Near the end of Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World, the characters have fallen under the curse of screens, of staring into memories that have been recorded on small devices resembling our contemporary smart phones or iPads. Some characters walk in circles inside cages of their own invention, others curl up among blood-of-Eden rocks in fetal positions. Staring. Longing. They are dazed, comfortably numb, non-existent. Soulless. Wanting to enter the screen. Hoping to be there, to flee the present, to discover a deleuzional line of flight to escape their lives and to find a route into the inside of their seductive screens, to join what is not here. These characters can no longer communicate with those around them. They are worse off than the walking dead.
And what is most haunting about Wenders’ apocalyptic scene is not that these characters have simply become addicted; no, what is most unnerving is that they have imprisoned themselves and are not aware of their own imprisonment. They think they are free. They think they are making choices. Instead, they are merely allowing themselves, their movements, to be surveyed by a strange Benthamesque Panopticon inside a mirror that refuses to look back; an inverted mirror that only smiles, cynically, beneath the screen. It is as if they are locked in the tain of the mirror. Waiting. Wanting.
It takes an outback shaman to rescue these blind wayfarers from what they perceive to be their own desires, as if (read Gilles Deleuze) they have chosen this fate freely, as if they control their desires, as if they “own” their desires. (Remember those fateful words of that dead heroin-addicted writer, William S. Burroughs: “What do you mean your language? As if you can own language.)
And so, now, we wait for our shaman to appear. We whisper. We pray. But.
My friend John was the first person to tell me about something called Pokemon GO. Two days after John mentioned this to me, nearly everyone on this planet was playing it. I need to be clear that I do not know anything about this game, or whatever it is. Nor do I care much about this game or anyone who plays it. Again, I want to be clear: I do not care (nor do I respect) anyone who has fallen prey to this “game”.
(If you read Burroughs’ quote and you think, maybe, just maybe, Burroughs is able to see into you, into who you truly are, and you begin to feel bad about yourself, about what you have become, then be the change you want to see in the world and in yourself, or simply sit there, like Narcissus, stare absently at your reflection and blame others, blame Pokemon GO for being so addictive.)
Most often, “people” defend playing Pokemon GO in one of two ways. The more committed Pokemon GO players either defend playing the game in both of these ways, or they simply do not defend playing the game at all; they just stare, wordless, into space.
Some say that playing Pokemon GO has gotten them out of their house and, for the first time in their lives, they have met their neighbors. This is wonderful. I feel it is important to encourage such communities, ones where people actually know other people who live on their streets. Pokemon GO, importantly, makes people more social. Seriously, this warms my heart. I am delighted that people have found a way to meet their neighbors by walking around, staring at screens, looking for something that is ever-so Baudrillardian, trying to touch all that cannot be touched.
Perhaps this is the ultimate style of desire, to be always kept in the state of desire and to never touch that which is desired, until eventually they bump, literally bump, into a neighbor, and, I guess, they introduce themselves to each other and gush over some Pokemon GO trivia or desire or hope. A real Kodak moment.
Or, the even more adventuresome, focused Pokemon GO players who walk into traffic because of their commitment to Pokemon GO. There are now public service announcements warning people not to walk into traffic (or drive their cars) while looking down at their Pokemon GO screens. The public service announcement goes on to say that while they want everyone to enjoy playing their game, it is unsafe to walk into traffic. (When I was a child, there was a woman in our home (myself and the other little people in my home called this woman, “mom”); this woman, mom, told us not to run into the street chasing after our basketball or baseball. If we did do that, she would come out and smack us upside our heads. We did not need public service announcements.
My grandmother is dead. She has been dead a long time, so this is not some vain attempt to garner your sympathy, let alone empathy, from strangers staring into screens. (I know, you think that comment came out of nowhere; you think that, like Raymond Federman, I am digressing, but you are wrong. Be patient, there is a connection. Here it comes.) When my grandmother was alive there was a place, a real place, attached to the front of her house. She called it a porch. She sat on this porch of hers in the mornings and in the evenings. She said it was a better way for getting the news and weather than reading the Post-Gazette in the mornings or The Pittsburgh Press in the evenings. Her home was close enough to the sidewalk so that when her neighbors walked past, they would pause and talk to her. This was called a conversation. She was real and they were real.
