Thursday, September 1, 2016

(swamps &)soma, pt. 2

Last week I was in Jersey on the pretense of running an errand, but hell—I really just wanted an excuse to visit the Garden State. It's a fine place to sojourn, especially when it's BALLS HOT in Philadelphia and your bedroom isn't air conditioned.

I stopped by Boonton (pronounced boo'n; the "nto" is treated as a glottal stop) to visit the tract of marshland in Tourne Park (which I believe we've looked at before).

via the crappy camera on my crappy phone
This must have been the first time I've made the trek in August; I've never seen the vegetation so dense before, the annual weeds and herbaceous perennials having had all spring and summer to grow and bloom in the exceedingly nutrient-rich of the marsh soil. I was only able to make inroads of about twenty feet from the edge of the forest before calling it quits, and it took several minutes and much more effort than I expected. It also required closed-toe shoes, which I wasn't wearing, and so all afternoon I was pulling fine spines out of my feet and ankles, left by some mean gang of thorny weeds I'm unable to identify. (Whatever they are, I'm still happier running afoul of them than of their West Indian friends.) And many of the non-biting weeds were five or six feet tall, and putting out flowers up and down their stems. You know who likes flowers? Honeybees. Whole humming congregations of them, orbiting every stalk. I'm that guy who will bust your balls for blanching and quailing just because a solitary bee happened to land on your pantleg (quelle horreur!), but there was such a profusion of stingers to make me a bit nervous—enough that while making my way back I warily circumvented a buzzing tangle of purple loosestrife with a route through the water and mud, nearly losing both my shoes and ensuring that for the rest of the afternoon my extremities would smell as those of my mucksavage forebears did in days long past.

On the plus side, my beloved odonata made an admirable showing, and I spotted a species of damselfly I'd never seen before: the fragile forktail. It was well worth the mosquito bites.

After returning to Philadelphia that evening, I met up with my friend/coworker Jess at Ray's Happy Birthday Bar.


Ray's sits on the corner of Passyunk (the "sy" is pronounced "sh") and Federal, directly north of Philadelphia's renowned Beef Shavings & Cheez Whiz District. The most remarkable thing about Ray's is that it opens at seven in the morning, so if you're awake in the AM and don't want to wait until any kind of PM before getting shitfaced on Old Grand-Dad and Yuengling, you're set. The second most remarkable thing is that the sidewalk outside the bar smells like the bar's interior (a bouquet of cheap booze, cigarette smoke, and degeneracy) at all hours of the day, even if the doors and windows are closed.

Jess and I get along, but we rarely see eye-to-eye on anything that isn't related to the job. So when I told her about my afternoon in the marsh, she looked at me like I was insane. She's very much not an outdoorsy sort of person, and wanted to know why the hell I'd choose to spend my day off tromping through thorns and muck and bees. In effect, she wanted to know what a person might get out of it.

I tried to explain that it's the same thing one gets, in principle, from traveling abroad. Going from the United States to the African, Asian, or European continents is an education in humanity: one learns that the world isn't all America, the world is bigger than America, and there are other ways to do things than how they're done in America.

Leaving the city and spending some time in an unanthropized open space is an education in the cosmos: one intimates that there's more to the world than Homo sapiens, the world is bigger than Homo sapiens.

To cross over into an undesigned environment, even one within your hometown, is to invite a greater degree of cultural displacement than going to another city, though it be on the other side of planet. Whether you're in New York or Beijing or Dakar, you're still in an environment where every structure was built by human beings for human purposes, where virtually every object has human desire or necessity at its end; no tree grows that isn't placed or permitted by humans, no weeds sprout that won't be cut down once they grow to big to ignore.

A teleological examination of objects in a city block or a procedurally-generated environment in No Man's Sky could yield an intelligible conclusion: they exist for people. But to ask "what for?" of the objects and entities of a wild space is like dividing a number by zero. It doesn't work. To look at a dragonfly and ask "to what end does this exist?" is to prompt the same question about humanity—a question whose answer depends either on ideology (if one is thoughtful) or assumption (if one can't be bothered or is too preoccupied by the anthropocentric shadowplay on the cave wall to ever think to be bother).

Wild lifeforms things exist independently of our interests and pleasures (but not independently of us per se); to come into contact with them is to commune with the alien. Obviously I don't use the term in the sense of "extraterrestrial"—but these entities are completely foreign to our nature. They're strangers with which we cannot communicate or hold commerce in any mutually meaningful way—and more strange to us lately, for the distance our species has put between our community and theirs over the last couple thousand years. That's why bugs, bird, and amphibians are not as interesting to most of us as the stuff in a museum, an Apple Store, or thrown up in neon over a city block: our art, buildings, tools, and toys were engineered with us as their end. Dragonflies are not. And that's why they're so wonderful to me. I don't understand them. They don't mean to be understood. They are living, propagating ciphers, testaments to the ineffable powers that gave breadth to space, substance and form to the stars, and set the electron on its undiscoverable course.

