Mount Everest. That huge mountain-- symbol of human will vs. nature: ice and cold and lack of oxygen and quick decisions and chance and no way out but up. From base camp to summit, Everest has given the climber the chance to unlock everything within himself in order to achieve something great on his own terms. As any climber will tell you, most of the combat goes on inside. Self versus fear. Self alone.
A friend’s daughter recently texted her from Everest. Things had gotten a bit lonely hunkered down in the old tent, so she thought she’d check in with Mom. With that call, the entire opportunity of Everest changed from real to pastiche, from true struggle to extreme entertainment.
In this time of ever-fresher apps and endless Facebook and constant texting, the greatest challenge to our growth as human beings and to our society is our growing inability to be alone. America is based on an assumption that, deeply, all of us want independence, want to call our own shots and make our own decisions for ourselves. We celebrate liberty, we admire the lone cowboy. But none of us is a lone cowboy anymore. Nor do we really desire to be one. The thought of riding the range without instant access to someone else is scary. What if we needed something? What if we found ourselves...out of touch?
In just the last few years the designers of technological features have been teaching us to fear solitude--inadvertantly . Current apps teach people to be dependent on the comforting call to Mom, on endless texting, on being able to send a stream of "I am here" noises out to a seemingly ever-listening Universe. Like a prisoner tapping on the wall of his solitary cell, we want to know someone is on the other side. We want to know someone will tap back. We must have them tap back. What would we do if they didn't?
We want to know exactly where we are, and we want someone to tell us what we can do there. A glance at my ipod tells me my location, what is around me, what I should do next and when the best time to pee occurs during the movie I am currently watching. I feel safe knowing that someone has done the thinking for me. Safe from what?
The very value of independent thought is lessened these days. I can see it in the faces of some students. Why bother deciding for ourselves if it has all been laid out for us already? Why look farther than Google? We assume that the choices we are shown are the only choices--that there's no agenda in the ways choices on Google are shown to us. We assume that new apps are created in our best interest-- helping us live the best lives we can live. We are beguiled into believing that what tech companies can provide for us is what we need to live. But that's not true.
New technological “advances” exist only to sell products. They do not exist to make life more valuable. These features and app.s are also fairly random-- none of the explosion we are living through is a coordinated effort. There is no council of techies thinking about what that technology will do to you or to your life in the long run. Oddly, in this day of umbilical security, we are just as much on our own as individuals as we have ever been. And if we are to live lives we look back upon without regret, we have to make independent choices about just how much of a baby bird we’re going to be, and just how much false security we’re going to let tech companies cram down our throats.
Independence is hard. It is scary. To think for oneself is to be in a certain amount of pain a certain amount of the time. Now there’s a marketing disaster for you! No one wants to hear about the pain of confronting reality. It’s so much cozier to call Mom from the basecamp. But what happens on the day that Mom doesn’t answer? What happens when the slow realization dawns that she'll never answer again?
Avoidance is easy until it isn’t. I say this as a woman who has avoided much in her life, hoping that somehow the way through would be clearer later. I understand how easy it is to avoid the responsibility that comes with independent thinking, to text yourself into a state where you do not care about anything much except the the back and forth that spends your days and time so comfortably. Lulling. Comforting. We all do it. But we need to look at what we're doing.
It is so much easier to let the web carry the burden of choice. To assume that everything we will need is just a Google away so there's really no need to learn the skills to think anything through. Oh, to be a charismatic cult leader right now! I could really clean up: rake in the big bucks. With such a level of inculcated credulity, I could start the Young Pioneers of Natalia. I could start the Natalia Youth. They'd have nicely designed uniforms.
By staying occupied and attached, we are teaching ourselves to be part of a herd, a docile herd that is a great boon to those who need the great mass of people to be quiet and to follow. This is working out just great for the people who would rather we didn't think too much for ourselves. Bread and Circus: Text and Facebook.
The avoidance of solitude we find in constant distraction gives us no practice in the simple mental toughness people need to get through life. We're like the man who always lines up the next girlfriend before the last has left him, like the woman who has sixteen pizzas in the freezer just to make sure she never has to experience not having one the moment she wants it. But the unpopular, unmarketed, unadvertised experience of separateness is the only way through to being a real person with real values and real beliefs. If we care about living lives that are truly ours, we've got to have the courage to break away from communication dependence and go up that mountain alone.