In The Absence Of Gravity

Let us say for the moment that you are a kind of god who can summon forth lightning bolts at will, deploy armies by your whispers, command vast fortunes on a whim, and charm every beast in the wilderness with the rhythms of your songs.

There is nothing and no one to measure yourself against. Momentary passions flare but cannot be sustained. Memory becomes like the dried rinds of so many hastily devoured fruits.

You are in a world without gravity. In such a world, the postman’s whistle is (or could be) equal to the murder of a child in the Chicago projects, to the lilt of a woman’s skirt outside a theater in Manhattan, to a car-bomb’s explosion in an Israeli marketplace, to that amber light that signals the autumn, and to the sound of your own heartbeat in the dead of night.

Now imagine you are a 90-year-old man whose wife has passed away, and whose family has been dispersed like pinecones in ever-widening circles around the base of the tree. Your saving grace is routine, with checklists to keep things straight in your mind, planned movements so that you don’t stumble on unexpected stairs, and a hearty breakfast of fruits and eggs and cereals every morning.

In the quiet of your suburban house, which is too big to manage but too familiar to leave, there is only the hum of an air conditioner and the drone of news reports from CNN.

But, some Sunday afternoons, the phone rings and the voice of a daughter or son sounds like rain in drought. “One of those few that I know and who knows me,” your heart says. You don’t want to stumble with your words. They must not think that you aren’t still in full control of your faculties. It is in these calls that you become aware of how much or how little you have slipped. These calls are important.

I cite these two examples because my involvement with the web keeps turning my mind to the subject of gravity and its absence.

Are we not like little gods now hurtling about in the high-velocity vehicles that are our technoselves? And at the speed of self-absorption, which is very fast indeed, doesn’t everything become a blur?

As I lean toward my computer and use my hands to deftly navigate through this domain or another, or grab pictures and change their size and color and shape, or become an avatar and prance through some medieval battlefield, spreading mayhem and gore, who can kill me? To quote Hermann Hesse’s Goldmund as he lay on his deathbed, “And you, Narcissus, how can you ever die?”

Strip everything else away and all I am saying is that I have a healthy skepticism about the slipperiness and the seamlessness of our technoselves. I’ve probably worn out my welcome by returning once too often to this theme. But I think that we could, if we’re not careful, be losing by degrees our good sense of the weight of things, proportionality, balance, and limitation.

The 90-year-old man in our example is acquainted with gravity in every sense of that word: The slow pulling down, the weight of objects that once used to seem lighter somehow, the importance of those phone calls on Sundays.

I suspect that many of us don’t like that picture. We live in an age where the word “power” is everywhere – and particularly attached to any number of technology product names.

“Empowerment,” though not nearly the buzzword it was just a few years ago, is still hanging around. We want “personal power.” We want to escape gravity and fly as we do in our dreams. We all want to get in touch with our inner Tony Robbins and collect the millions that we hope will flow through this connection.

That 90-year-old man is something we’re afraid to death of. Perhaps, it’s because he is, at least in this caricature, irrelevant, un-networked, dis-connected. He is not the fortress we aspire to be. The moat is dry. The gate is down. Verbena and buttercups and dandelions grow in the walls’ breaches.

Maybe one of the reasons that Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund still bubbles to the top of my brain (and why it came so readily to mind as I wrote) – aside from the fact that a beautiful Italian girl in high school introduced me to the book – is that, the older I get, the more I realize my tendencies lean in one direction.

Narcissus represents the polar pull toward self-containment and withdrawal from the world. In truth, I’ve never been much of a Goldmund – “golden mouth” – tasting of every fruit and connecting as fully to the earth as I have at times longed to do.

And even back in high school, that Italian girl told me, “You remind me of Narcissus,” as she recommended the book. After reading it, I sure didn’t want to be him, though. And I certainly was doing my dead-level best not to act like him when I was sitting next to her with a pitcher of beer in a dark Pizza Hut with “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring on the jukebox.

But I’m turned in on myself now, far more than I was then. So when I feel that familiar pull coming from the web – the pull toward abstraction and remove and immortality and complete absorption in projects that reside within the glowing screen – I am speaking from experience. That doesn’t mean that my premise is any more correct. I could very well be guilty of confusing personal idiosyncrasy with universal truth.

Some people tell me, to the contrary, that the web is for them an invitation to the world. They now feel more connected to events and others than they ever have before. And I can’t argue with them, nor will I try to devalue their connection (which is something that a Narcissus would surely try to do).

I can feel the web’s work of connection, and by writing, I have tried to make myself part of it. The wire itself is value-neutral. It will not resist carrying light and heat that might pierce the wax around our hearts.

Right now, for all I know, someone is linking all the food banks of North America to a web-enabled supply chain system so a site visitor can instantly see where the shelves are getting bare and securely donate cash (via credit card) to help shore up the weaker links. The web can reshape information and surface it in ways that connect me to important causes and real needs.

But lately, more and more, I wonder if the value-neutral wire is not changing us in subtle, but pervasive ways. It’s not working an agenda upon us. There isn’t a committee whose edict is, “Dial up the Narcissus and soon fill the fat pipes with even sweeter breads and darker circuses.” It’s nothing so obvious.

There is, though, this picture in my mind of those coastal trees that are, moment by moment, day upon day, bent by a wind from the sea. Try as you might, you cannot name the one breeze that changed the wood’s code.

Related reading