"अहं ब्रह्म अस्मिति"
(translation: "hi!")

Actually, I wasn't able to get this far in my explanation to Jess. She and I don't see eye-to-eye. To be fair, she's lived her whole life in Philadelphia—an environment that fosters an anthropocentric attitude. (Polluted rivers. Tame greenery. Few stars. Pigeons, rats, cockroaches. Straight lines, right angles.) I have no interest in proselytizing to someone who doesn't wish to be converted.

After a few more drinks, she and I got to talking about Life And What It's For (again, dividing by zero, but that's not to say it's never useful nor fun to follow the asymptote awhile), and Jess opined that life is about making connections with other people. Though Celia Green would sigh and shake her head ("Are people, in fact, matters of ultimate concern to other people? .... Why, if you ask a question about man and the universe, are you given an answer about 'man in society'?"), Jess might not be entirely off-base. We are considering, after all, the lifespans and prerogatives of social primates that never would have settled in villages (much less cities) if we weren't compelled to cleave to others of our kind.

And to Jess's credit, she is very good at connecting with people. When I find her at Ray's, she's always perched on a barstool and in the middle of a conversation with whoever happens to be sitting next to her, usually a complete stranger. It's as bizarre a thing to me as as my treks through the mud and bugs are to her. Even though I believe I have better things to do with my time than shoot the shit with barflies, I have to admire the ease with which she does something I've never been very good at.

Even odder to me than Jess's beliefs or behavior is the fact that she thinks how she does and does what she does, as a twentysomething in the early twenty-first century, and uses no social media. None. She's not even on the Facebook. Hell, she barely answers her text messages. For her, connecting with people means face-to-face communication. She's all about the life of the unplanned, unmediated encounter, the unfiltered and unabashed tête-à-tête.

Oh yes. Once again, you find yourself experiencing that sinking familiar feeling. Once again, you think you know where this is about to go, and you're probably right. You hoped to believe we were finished talking about soma. Too bad for you, bubby.

To recap: Aldous Huxley was (probably, possibly) right, this is a waxingly brave new world, we carry our soma in our pockets, and the drug is not delivering orally but audiovisually. Obviously it isn't fair to reduce the whole spectrum of digital media to an assortment of addictive opiates (again, obviously), but the comparison is not unmerited.

What we haven't gotten into is why the world and human activity as mediated by Web (k+2π).0 should be preferred to their "real" versions. I've had an idea about that—and I was recently pleased to see Nicholas Carr articulating it (more eloquently than I've ever managed) in an excerpt from his forthcoming Utopia Is Creepy:
What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet. We would like to see this project as heroic, as a rebellion against the tyranny of an alien power. But it’s not that at all. It’s a project born of anxiety. Behind it lies a dread that the messy, atomic world will rebel against us. What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. The screen provides a refuge, a mediated world that is more predictable, more tractable, and above all safer than the recalcitrant world of things. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us. 
A massive aggregation of thinkpieces examines and worries elsewhere about the side-effects of outering our social faculties to the digital platform and the cloud, and it would be redundant to catalog those effects here. But why has this outering taken place? Perhaps for the same basic reason we outsourced the functions of our legs to wheels, our muscles to engines, our memory to the printed word: convenience. It is easier to relax a muscle than to exert it—but the invariable consequence of inactivity is atrophy.

I wonder if this accounts for the difference in how Jess and I perform in social scenarios. She's never used the internet in anything close to its full capacity as a social tool. I, on the other hand, first started using Instant Messenger and meeting people via fansites and fora when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. There is definitely a correlation between the period I began staying up until two in the morning with ten active AIM windows on my PC screen and an extended period of disengagement from people in my offline life.

I can't say I got nothing out of my online friendships, but they were/are as qualitatively different from my relationships in meatspace as literacy is to an oral tradition. A two-dimensional glowing text box abstracted from a distant human being does effectively replicate or simulate many of the benefits of human companionship, and it makes so many fewer demands. Online friends will never ask you to give them a ride or help them carry furniture. Their relationships never spill over into your life in any significant or bothersome capacity, since you're never going to meet any of the people they tell you about. When they're in a bad way, there's nothing you can do for them but read missives of their problems, so you're under no obligation to do anything for them but type :( and hit enter, and move on to the next abstracted person in the next window. It's easy to confess to and confide in someone who you can't see looking at you. It's easy to humor somebody who can't see you, either. Textbox people are easier to ignore or brush off if things get uncomfortable, and they go away as soon as you hang up the modem.

