How it's all different now
by Doc Searls Sunday, September 18, 2016

I just finished reading, for the Nth time, Self-Consciousness, a collection of memoirs by John Updike, whose writing I love for its constant cascade of lucid observations and the complex humanity of even his simplest characters. The book, now here at my left elbow, is fringed with so many page flags that I could sweep crumbs off my desk with it. 

The last flag marks the last part of the last paragraph on the last page. It goes, "People are fun, but not quite serious or trustworthy in the way that nature is. We feel safe, huddled within human institutions—churches, bankes, madrigal groups—but these concoctions melt away at the basic moments. The self's responsibility, then, is to achieve rapport if not rapture with the giant, cosmic other: to appreciate, let's say, the walk back from the mailbox."

And yet the mailbox is a suction cup on a tentacle of the Post Office, which is itself a concocted human institution, no more natural than a wrench or a headstone.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says everything is natural, because nature is not separate from anything. It includes not just birds and bees and stars, but all the institutions, perversions and customs that humans make.

Updike wrote his memoir in 1989, when he was fifty-seven. He died in 2009, at seventy-six, of lung cancer, more than 30 years after he quit smoking, a practice he began at fifteen. He gave it up, but not it him.

In our long agrarian age, which commenced when the ice melted and the seas drowned the coasts, squeezing us inland to places we could settle and till, nature was what we knew, and depended on. We were intimate with and expert on what grew out of dirt, walked on it, flew over it. We built with rocks from which all dirt was shaved long ago. We knew the weather and the waters. Our first vehicles were boats, moved by paddles, muscle and wind.

Then, only a couple hundred years ago, we commenced the industrial age by making machines and coming to depend on them no less than we depended on nature. So intimate and expert with machines did we become that we defined ourselves, our institutions, our businesses, as machines as well.

And now our world has been squeezed again, into rectangles, each a portal to an elsewhere never before present in nature or machines. Through glowing rectangles distances are gone, yet nature still frames what we have there. Is what I see in my rectangle contained in its unmoving parts, or in the elsewhere called a cloud? The operators of clouds don't want us to know the difference, but just to trust them. They alone have machines big enough to manifest as clouds.

All is magic and misdirection in this new here that isn't. And yet we are intimate and expert with the rectangles too. We know the words and pictures on their surfaces are no more solid and permanent than a pixel, and yet we depend on all of it no less utterly than we still do on water, air, bikes, toasters and cars.

What is this new spaceless place made of bits and pixels, existing only in the current instant, every bit in it falling toward nullity and void like snow toward water? All we know for sure is that we made and depend on these billions of rectangles, among and between us.

Is this new world of rectangles the Cosmic Other? It just a mirror for what the Other sees when it looks at itself, every face and every moment different and new? Will we ever know, any more than we knew nature in the first place?