that the authors cannot fully communicate. The distress of the connections having pulled so far (away from place, ecology, human connection, or thoughtful reflection) that they are impossibly shallow. The depth and extent of this distress is probably unknowable, and it shapes, I think, our present experience of the world.

The question becomes one of alleviating distress. We each find our solution: my good friend delighted in telling me that particle physicists have encountered the limits of the scientific method. She felt solace in the fact that science could disprove the basis of its own existence. Other friends go hiking, feeling their bones settle as they climb rocks and breathe mountain air. In the midst of travel, disembodied love, and a professional interest in the role of technology, I am hoping to find the place, the experience, the compromise that will tell me – I AM ALIVE.