Many an adolescent suicide will attest to the two-way nature of these conveniences.

Social media has obviously come a long way since the peak years of Instant Messenger and IRC—but in spite of being more colorful, anarchic, and public, and having become somewhat inescapable, human communication and relationships as mediated by digital platforms still do basically the same thing: broaden the range of our social capacities by turning people into flat, manageable abstracts who can be shut off at our pleasure, and only ask for our attention in discontinuous spurts (except in extreme cases we needn't go into here).

Not that there aren't benefits. Not that they can't be huge. We're exposed to people and ideas we'd never have the opportunity to come into contact with otherwise. But carrying around simulations of people isn't the same as cultivating connections with people qua people. It's, well, easier.

We can leave it at that—though I do have to wonder if Jess would be as adept at making friends out of strangers if she'd spent her formative years investing the greater portion of her emotional energy in text boxes instead of taking her chances with the people around her.

Richard Hamilton, Interior II (1964)

While the soma simulacrum has done much to reformat our relationship with other people, it is effectively (and probably unintentionally) corroded our relationship with everything that falls outside the category of human. Nick Carr again, at length (who quotes travel writer Robert Macfarlane at length):
[A] great dictionary for kids, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, is being pruned of words describing the stuff of the natural world. Being inserted in their place are words describing the abstractions and symbols of the digital and bureaucratic spheres:
Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail. ....
The substitutions made in the dictionary——the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual——are a small but significant symptom of the simulated life we increasingly live. Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages.
As Macfarlane goes on to say, the changes in the dictionary don’t just testify to our weakening grasp on nature. Something else is being lost: “a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place.”
As the writer Henry Porter observed, the OUP deletions removed the “euphonious vocabulary of the natural world——words which do not simply label an object or action but in some mysterious and beautiful way become part of it.”
I’m sure that many will label Macfarlane and Porter “romantics.” I’ve begun to notice that romantic is replacing Luddite and nostalgist as the insult-of-choice deployed by techno-apologists to dismiss anyone with more expansive interests than their own. That, too, is telling. It’s always been a sin against progress to look backward. Now it’s also a sin against progress to look inward. And so, fading from sight and imagination alike, the world becomes ever vaguer to us——not mysterious but peripheral, its things unworthy even of being named.
I must correct Mr. Carr here. He means to say "looking outward." And he hyperbolizes a bit: I don't think even the most zealous techbro or digital experience developer would hold it as a sin to take in interest in something other than human beings and the things they make for themselves—but it is a mark of eccentricity. "Why should anyone pay attention to bugs? They're gross and they don't do anything." (Or, to quote Jess: "This effort to get me to love bugs has proven futile and your boner for them is strange." )

It's definitely beyond the scope of this blog and of my ability to conduct a thorough survey of peoples' attitudes towards The Outside at different stages of the information revolution (1440–present), but I don't doubt that the media of the last century and its influence on our perceptions and habits has accelerated a general disinterest in the world beyond the asphalt.

A few studies do seem to bear this out. From The Pennisula Clarion, 2008:
[R]ecent studies are showing that more Americans are shifting away from active outdoor-recreation to sedentary indoor electronic-media-dominated recreation, a tendency recently named "videophilia." [Man, that's a buzzword that sure didn't catch on.]

This change in the behavior of Americans and perhaps in people in other countries has been the subject of research by Oliver Pergams, University of Illinois, and Patricia Zaradic, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Their most recent research was published in a Feb. 4 article that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. ....

In addition to only using visits to U.S. National Parks as a "proxy" to measure outdoor visits data that some reviewers questioned from their first similar study in 2006 they added long-term per capita (proportion of the total population) visits to state parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and visits to national parks in Japan and Spain.

In addition, Pergams and Zaradic also analyzed the per capita sale of American hunting licenses (1950-2005), duck stamps (1935-2006), and fishing licenses (1950-2005) and numbers of people that went camping, hiking, and backpacking relative to the number surveyed.

They did not evaluate use of snowmobiles and ATVs because these forms of outdoor recreation haven't been in use long enough to detect long-term trends.

Their results showed a "fundamental and pervasive" shift away from outdoor recreation by Americans.

The decline in visitation to all natural areas (national and state parks, national forests, and BLM lands) started between 1981 and 1991 and averaged a decline of about 1.2 percent per year. The peak year in per capita sales of duck stamps was way back in 1953, per capita sales of fishing licenses peaked back in 1981, the last high in per capita sales of hunting licenses was in 1983, and per capita visits to national parks peaked in 1987.