Her neighbors did not walk up the street with their eyes looking down at a screen; rather they were walking and looking at the world. None of them ever walked into traffic, while staring down at an unreal world. In fact, my grandmother never took her phone out of her house. Her phone was attached to a wall in the kitchen; it stayed there when she left her house. And her television was too heavy to lift and carry with her when she walked around the neighborhood.
When my parents moved to the suburbs, they moved to a place with streets and no sidewalks, and our house was far away from the road, so we would have privacy. We did not have a front porch. We did not even have a stoop. People began building decks on the back of their houses, for even greater privacy. In California (and I would guess in other places as well), people put redwood fences around their backyards for even more intense privacy. The farther a family removed itself from community, the more social status (i.e. capital) a family gained. People retreated to decks, abandoning porches nearly altogether. Families drove through their neighborhoods more often than walked through their neighborhoods, stopping to talk to neighbors. Granted, thankfully, not all neighborhoods are like this.
Pokemon GOing players also rave about the exercise that they are now getting, because, in order to play the game, they have to walk around looking at their screens, instead of lying on their sofa. listlessly staring at their screens. And here I thought FitBit motivated people to exercise. Perhaps Pokemon GO will start counting steps for people who do not respect themselves and cannot commit enough to their own well-being to actually move their bodies in the world. I, personally, am all for Fitbit. After all, my son owns stock in it. (So, please buy a Fitbit. You do not actually need one. I mean, it is humanly possible to actually go for a walk or take a hike without a Fitbit on your wrist, but so many of you have one on your wrist because…) I do think Fitbit would be a better motivator had the Marquis de Sade invented it, so that if you do not take enough steps during a 24-hour period, then the FitBit will begin shocking you and continue shocking you until you have taken enough steps to be considered an American consumer, not an American citizen—they (and we know who they are, and if you do not know who they are then read Thomas Pynchon’s novels), they do not want citizens; they only want consumers. And consumers must be easy to seduce and must be kept in a state of constant need and in a state of being comfortably numb.
I know many of you will say that you are not so easily manipulated. You will say you are too sophisticated to be duped. And yet so many human beings walk around with a phone in their pockets or purse. Or wear a Fitbit on their wrist. Some do both!
“The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?
The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict. You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict. It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all. And you don’t really know what junk sickness is until you have had several habits. It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild. I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.
The questions, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using drugs for any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.
--William S. Burroughs, Junky
How did this happen?
My concern is how quickly this happens. How quickly Pokemon GO became a phenomenon. How quickly people started wearing these things on their wrists counting their steps, telling them if their sleep was restful. (Do you honestly not know if you slept well?) And how quickly such phenomena disappears.
How did America convince everyone that they had to take their phone with them everywhere? People often tell me that they have to have their phone with them in case something happens. (Of course, the rational of such a statement is that nothing ever happened before cell phones. If you check history; hell, google it, and you will find that “stuff” happened before cellphones: there were wars, people had sex, people drove cars, women gave birth, cars got flat tires, people died…If you do not believe me google: Did American consumers have sex before there were cellphones. Or google: Did cars breakdown before there were cellphones?)
A few years ago, my girlfriend and I were driving down a road here in the foothills on our way to dinner. We noticed a car with the hood raised. The driver and his young children were standing beside the car. I turned around and drove back to where they were stranded. My girlfriend, a beautiful and compassionate Buddhist, asked me what I was doing. I said I was going back to see if they needed help. She said, they probably have a cellphone, let’s just go to dinner. I understood why she felt this way. Everyone has a cellphone. No one needs anyone’s help. We stopped. They did have a cellphone. We talked to them for a while. When help arrived, we returned to our car and drove off to dinner. She said, I get it.
This is the inadvertent breakdown that is happening. Collateral damage of these “social networks” that actually make us more isolated, more isolated from our world. More isolated from trust. And people wonder why we are able to act the way we do toward others?
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