Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Fallacy of "the System"

With great trepidation, I went to see Tod Machover's Death and the Powers: The Robot's Opera, a production of the American Repertory Theater playing at the Cutler Majestic here in Boston. I may be a nerd, but I'm not really a geek. For example, the video art on display by Stan VanderBeek at MIT's List Visual Arts Center left me cold. I could see that it was inventive, but the chirping and blinking overwhelmed me and it all felt void of emotion. Call me middle brow, but I want at least a touch of sentimentalism in my art, it seems, or some kind of feeling. (That same day, I went up to see Tufts University's gallery show, Seductive Subversions: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968, which was amazing. I was happily introduced to a number of great artists, including the hilarious May Wilson, but I digress...)

I went into this opera expecting a similar chilly production, with cleverness outweighing emotional resonance. Perhaps it helped that poet Robert Pinsky did the libretto. The music was beautiful and the performances - especially the two female leads, Emily Albrink and Sara Heaton, who truly stole the show - were simple, and powerful, and felt very honest. The technology at work - which you can hear more about here - was incredible, but again, if that were laid on heavy without care and consideration to these other parts, it would have failed, at least by my standards. But what made me think of this blog were the themes. A bit on the story.

The opera is about a wealthy man who is dying. He decides to put himself into his own belongings, downloading himself into "the System," represented by lit walls that become characters. His family - his wife and his daughter (from another mother) - must determine whether he is still alive, when he is part of the system and not in human, or "organic" as they say, form.

Of course, like any good opera or artwork in general, the play brought up many questions and led to many connections in my mind, but one issue that rose to the surface was how much we represent ourselves in digital form, whether on blogs, or Twitter, or Facebook, or IMs and emails, or text messages. In some ways, we are putting ourselves into "the System" to push past the limitations of our bodies to be in multiple places at once. I emailed a friend and her boyfriend recently, knowing she was in Taiwan, traveling. I got a text message from her, and I asked if she was back. She wasn't, but the news I gave her upset her so she texted. (It shouldn't have upset, but that's another story entirely.) The point is, she had to be in Taiwan seeing family without missing the daily dramas that unfold back home.

But as many have noted, communication and reltionships suffer with this need for constant connection. In an article in today's Boston Globe, reporter Beth Teitel writes about teens getting worn out from all night texting. (Admittedly, it's a bit of a media-hysteria piece. And btw, why the F did the Globe file it this way, "
  • HOME /
  • "? Lame, Globe, really lame.) Now let me herd this story back to the point of this blog: if you need to be in many places at once and cannot be alone - one teen says “When you don’t have your phone, you feel incomplete’ - then how can you possibly READ A BOOK?!

    And yes, I know that reading articles online, or blog posts like this one (for you 8 people reading), or ebooks on dedicated devices, is all still reading, but it is reading differently. When I read an article online at work, using Google Chrome as my browser, I find myself taking breaks in the text to look at the other tabs, to see if I have a new email. I may get interrupted by an IM on gmail or facebook. For anything I want to retain, I have to print the article out and read it on paper, without these distractions - and even then, my phone is close by to deliver text messages, 99.8% of which do not require any immediate response. My attention is pulled in various directions. This makes concentration difficult.

    At the end of Death and the Powers, which sadly is no longer running in Boston as it was a truly exquisite production, the daughter Miranda must decide whether to go and spend eternity with her father as part of "the System" or whether to remain organic, and face death eventually. The libretto raises these fascinating questions of what we sacrifice if we have complete efficiency - with no death, do you appreciate life? With unlimited memory, how do you choose what to think of if no memory is lost? Without struggle, what to appreciate? Without suffering, how do you appreciate relief?

    I'm not trying to be simplistic (sometimes I can't help it). But if my books are just files on my computer, do I appreciate themas much? Do I look at the ones I've read and feel satisfied, maybe even smug, and proud? Do I look at the ones I have yet to read, as I'm doing right now (The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, Triomf by Marlene Van Kiekerk, Fidelity by Grace Paley, etc) and feel thrilled with anticipation of what I'll find?

    Because blinking files on a desktop or on a handheld device don't hold that allure. And to me, as of now, the convenience of that system, versus the supposed inefficiency of printed book, is not worth it. Because when I'm reading that book, without any access to the internet, without any blinking names or alerts to messages, I get into an alternate, interior world. The physicality of that book, disconnected from a buzzing network of needy voices trying to give an opinion, or sing a song, or be clever, is protection. It's very limitations are also its strengths, and in the interest of convenience - like the wealthy man in the opera - we are throwing out those limitations without thinking through what's to come, and what may be lost.

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