They reported more Americans participated in camping than any other form of outdoor recreation (one out of five) but camping is also declining. Camping as a form of outdoor recreation was followed in popularity by fishing then hunting. The only slight increases in outdoor recreation were in hiking and backpacking.

Interestingly, visits to national parks in Japan showed a similar decline, prompting the researchers to suggest that the decline in outdoor recreation may also be applicable to other countries in addition to the United States.

The park visitation data from Spain were not long enough and began too late to detect any similar declining trends in that country.

The apparent cause of this decline in outdoor recreation was termed "videophilia," [sigh] defined by the authors as "the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media." 
The authors warn, "We are seeing a fundamental shift away from people's interest in nature" and that this fundamental shift in behavior is of significance because "it has been found that environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with the environment and that people must be exposed to natural areas as children if they are to care about them as adults."
Of course, the author is a retired wildlife biologist, so he's old and he's biased—precisely the sort of person you should dismiss as a romantic or a nostalgic, if you're hip to the times.

While I know an anecdote is essentially a non-random sample with a size of 1, I've an observation.

A few weeks ago I visited the Heinz Wildlife Refuge with my friend Therese (of the scrubs and the syringe). Wonderful marshlands. Lots of turtles. An impressive variety of birds: great blue herons, snowy egrets, great egrets, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, wood ducks, least sandpipers, tree swallows, and a few that I'm probably forgetting. On our way back to the parking lot, we passed a trio of thirteen or fourteen or twelve-year-old boys out on the trail.

Here we go again. I'll bet you know what's coming next. I'm going to tell you their eyes were riveted to their phone screens because they were looking for imaginary animals in Pokémon GO instead of paying attention to the real critters in their immediate surroundings, kids these days, what a shame, etc. (I'll spare you the lamentations for now because you've read enough editorials about Pokémon GO. But I have to live on this planet while all this shit's happening, so I'm entitled to bitch about it if ever I please.)

Less attention has been drawn to the irony underlying the connection between the Pokémon GO craze and the inspiration of Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon's creator. Tajiri didn't have a Gameboy or an iPhone when he was a child, so he had to find something else to be interested in. A favorite pursuit of his was bug collecting: going outside, observing insects in the wild, identifying them, catching them. These experiences eventually became the inspiration and blueprints for Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green (1996), as a young Shigeru Miyamoto's rambles in the hills were the source of the sensations he wished to convey in Legend of Zelda (1986).

One could make the case that Tajiri's success in capturing the joy and wonder of his childhood experiences eclipsed Miyamoto's: the Legend of Zelda series is a success, but Pokémon is a bonafide and ongoing cultural phenomenon. A likely consequence of Tajiri's brainchild will be an increasing paucity of young people taking interest in the corporeal things that inspired the abstract things. Tajiri gave them something easier to do instead. Pokémon is designed to be understood by people, to appeal to them, and to respond to their actions in entertaining ways.

Insects are not. Insects are difficult.

My mother remembers a time when the saltwater lagoons and the Little Assawoman Bay in southern Delaware teemed with puffer fish. They're all gone now. When I was a child, the shallows and vacant lots about the neighborhood were swarming with ducks. They're gone now, too. An upshot of the culture of soma and the simulacrum is the possibility that people won't be paying enough attention to the world around them to notice when parts of it disappear. We won't be ignoring the warning signs because we won't be aware there are warning signs.

Setting aside the ecological doomsaying, the issue becomes, I feel, a matter of character. Solipsists and narcissists aren't much fun to be around. A humanity transfixed by a preferentially enhanced image of itself is going to be a very dull and grating bunch indeed.


  1. Allow me to contest something, regarding your last point: the damage was already done before Pokemon and Pokemon Go. Videogames, TV and other distractions already had ensconced the youth away from nature and its wonders. If any, Pokemon Go is taken them back outside, where maybe by accident, while chasing a wild Rattata they can come face to face with one of these strange, actual creatures. Sure, many will quickly ignore and forget them, if noticed them at all to begin with. But for some of them there will be that moment of wonder, of discovery. A curiosity sparked. And maybe just maybe, because their experience with Pokemon, they will not be grossed out, or fearful, or prone to some of children's infamous cruelty. I'll look forward reading in 20 years about entomologists or zoologists who were inspired down that path by Pokemon when they were kids, thus completing the circle.

    1. I hope you're right. My experience was just the opposite, though: I only took interest after abjuring video games (more or less) and going out to look for something else.

      But there's more than one path to the truth.